Israel on Thursday approved its US-brokered maritime deal with Lebanon, which Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed as an enemy state’s formal recognition of the State of Israel.
The cabinet vote on the deal, which was unanimously in favor, came hours ahead of the expected signing of the agreement by both sides at a ceremony at a United Nations base in Lebanon, and shortly after Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun signed a letter confirming that Beirut accepted the deal. Lapid signed the agreement shortly after the cabinet vote.
“It is not every day that an enemy state recognizes the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in view of the entire international community,” Lapid said at the beginning of the special cabinet meeting to vote on the deal.
“It’s not every day that the United States and France stand behind us and provide security and economic guarantees for the agreement,” he said.
In an apparent response to Lapid, Aoun said in a statement that the agreement “has no political dimensions or impacts that contradict Lebanon’s foreign policy.”
Israel and Lebanon are technically still at war and the deal does not touch the land border. However, the agreement is seen as tacit recognition of Israel by Lebanon, including the powerful Hezbollah terrorist group.
“This agreement strengthens and fortifies Israel’s security and our freedom of action against Hezbollah and the threats from the north. There is a rare consensus from the entire defense establishment on the importance of the agreement,” Lapid said, adding that the deal was also an economic achievement.
The Israeli negotiating team is set to take part in a ceremony at 3 pm local time at the UN base in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura.
The ceremony will also be attended by a Lebanese delegation, by US special envoy Amos Hochstein and by UN officials.
Rafic Chelala, a spokesman for the Lebanese presidency, asserted, however, that the Lebanese delegation “will not… meet the Israeli delegation.”
Hochstein, who mediated the deal, praised the two sides’ “good will” after meeting with Aoun and senior officials in Beirut on Thursday morning and receiving Lebanon’s signed copy of the agreement.
“This agreement was written with the idea in mind that it was between two countries that do not have diplomatic relations,” he told reporters at the Baabda Presidential Palace. “I think the good will and good faith efforts by all parties is what’s going to make this move forward.”
“I truly believe and hope this can be an economic turning point in Lebanon for a new era of investment and continued support to lift up the economy,” Hochstein added.
The agreement, which Lebanon hopes can help lift it out of its crippling economic crisis, is intended to end a long-running dispute over some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, covering Israel’s Karish and Lebanon’s Qana gas fields.
Under the deal, Israel receives recognition for a buoy-marked boundary it established in 2000, five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra. After that, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.
Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana field, while Israel will move ahead with gas production at the Karish field and will receive revenues from Qana if and when it begins operations.
Gas company Energean said Wednesday that it has started extracting gas from Karish.
With the beginning of production, Karish joins Tamar and Leviathan to become Israel’s third offshore field providing natural gas, with each connected to the mainland by separate infrastructure.
Before the recent maritime border agreement was reached between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah – which launched drones towards Karish in July – had threatened attacks if Israel proceeds with gas extraction in the disputed area.
On Wednesday, a senior member of Hamas signaled the Gaza terror group’s support for the maritime deal.
“Lebanon, at the end of this deal, will get its economic rights, and the Lebanese resistance will succeed in imposing its conditions on Israel,” Suhail al-Hindi, a prominent member of the Hamas Politburo, said in an interview.
“It’s Lebanon’s right to possess the entirety of its rights,” said al-Hindi, a key figure in Gazans’ fight to gain offshore gas exploration rights.
“The Lebanese resistance is speaking from the position of what’s good for the Lebanese people and the preservation of their rights,” Hindi added.
Hindi also said he hoped the agreement could eventually lead to Hamas tapping the gas fields of Gaza.
“That gas belongs to the Palestinian people. It is not right for Israel to possess it. We’re keeping our eyes on the riches of Palestine and will not let Israel steal them.”
Jacob Mukand and agencies contributed to this report.