Amman, Jordan - Lebanon and Israel appear close to completing a maritime deal that would permit offshore natural gas exploration and potentially defuse a historic conflict between the Jewish state and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, Lebanon's powerbroker. The Qana natural gas field in the eastern Mediterranean has long been disputed by Israel and Lebanon, which have been technically at war for decades.
The two countries have been locked in a maritime border dispute, in part, over coastal drilling rights in the Mediterranean Sea's potentially hydrocarbon-rich waters. Both have claimed about 860 square kilometers there as being within their exclusive economic zones.
Elias Bou Saab - Lebanon's deputy speaker of parliament and lead envoy to the U.S., mediated indirect negotiations. He said the proposed U.S.-brokered deal was produced by thinking - as he put it - 'outside of the box.' Israel's high-level security cabinet is expected to discuss the terms Thursday.
Under the deal, Lebanon would have sovereignty over the area north of Line 23 on the sea map, including the Qana gas field, while Israel will remain in control of the Karish gas field. Observers believe that a foreign company operating under Lebanese license would produce natural gas at Qana, with Israel receiving a partial share of the revenues.
Although not confirmed, Lebanese officials have suggested that the French company TotalEnergies SE could be involved.
Israel's prime minister, Yair Lapid, initially welcomed the draft agreement. Even arch foe Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful armed militia and political party backed by Iran, has expressed cautious optimism that a deal could be secured.
But negotiations in the final hours have been delicate and doubts about the economic and political benefits persist.
Lebanese analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib, an affiliated scholar with Stanford University's Hoover Institute, told VOA she sees the demarcation as having more value as a way to pressure the Lebanese political elite to resolve their differences than economic benefit at this time.
"Once you do the demarcation, you would need a time of agreement to make sure that this is like a de-confliction," she said. "So, there would not be any conflict, any clash. I don't think at this current time it has much of an economic value. First, they need to see if there are proven reserves. After that they start the extraction, so you won't have the gas before a few years. Once there is gas, and the political class want things to move, there will be more pressure from outside to find a solution, like to elect a president, elect a government, do reforms."
Marc Ayoub, an associate fellow at the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute, told the French news agency AFP that "if commercially viable reservoirs are in fact found," it could take five to six years to extract gas.
Although Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened several times to hit Israeli drilling operations, alleging it was infringing on Lebanon's maritime rights, Khatib and other analysts say Hezbollah doesn't want a war with Israel because it could ill-afford to retaliate.
Nizar Abdel Kader, a retired Lebanese Army Brigadier General, told the online publication Breaking Defense that if Israel launches a full-scale war on Hezbollah's areas of control in Lebanon, there will be extensive destruction, which will likely cause huge anger within the Shiite community against Hezbollah and Iran.