"Ninety per cent of the maritime border demarcation agreement [between Lebanon and Israel] has been finalised, but the remaining 10 per cent is decisive." This is how Elias Bou Saab, the vice-president of the Lebanese parliament, explained to the Reuters news agency the major importance of the last 860 square kilometres disputed between the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Beirut and Tel Aviv.
Despite encouraging statements by Lebanese Prime Minister Nayib Mikati on the imminent signing of the agreement, the latest information seems to suggest that the "substantial changes" proposed by Beirut to the draft text have led Yair Lapid to put the brakes on progress in the negotiations. The head of the Hebrew government "has ordered the negotiating team to reject [the new draft]," official sources were quoted as saying by the Israeli media 'Yedioth Ahronoth'.
"Lapid has said that Israel will not jeopardise its economic and security interests, even if that means that the agreement will not be reached soon," the source said, referring to Lebanese amendments that underline Beirut's rights to explore the Qana and Karish gas fields, the latter of which the Hebrew state considers part of its 'de facto' Exclusive Economic Zone.
These fields have been, and are to this day, the ultimate source of Israeli-Lebanese border disputes. Control of the larger Qana gas reserve, which is close to Lebanese waters, and Karish, which is ready for operation but located in the disputed territory, will in any case be determined by the border proposal that is unanimously accepted and recognised by the international community. Whether this proposal is line 1 or H, advocated by Tel Aviv; line 29, advocated by Beirut; or line 23, which apparently satisfies both sides.
Now, Tel Aviv's rejection of Lebanon's proposed changes to the text seems to jeopardise the success of negotiations that began in 2010, when Beirut submitted a border division plan to the United Nations based on the town of Naqoura. A legal dispute - unresolvable for more than a decade, despite US mediation efforts - has never been as close to an agreement as it appeared to be in recent weeks.
Between 2010 and 2022, disagreements and discord were the defining mark of any attempt at rapprochement, leading to intermittent and fruitless negotiations. Until June this year, when, after months of paralysis, the Israeli deployment of drilling vessels from the Greek company Energean - to explore the Karish oilfield - prompted Beirut to demand a resumption of talks to determine whether the area is disputed territory, as Lebanon considers it to be, or belongs to the Israeli EEZ, as Tel Aviv maintains.
Weeks of intense negotiations in which the historic US mediator in the dispute, Amos Hochstein, has played a leading role, have brought the two Middle Eastern countries to the current point. A draft maritime boundary delimitation agreement is on the table. The Lebanese side has already submitted its comments and amendments to the text to the US ambassador in Beirut, Dorothy Shea, on Wednesday. The Hebrew side, for its part, received the document and promised to review it before submitting it for approval by the government and the Knesset. But the Israeli refusal now seems to call into question the possibility of reaching a diplomatic solution to the gas dispute.
Legally, one of the key concepts in this conflict is the Exclusive Economic Zone. According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - one of the most decisive treaties in international maritime law - a country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers the region of the sea over which a sovereign state has particular rights for the exploration and use of resources. This includes energy resources, as in this case, gas.
This area extends over the 200 nautical miles (about 370 kilometres) of sea closest to the country's coast, and, unlike the concept of 'territorial sea' - referring to the state's full sovereignty over the waters - the EEZ only includes the country's rights over the land. Below the surface of the water, which comes to be considered international waters.
The influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region, embodied in the Lebanese group Hezbollah, is another key factor that has marked the border negotiations. The launching of drones towards the Karish gas field in June, with the arrival of Israeli ships, as well as repeated threats to escalate the conflict if Tel Aviv went ahead with its gas extraction plans, have only strained relations between the Hebrew state and the Shiite terrorist group.
"Israel will produce gas from the Karish platform as soon as it is possible to do so. If Hezbollah or anyone else tries to damage the platform or threaten us, negotiations on the sea lane will stop immediately," warned Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Thursday, even though part of Israel's interest in concluding the deal rests on the assumption that Beirut's access to energy sources and global energy trade would free the country from energy dependence on Tehran, also reducing Hezbollah's clout.
However, Tel Aviv is keeping its defences high, and Hebrew Defence Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday ordered the country's army "to prepare for any scenario of increased tensions in the northern area. Including offensive and defensive preparedness" for a possible escalation of tensions.
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.