Israel has rejected the changes suggested by Lebanon to US proposals for a maritime border, putting the agreement in doubt.
The US has been mediating between the enemy states over a deal that would allow both countries to extract natural gas from the Mediterranean Sea with offshore rigs facing each other in close proximity.
The agreement would provide a much-needed boost for the bankrupt Lebanese economy even though it is still unclear how much gas there is in Lebanese waters. Israel hopes that two drilling platforms on either side of the maritime border will guarantee quiet and deter the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizbullah from attacking Israel.
Over the weekend the US sent both sides a detailed draft agreement but after being updated on the changes Lebanon is seeking, prime minister Yair Lapid ordered the Israel’s negotiating team to reject them.
He said Israel would not “compromise its security or economic interests” in any way, even if that means no agreement with Lebanon.
He also warned Hizbullah against trying to strike Israel’s offshore gas rigs or threaten Israel, saying the talks would “end permanently, and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah will have to explain to Lebanese civilians why they don’t have gas rigs or an economic future”.
Lebanon is reportedly refusing to recognise the maritime demarcation line as an international border and rejects any linkage between development of its Qana field and the agreement with Israel.
Lebanese prime minister Naijb Mikati sounded more optimistic, saying on Thursday that his country is on the verge of signing the agreement, and that it “prevents war”, and “proves there is Lebanese unity, and that the best results can be achieved for the country”.
The disputed area contains the Karish gasfield which Israel has developed and is almost ready to begin gas extraction and the Qana field, mostly on the Lebanese side, which has still to be developed.
Hizbullah, the dominant force in Lebanon, has warned it will react militarily if Israel starts drilling at Karish in the absence of an agreement with Lebanon. Israel vows that the drilling will go ahead on schedule despite the Hizbullah threats.
The issue has become a hot potato in the Israeli election campaign in advance of the November 1st vote. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu claimed credit for Mr Lapid’s rejection of the proposed deal.
“Only intense pressure from myself and my friends has caused him to back away from this surrender agreement, for now,” he said.
Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz said that an agreement on the maritime border would harm Iran’s interests. “We are prepared to protect our infrastructure and our sovereignty,” he said. “If Hizbullah seeks to damage them — there will be a heavy military price for the Lebanese state.”