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Lebanon’s offshore gas agreement

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There is growing optimism in Lebanon about the possibility of reaching a deal with the Israeli occupation state that would allow the extraction of natural gas from Lebanese territorial waters and help lift the country out of its multiple financial crises. When the ‘three presidents’ — President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and Speaker Nabih Berri — met at Baabda Palace on Monday they were clearly united in favour of the ‘compromise’ agreement drafted by US envoy Amos Hochstein and conveyed to the Lebanese government by the US embassy.

Deputy Speaker Elias Abu-Saab said Lebanon would convey ‘comments’ on the proposed deal and not reply formally to the proposal until the US envoy responds to its concerns before the end of this week, and that the country is set to restore full rights over the Qana field. But the devil is in the detail.

Mikati, who seems to be the keenest on signing a deal, emerged from the meeting to say that things were going in the right direction regarding the demarcation of maritime borders with ‘Israel’. He beamed more broadly than he had ever smiled before, as if the billions of potential gas revenue dollars were about to start flowing in to the ever-lootable Lebanese treasury.

We still do not know dull details of the agreement. The information leaked about it so far by both sides has been tailored to make it look favourable to them, which shows how eager both are to avoid the alternative if a deal is not reached: a border war or wider regional conflagration.

While Lebanese politicians seem united on the issue – a very rare phenomenon hardly ever seen since the country’s independence – the Israeli side is riven with sharp disputes. On one side stands interim prime minister Yair Lapid and his security ministerGen. Benny Gantz, and on the other opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. The former camp says ‘Israel’ gained full rights over the Karish filed and will be compensated by the French contractor, Total, for ceding the Qana field. It argues that it made this tactical concession in exchange for the strategic gain of ensuring calm on the northern borders. But Netanyahu made an issue of it and accusedLapid of surrendering the natural resources of the Land of Israel to Hezbollah, and pledged to overturn the agreement once he returns to power after the forthcoming elections.

Everyone is waiting for Thursday’s Israeli mini-cabinet meeting that is supposed to discuss and approve the deal. After that, the issue will be taken to the Supreme Court to consider the opposition’s demand for it to be put to a referendum or a Knesset vote or both. There are early signs that the Court may uphold the opposition’s view.

The chief Israeli negotiator in the maritime boundary talks, Uri Adiri, resigned in protest at Lapid’s handling of the case. This appears to be part of the Likud’s wider campaign to get the deal scuppered, and could be followed by further similar resignations.

There is also criticism of the agreement on the Lebanese side from people who fear it marks the beginning of normalisation with Israel. Abu-Saab was quick to refute this by insisting no agreement would be signed with the Israeli enemy as such and Lebanon would submit a separate response to the US proposal.

But reservations remain.

For one thing, nobody has yet approved the final text of the US draft. The ‘theoretical agreement’ could yet unravel.

Secondly, the only guarantors of this agreement are the US and France. The Vienna nuclear talks stalled because the Iranians didn’t trust the US keep its promises. They cited Donald Trump’s scrapping of the deal signed in 2018 as an example. The same can be said of the unfulfilled US guarantees and assurances that accompanied the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

Third, although Netanyahu cannot overturn a maritime border demarcation if it becomes law, he could undermine it if he becomes prime minister. He couldn’t scrap the Oslo Accords which he vehemently opposed either, but he did a great job of undermining them and devoiding them of substance. He and his fellow Israeli prime ministers dragged out the negotiations for 30 years while implanting 800, 000 setters into occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Fourth, these internal Israeli quarrels between government and opposition could be a ruse to gain time, dupe the Lebanese, and offset the resistance’s threats. We must never forget that the US is Israel’s biggest backer, and that its envoy Hochstein is Israeli-born and served in the Israeli army and can never be considered a neutral arbiter.

The only reliable guarantor of Lebanon’s oil and gas resources and its security and stability is the Islamic resistance represented by Hezbollah and its formidable missile and drone arsenal and thousands of committed fighters. Its leadership is not afraid of going to war if it must. This is the first time since the occupier state was founded that its leaders have made concessions under the threat of arms and out of fear of a potentially existential war.

Let us not pre-empt events. The coming few days could be among the most crucial in Lebanon and the region’s post-independence history. Better to wait for details of the agreement to emerge, while recalling that Netanyahu has a record of being a paper tiger who wilted when faced with the Gaza-based resistance.

The far-sighted Lebanese resistance will emerge as the biggest winner in this contest, whether a deal is sealed or not. If it is, it will be thanks to Hezbollah’s missile and drone threat. If not, the resistance will be ready to respond. It gave the state every opportunity to secure Lebanon’s rights by peaceful means, and if that course fails, nobody will blame it if it resorts to force.