BEIRUT -- Lebanon approved a US-brokered maritime border deal with Israel on Thursday (October 13), President Michel Aoun announced, unlocking significant offshore gas production for the eastern Mediterranean neighbours.
It comes after Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Wednesday said the agreement would make conflict with Iran-backed Hizbullah less likely.
"I announce the approval by Lebanon of the final version prepared by the American mediator to delineate the southern maritime border," the Lebanese president said in a televised speech.
Aoun described the deal as a "historic achievement", adding Lebanon was "able to recover a disputed area of 860 square kilometres".
"Lebanon did not concede a single square kilometre to Israel," he said, adding that his country had seized full control over the Qana field, despite parts of it falling within Israel's territorial waters.
"This indirect agreement responds to the Lebanese claims and fully preserves our rights," he said.
The agreement was applauded by world leaders, including US President Joe Biden.
In an interview with a Lebanese television station, US envoy Amos Hochstein on Thursday hailed the deal as "an agreement that could be credited for preventing chaos and further conflict throughout the region".
He said the deal would ensure "economic prosperity for Lebanon, an assurance from conflict, securing Israel's northern borders", which he said would translate to "no war between Israel and Lebanon".
'A new chapter'
The governments of Lebanon and Israel reached the deal to establish a permanent maritime boundary between the two countries following years of mediation by the United States.
"This breakthrough promises to usher in a new era of prosperity and stability in the Middle East and will provide vital energy to the people of the region and to the world," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Tuesday statement.
"Beyond delivering tremendous benefits to the Lebanese and Israeli people, today's announcement demonstrates the power of regional co-operation to meet shared challenges in the Middle East and beyond," he said.
The Lebanese agreement follows a number of normalisation agreements, called the Abraham Accords, between Israel and a number of Arab countries.
The accords, originally signed in September 2020 by Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have helped synchronise security operations, boost investments and protect the free flow of commerce.
"This agreement protects the economic and security interests of Israel and Lebanon and marks a new chapter for the people in the region," Blinken added.
The deal will go into force as soon as the United States sends a notice confirming it has received from Lebanon and Israel their separate approvals.
Lebanon and Israel will then deposit maritime border co-ordinates with the United Nations (UN), in a move that will override 2011 submissions by both countries.
Under the agreed co-ordinates, Israel has full and undisputed rights over the Karish gas field, which is expected to start gas production within weeks.
Lebanon will have full rights to operate and explore the so-called Qana or Sidon reservoir, parts of which fall in Israel's territorial waters.
But "Israel will be remunerated" by the firm operating Qana "for its rights to any potential deposits", according to the text of the agreement.
Potential to prevent war
The deal had faced hurdles, with a major source of friction being the Karish gas field, which Israel insisted fell entirely within its waters and was not a subject of negotiation.
Lebanon reportedly claimed part of the field and Hizbullah, which holds huge sway in Lebanon, threatened attacks if Israel began production at Karish.
But Hizbullah said Tuesday it would back the agreement if the Lebanese government officially endorsed it.
Responding to criticism from rivals back home, Lapid had on Wednesday rejected charges that he had agreed to a deal that could see fresh energy revenues reach Hizbullah.
"If we went out to battle, we would deal them a heavy blow," he said of the Iran-backed group that is an arch foe of Israel. "That being said, if it is possible to prevent war, it is the job of a responsible government to do so."
Israeli security experts say Hizbullah has an arsenal of thousands of missiles capable of hitting Israeli population centres.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz, speaking alongside Lapid, said the agreement "has the potential to reduce Iran's influence on Lebanon".
The deal "establishes a new 'security equation' with regard to the sea," Gantz added, describing it "as positive for the citizens of Lebanon."
Exploration can begin
A 2012 seismic study of a limited offshore area by the British firm Spectrum estimated recoverable gas reserves in Lebanon at 25.4 trillion cubic feet.
Lebanese officials have announced higher estimates.
There are still no proven gas reserves in the Qana reservoir.
A maritime border deal will allow TotalEnergies and Italian energy giant Eni to kickstart exploration.
"The most positive scenario" is the discovery of gas reserves at 16 trillion cubic feet, according to financial modelling by the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative, an independent NGO.
"Lebanon's profit will be around $6 billion over the span of 15 years," if this ideal quantity is found, said LOGI advisory board member Diana Kaissy.
This is not even a fraction of Lebanon's multi-billion dollar debt pile.