Lapid Frenemies with Aoun: An Israeli-Lebanese Maritime Story

  • Frenemies Lapid and Aoun have signed a historic agreement in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
  • The deal puts an end to a maritime border dispute and unlocks oil exploration for both countries.
  • The agreement marks the first between enemy states Israel and Lebanon in years.
Yair Lapid
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid
Hariri’s conflict with Aoun
Former Lebanese President Michel Aoun

Why are Lapid and Aoun Frenemies?

Answer: At the end of 2022, Lapid and Aoun signed an agreement that put an end to a decades-long maritime border dispute in the east Mediterranean Sea, placing the enemy states in a moment of camaraderie.

On October 27th 2022, then-Lebanese President Michel Aoun and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid symbolically signed a maritime agreement after their representatives to the United Nations submitted updated coordinates to establish a border in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Signed in separate ceremonies, the agreement replaced a border coordinate submission by both countries in 2011 and put an end to a maritime border dispute that has been ongoing for more than a decade. 

Discussions to put an end to this dispute and divide up the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of each country have been ongoing for more than a decade, but these rounds of talks were initiated in 2020 and the deal came to fruition under the auspices of the United States Department Energy Advisor Amos Hochstein

The region has been of geopolitical and economic interest to both nations since the discovery of natural gas in 2010. Home to two small oil fields, the Karish and Qana fields hold the potential of 1.75 trillion cubic metres of gas and represent an opportunity for both countries to exploit smaller gas fields offshore.

While both claimed sovereignty over major parts of the region, the agreement accepted Line 23 as the official maritime border demarcation between Israel and Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. As such, Israel gained full rights to explore the Karish gas field, while Lebanon has sovereignty over the Qana-Sidon field with a caveat: Israel has the right to be remunerated for potential deposits in this field under an agreement with French energy giant, Total.

It has been lauded as one of the largest achievements between these two enemy states in decades and the international community sees it as potential ammunition to ameliorate their turbulent relations. United States President Biden remarked that the agreement is a win-win situation for both countries as it allows for Israel to protect its security interests in the region, and for Lebanon to benefit from oil exploitation while decreasing the country’s dependency on Iranian funds. While the agreement was signed before President Aoun and Prime Minister Lapid stepped down from office, there is little evidence that their successors will reverse the agreement. 

What does Lapid want?

Answer: Lapid was driven by his goals of remaining in office and preventing the return of Netanyahu. However, Lapid failed to ascertain a win and the deal became no more than a technical agreement.

Prime Minister Lapid is widely seen as the playmaker of the largest coalition government that Israel has seen. Holding the premiership from July 1st to October 31st 2022, his short-lived tenure was marked by his inability to form a government. While Lapid focused his efforts on a variety of issues — addressing security concerns with neighbouring countries, reducing inequality in Israel, ensuring the protection of democracy, appealing to Arab communities in the political sphere, the inability of his coalition to form a government, watered down his effectiveness as Prime Minister and questioned the strength and durability of the coalition. This exacerbated Israel´s stalemate and plunged the country into its fifth election in just three years set to happen in October 2022. 

A few months before the election took place, tensions between the two neighbouring countries had reached a peak. Bouts of violence from Iran-supportive military and political group, Hezbollah, towards Israel´s mainland and the Karish oil field further tested Lapid’s strength and legitimacy as Prime Minister. Reaching finality to the two-year negotiations was in the best interest of Lapid and his constituents.

In this way, Lapid leaned on an economically and politically lucrative opportunity to improve his electoral prospects and prevent the return of his political rival Netanyahu. Lapid’s signing of the agreement represented his ability to improve bilateral relations with a country technically still at war with Israel; treating the agreement as the de-facto recognition of Israel by Lebanon; a statement refuted publicly by Aoun. 

Additionally, Lapid’s success with the agreement, while not solely his own, allowing for the immediate production of the Karish and Qana oil fields; injecting the energy potential into Israel’s economy and framing it as a chance to supply energy to Europe. Thus, Lapid not only succeeded by asserting his power domestically but internationally, strongly appeasing his long-term, steadfast ally, the United States.

What does Auon want?

Answer: In a presidency marked by political instability and an economic crisis, signing the agreement became a way for Lebanon to exploit its offshore oil reserves and for Aoun to end his 6-year tenure on a positive note.

Lebanon is a country facing a dire economic and financial crisis. Sparked by Beirut’s port explosion in 2020, Lebanon is not only experiencing its own worst financial crisis but one of the world’s. Over the past few months, the Lebanese pound has seen a 95% devaluation, banks have been enforcing strict restrictions on withdrawals preventing many Lebanese from being able to access their savings. As a result, a large portion of the population has expressed their anger at the government for exacerbating the crisis and for claims of corruption and the filling up of state coffers. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of the Lebanese population live in poverty.

