BEIRUT — Lebanon and Israel signed the final agreement on the delimitation of their shared maritime border Thursday,
Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed the deal from Baabda, while Israeli Minister Yair Lapid signed a copy from Israel. Delegations from both countries then traveled to Naqoura, South Lebanon to meet with US envoy Amos Hochstein.
The Lebanese delegation was composed of the director general of the presidency, Antoine Choucair; Brigadier General Mounir Shehadeh; the chairman of the board of directors of the Lebanese Petroleum Administration, Wissam Chbat; and the chairman of the Center for Legal Advice at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ahmad al-Arfah.
An incident briefly delayed the Lebanese delegation, which refused to enter the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) base in Naqoura until an Israeli military boat exited Lebanese territorial waters, the state-run National News Agency reported. A UNIFIL military ship was deployed to the breach, and the Israeli boat retreated south.
The Lebanese and Israeli delegations — seated in separate rooms — handed their documents to Hochstein, who mediated the negotiations. A document confirming the border coordinates was given to the representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Joanna Wronecka, in the presence of French Ambassador Anne Grillo.
The complicated protocol was meant to ensure that the signing of the deal, which took several years to negotiate, would not be seen as a step toward "normalization" of relations between the two countries.
Shortly after the signature of the agreement, US President Joe Biden praised this deal.
"Today, the deal to end the maritime boundary dispute between Israel and Lebanon came into effect," he said via Twitter. "This historic deal promotes the interests of both countries and the region, and this moment marks a new chapter of prosperity and hope. Congratulations to all involved."
For her part, UN Special Coordinator in Lebanon, Joanna Wronecka, welcomed the handing over of the letters related to the demarcation of the maritime border and hailed the "historic success," the National News Agency reported.
"I hope this represents a step towards building trust, enhancing security and stability in the region, and securing economic benefits for both countries," said Wronecka, who will deliver the documents to the United Nations in New York. She added that the UN "will remain committed to working with both parties on the implementation" of the agreement.
Earlier Thursday, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elias Bou Saab thanked Hochstein for his "effort" to secure the agreement between all parties. He announced Aoun had indeed received the "official letter" from Washington concerning the maritime border, which he signed "in blue ink."
"The signing of such an agreement is a historic achievement," Bou Saab said.
'Hope and economic stability'
Hochstein said the deal will bring "hope and economic stability" to Lebanon and "the other side," in reference to Israel.
"I hope this is a turning point for the economy of Lebanon, and I hope the benefits are felt soon by all Lebanese people," he added.
"The US has agreed to continue to serve and address any questions that may arise," Hochstein continued. He said he trusts in "the goodwill and good faith efforts by all parties" and stressed that it is "entirely in the best interest of both countries that they don't violate it."
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati received Hochstein Thursday morning in the Grand Serail in the presence of Bou Saab, Ibrahim, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, and former Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas.
In a statement published after the meeting, Mikati said he hoped that "[the deal] we have achieved will be an essential step on the path to benefiting from Lebanon's wealth of gas and oil, which will contribute to solving the financial and economic crises that Lebanon is going through, and help the Lebanese state to rise again."
Experts have emphasized that Lebanon should not expect oil and gas discoveries to solve the economic crisis. In the best-case scenario, based on the discovery of 16 trillion cubic feet (TCF) at $6 per million British thermal units (BTU) — knowing that the estimate for Qana is around 1.5 to 2.5 TCF — Lebanon could count on $6 to $8 billion spread over a 15-year period, but not before the year 2030. By comparison, losses in the financial sector amount to $72 billion.
Hochstein also met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri Thursday afternoon.
"I appreciate [Berri's] leadership and efforts for this path, which helped push [the deal] forward in order to reach this understanding, which will be very important for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese economy," Hochstein said, according to a statement published by Berri's media office.
"Regardless of the results of [Israeli] elections, and regardless of who will be the next president of Lebanon, I am sure that this understanding is secure and protected and must be implemented by all parties," Hochstein added. "It is an understanding between two governments and it is binding on them and will remain regardless of subsequent elections and successive governments ... I am not worried about the implementation of this understanding."
Earlier in the day Thursday, Israeli Minister Yair Lapid claimed the deal signifies Lebanon's de-facto "recognition" of Israel.
"This is a political achievement. It is not every day that an enemy state recognizes the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in front of the entire international community," Lapid said.
Additional reporting by Hoda Chedid.