Hezbollah, Proxy of Iran, Threatens War Over Israeli Gas Field in Mediterranean

The Biden administration enters the dispute, which could delay the project and disrupt Israeli energy exports.

AP/Hussein Malla
The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, greets supporters via a video link during a rally August 22, 2022. AP/Hussein Malla

Will Israeli gas production at a lucrative eastern Mediterranean natural gas field begin, as was scheduled, in September, or will American mediation between Jerusalem and Hezbollah delay the project? 

Negotiations between Israel and the Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government over the demarcation of a maritime border between the two countries have intensified, and according to Israeli press reports are nearing completion. Or not. 

Led by President Biden’s senior adviser for energy security, Amos Hochstein, the negotiations have been conducted under repeated threats made by the Hezbollah chief, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Unless Lebanon’s demands are accepted, he said several times recently, his terror organization will launch an “all out war.”

Production at the field known as Karish — Hebrew for shark — is due to start in September. Faced with the choice of getting Karish on line soon or risking war, the government of Prime Minister Lapid is more eager than ever to complete a deal that could alter its previously accepted maritime border with Lebanon.

Mr. Nasrallah, meanwhile, has said that before negotiations are completed, and Lebanon’s “legitimate” territorial demands are satisfied, his military would not allow Israel to start producing gas at the Karish field. Would he risk military confrontation with Israel?

“There are three options on what Nasrallah really wants,” the founder of the Israeli think tank Alma, Sarit Zehavi, says. “One is that he wants to conduct endless negotiations, without ever reaching a deal. Two: He wants to reach a deal and present it as a strategic victory on behalf of the Lebanese people. The third option is war.”

As a resident of an Israeli town on the Lebanese border, Ms. Zhavi, a former major in the Israeli army, says option three cannot be discounted. “I haven’t seen this much Hezbollah activity near the border since 2006,” she told the Sun, referring to the last major war between Israel and Hezbollah. 

To show he is serious about threatening the gas field, Mr. Nasrallah in June launched Iranian-made attack drones that hovered near the Karish area before the IDF intercepted and destroyed them. 

Mr. Nasrallah has reportedly agreed to drop his initial demand to include Karish in Lebanon’s maritime zone. Seen as a nonstarter by both Israel and America, he then started negotiating over another part of the Mediterranean. 

That area, across from the city of Sidon, is known as the Kana field, and it had not been disputed in the past. Part of it was under Lebanese sovereignty and another was Israeli. Once Israel discovered gas reserves nearby, Lebanon started demanding to widen its share of the field. 

Mr. Hochstein is reportedly due in Paris this week to talk with executives of a French energy company, Total, over the prospects of gas discoveries in the Kana field. Such discoveries could improve Lebanon’s poorly managed economy, which both Paris and Washington support.

Yet, even as all sides seem to inch ever closer, completing a deal may not be immediate. Israeli officials vow to start production at Karish as planned regardless of the status of the negotiations. Yet would they heed Mr. Nasralah’s threats?

A widely followed Israeli reporter, Nir Dvori, wrote today in a WhatsApp message that “due to technical reasons” the principal company operating the Karish field, Energean, plans to push up the production start date to early October. No such delay announcement was posted on the Energean website. 

The American mediation between Israel and Lebanon started at the end of the Trump administration and got into high gear as Mr. Biden assumed the presidency. Critics say that Washington has pushed Israel for endless concessions as Mr. Nasrallah amped-up the Lebanese demands. 

Mr. Lapid, who is heading a caretaker government and is running for re-election in November, is averse to the idea of rocket attacks on Israel during the campaign. Instead he hopes that an agreement under Washington’s auspices would help Israel become a major player in European gas markets, which are reeling under Russia sanctions. 

Although Mr. Hochstein is nominally dealing with officials of the Israeli and Lebanese governments, “everybody knows that the U.S. is negotiating with Nasrallah,” a Lebanon watcher at the Foundation or Defense of Democracies, Tony Badran, told the Sun.

That dynamic creates an undesired precedent: Not only is America dealing directly with one of the top groups on the state separtment’s foreign terrorist organizations list; Mr. Hochstein is also “leveraging Nasrallah’s threats to get concessions from Israel,” Mr. Badran says, pushing Jerusalem to “negotiate under the threat of rockets.”

Leaks about Mr. Hochstein’s latest compromise ideas are detailed daily in the Israeli and Lebanese press, but an exact outline of the proposed compromise is not yet public information in either country. Just as in the case of the secretive negotiations over reviving the Iran nuclear deal, Washington believes that, with Israeli concessions, it can revive the failed economy of Tehran-controlled Lebanon.

Israelis, for now, would rather kick the can down the road and prevent immediate war with Hezbollah than miss an opportunity to profit from successful gas explorations. 

The New York Sun

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