As the head of government, Aoun has been on the receiving end of this criticism. Yet, his tenure in office was coming to an end on October 31st. His stepping down left the seat of the president vacant and created a political vacuum that passed decision-making powers down to a caretaker government.

Unable to take any new decisions and enforce legislation, the Cabinet would be unable to take any substantive actions to implement the agreement with Israel, leaving the border dispute yet unresolved. Having submitted claims over blocs 8 and 9 in the disputed Mediterranean Sea as early as 2011, Lebanon has long believed that it should have dominion and access over the Qana and Karish oil fields. 

Given the high likelihood of this internal political stalemate due to Lebanon’s stringent requirements for assuming office, Aoun ensured that before leaving, the agreement was signed and Lebanon could start reaping the benefits in its crippling economic situation. This was a chance for Aoun to be seen as the leader to materialise this historic agreement; addressing the nation’s dire economic situation with an enemy state or not.

Negotiated by Elias Bou Saab, the top Lebanese negotiator for the deal, Aoun came out to consider the agreement with Israel as merely technical with no hint of diplomatic or political implication, even making sure to never meet with Lapid and sign the agreement in separate ceremonies. Especially facing internal tension from Hezbollah, Aoun wanted to find a way to address Lebanon’s economy and associated civil unrest without sacrificing Lebanon’s political stance toward Israel. 

What is Lapid doing?

Answer: Lapid used the agreement to represent to the world that this was the de-facto recognition of Israel. This became the potential to be seen as a diplomatic win between two countries officially still at war.

After coming to an agreement on Line 23, Lapid assured Israel’s dominion over the Karish oil field and part of the Qana field. Seen as an economic and political win, Israel gets to start energy production through Greek energy company Energean and French energy giant Total while achieving greater security from Hezbollah. By Lapid signing the agreement, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly vowed that the Karish oil field would be left alone bringing greater security to the process and to the country.

Lapid has also been parading the agreement as a historic moment in Israeli-Lebanese relations: “It is not every day that an enemy country recognises the state of Israel, in a written agreement, in view of the international community.” While this may not be how Aoun or any Lebanese officials view it, it certainly has got the world by storm, with the international community ascribing this deal the potential to ameliorate Lebanese-Israeli relations. 

It has also further strengthened and solidified Israel’s relationship with the United States. The United States administration also views this agreement as making the Middle East a safer region, arguing that Israel will be able to ensure its security in the region while allowing for energy exploration and further energy supply to Europe.

As such, Israel is gaining a greater role as an energy supplier, with their increased offshore gas discoveries and contracts, including the approval of a gas pipeline with Cyprus, Greece and Italy in 2020. Yet, the Minister of Finance mentions that increasing the energy supply to Europe will take years.

While the agreement is mostly technical, given the history of Israeli-Lebanese relations, it has been likened to the closest form of recognition between both parties. It rings true that the most significant agreement between Israel and Arab states remains the Abraham Accords; a set of accords which opened up cooperation between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, and also led to Israel’s recognition by Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan, yet this maritime agreement is being viewed as a stepping stone in the relations between these enemy states. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The technical nature of the agreement also means there will be little to no effect on Israeli-Lebanese relations.

Weeks before Netanyahu assumed office, he stated that he would neutralise the agreement if he won the elections. While the United States administration has repeatedly assured that this is not possible and that they have taken it into account in the implementation of the agreement, there is the fear that Netanyahu may not act in the best interest of his constituents and disrupt the agreement nonetheless. 

Not all parties, however, share this concern. Even Lebanon´s interim caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, has stated that regardless of the new government in Israel, ´no one could stand in the way´ of the agreement. Netanyahu´s return will likely mean, however, an increase in the regional tension between these neighbouring states even if the agreement resolves clashes between these two countries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

While the exploration of gas in the Karish and Qana oil fields is argued to bring economic benefits to both countries, it will do little to alleviate Europe’s current energy crisis. The Karish oil field holds 1.75 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of reserves, less than Israel’s other major oil fields – like the Leviathan – and not enough to. Thus, while the agreement was important in putting an end to the border dispute in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the economic potential will do little to address Europe’s current energy crisis. 

Furthermore, with both leaders viewing the agreement in a different light, Lapid as a political agreement and Aoun as a technical one, there will be no change in the status quo between these enemy states. There is no tacit recognition of Israel by Lebanon and Hezbollah will continue to be a threat to Israel’s other gas fields. As for the legacy of these two leaders, while both will be viewed as successful in reaching an agreement that allows their countries to reap the benefits of exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, it did little to salvage Lapid’s prime ministership and untaint Aoun’s challenging presidency.

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member