Report: Ministers told gas field in Lebanon dispute may be ‘completely dry’

The director of Israel’s Energy Ministry reportedly told ministers at Thursday’s security cabinet meeting that estimates on how much natural gas could be extracted from a reservoir at the center of a maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon were far less than initially thought.

Lior Shilat said that the estimate of his office and the TotalEnergies oil firm — which holds the franchise for gas exploration at the disputed Qana reservoir — is that the potential profit from the area in question is just three billion dollars, the Walla news site reported, citing four officials present at the cabinet meeting when the remarks were made.

“It is also possible that [Qana] is completely dry,” Shilat told the ministers, according to Channel 13.

The figure presented was significantly lower than other estimates published in the media. The Marker business daily placed potential profits at roughly 20 billion dollars. If gas is found at the reservoir, profits would be split between Israel, Lebanon and TotalEnergies. Shilat clarified that Israel won’t be able to know the exact numbers until drilling at the site begins.

The revelation appeared to be an attempt by Shilat to convince wary ministers to get on board with the US-brokered maritime agreement Israel is seeking to ink with Lebanon by emphasizing that while Israel would be compromising on a reservoir that may offer limited profit, it will legitimize its control over other reservoirs in the Mediterranean that are far more profitable.

Israel would also gain international recognition of its buoy-marked boundary five kilometers off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra which Israel established in 2000.

Shilat’s estimate shocked many cabinet members in the room, Walla reported, adding that Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked responded that the figure should be released to the public.

The right-wing minister has been the most vocal opponent of the impending agreement, saying it should not be signed without the Knesset’s approval. The Jewish Home chair is seeking after the November election to join a government led by opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who also opposes the maritime deal.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas field on July 19, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Two ministers present at the cabinet meeting told Walla that the estimate of potential profits was less than what Israel agreed to receive in previous rounds of US-brokered negotiations that went nowhere.

“It is a matter of pennies for a country like Israel and we’re talking about profits we may not see for another five years, compare all of that to the political and security achievements that this agreement will bring us,” one minister told the news site, indicating that he is supportive of the agreement.

Also speaking during the Thursday meeting, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv told ministers that from the military’s point of view, “the agreement preserves Israel’s security interests and Israel’s freedom of action.”

Channel 12, which published the quote from the closed-door meeting reported that Mossad chief David Barnea told the ministers that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was also interested in the agreement and does not want to launch another military offensive against Israel at this time, despite his threats to the contrary.

On Thursday though, the network reported that Barnea told the ministers Hezbollah would likely attempt a limited attack against Israeli-controlled installations in the disputed maritime area as talks appeared to falter.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also expressed his support but warned against extracting gas from the Karish reservoir before an agreement with Lebanon is signed. “The security dangers are high [right now],” he said, according to the network.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

This position was opposed by Shaked, who urged for gas exploration at Karish to begin immediately, amid threats from Nasrallah that such a move would lead to a military response from Hezbollah.

Israel and Lebanon, which are officially at war, appeared to close in on a deal on the disputed gas fields late last week following years of intermittent talks, but on Thursday, Lapid rejected Lebanese modifications to the proposed deal, casting fresh doubts on the viability of reaching an accord.

Full details of the agreement have not been made public, but diplomats familiar with the matter say that the draft submitted by the US last week recognized Israel’s buoy-marked border. After that, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.

Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, though a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on the deal said Sunday that Jerusalem will receive compensation for giving up rights to Qana, a portion of which will lie in what the agreement recognizes as Israeli waters.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra, Lebanon’s official government photographer, via AP)

The pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that Beirut did not agree to recognize Israel’s buoy-marked boundary off of the coast of Rosh Hanikra.

Channel 12 reported that Washington was attempting to convince Lebanon to back off its new demands. It cited an unnamed Israeli official who indicated that Jerusalem was unprepared to make any more concessions.

The faltering of the deal has ratcheted up tensions between Israel and Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah last fought a full-scale war in 2006, though there have been a number of limited skirmishes on the border since then. The Iran-backed terror group is now thought to have tens of thousands of rockets, including missiles with precision-guided systems, that can reach anywhere in Israel. Military officials have predicted that thousands of rockets could strike built-up areas daily in a future war.


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