International diplomacy is inherently difficult, usually unglamorous and often unsuccessful — but nevertheless essential. The Biden administration has seen for itself how hard it can be to achieve results: It has failed to entice Iran back into the nuclear deal or to convince Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. But last week the administration’s diplomacy hit pay dirt — and almost no one noticed.
On Oct. 11, Israel and Lebanon announced an agreement that would demarcate their maritime boundary. This sounds narrow and technical but is a major achievement given that the two countries have been formally at war since 1948. (And that has sometimes led to actual military conflict — most recently in 2006.) The two countries don’t have an internationally recognized land border, and they have not had a maritime border, either. That has been an invitation to conflict and an impediment to the exploitation of the large natural gas fields off their coasts.
Israel has been producing offshore natural gas for years, but its latest field — known as Karish — lies perilously close to the disputed maritime boundary with Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to attack Israel’s oil rig in the area. Lebanon, for its part, has not been able to extract any natural gas at all because oil companies don’t want to drill in disputed areas. That natural gas is desperately needed by a country in economic meltdown whose citizens receive only an hour or two of power every day from the electrical grid.
U.S. administrations have been trying for a decade to broker an agreement — with no luck. It was hard to make progress, given that officials of these warring states refuse to be in the same room with each other. Lebanon does not even recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Enter Amos J. Hochstein, a former Senate staffer, energy industry executive and veteran of the Obama State Department who is the presidential coordinator for energy security. He launched a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy at the beginning of the year, commuting from Tel Aviv to Beirut — a trip that usually required stopovers in a third country because there are no direct air or road links between Israel and Lebanon. “I’ve worked a lot of hard problems,” he told me. “This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
He noted that “suspicion is really extreme on both sides” and the timing hardly appeared propitious: Israel is led by a weak caretaker government as one election after another fails to produce a durable majority. Lebanon is perpetually divided among different religious groups and in recent years has been on the brink of economic and political collapse.
Hochstein told me, in a telephone interview, that he changed the dynamics by going from asking who would win and who would lose under any agreement to asking how both countries could safeguard their vital interests. Israel’s government, led by centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid, made concessions on the boundary line. Lebanon’s government, led by President Michel Aoun, recognized Israel’s control of a three-mile stretch of water close to shore and agreed to pay Israel its share of the proceeds from gas taken from the Israeli side of the Qana Field, which lies in both countries’ exclusive economic zones. (The payments will go through an intermediary, the French energy company Total.)
The resulting deal was hailed as “historic” by both sides. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to return to power in the Nov. 1 election, predictably denounced it as a “disgraceful surrender.” It was also attacked by the former U.S. negotiator who tried and failed to get a deal in the Trump administration.
But this looks very much like a case of “sour grapes,” as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Martin Indyk noted. Trump and Netanyahu couldn’t get a deal done; Biden and Lapid did. Israel’s security establishment is firmly in favor of the deal not only because it will help safeguard Israel’s natural gas fields but also because it will help bolster the Lebanese government and economy. Israel does not want a failed state next door.
This agreement is not as dramatic as the Abraham Accords struck under the Trump administration in which three Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco) recognized Israel. But it is, in some ways, even more surprising.
The UAE, Morocco and Bahrain weren’t at war with Israel. Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Lebanese militant group, by contrast, has long been, and remains, one of Israel’s main security threats. It is also the most powerful political entity in Lebanon with a de facto veto over government decisions. So, it’s pretty extraordinary that Hezbollah is allowing the Lebanese government to sign a deal that could turn Israel and Lebanon into business partners. “Lebanon has, for the first time, entered a kind of de facto recognition of Israel and its borders,” writes Daniel B. Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
That’s something for which the Biden administration deserves a lot of credit — just as the Trump administration deserved credit for the Abraham Accords. It just goes to show that diplomacy does pay off sometimes — even if we don’t always give it the attention it deserves.