Lebanese MP: Ukraine war sped up border deal with Israel

BEIRUT (AP) — The war in Ukraine and rising demand for natural gas around the world helped speed up a U.S.-mediated maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel, a prominent Lebanese legislator allied with the militant Hezbollah group said Monday. The agreement is expected to help bring stability to the eastern Mediterranean.

Gebran Bassil, who is under sanctions by the U.S., also told The Associated Press in an interview at his office that “it would be a crazy act” if caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati does not form a new government before the six-year term of President Michel Aoun ends Oct. 31. Disagreements between Aoun and Mikati have delayed the formation of a new Cabinet since May 15, following parliamentary elections. Since then, the government has been in a caretaker capacity.

Parliament failed during two sessions in recent weeks to elect a president and it is highly unlikely that a new head of state will be voted in to the country’s top job before Aoun’s term ends, leaving the country without a president.

Bassil is Aoun’s son-in-law and heads the Christian nationalist Free Patriotic Movement founded by the president and has yet to endorse a candidate. Bassil, who heads a 21-member parliamentary bloc in the 128-member legislature, said that despite media reports, he does not see himself as a candidate.

“We do not need in addition to our financial and economic crisis, a political crisis that splits the people on how to deal with the government,” Bassil said about the possibility of the government taking over once Aoun leaves office. He added that not forming a Cabinet will lead to “constitutional chaos.”

“We will not accept that such a government runs the country. This is a Cabinet that did not win a vote of confidence and lacks constitutional legitimacy,” Bassil said.

Israel and Lebanon both have accepted the U.S.-mediated sea border deal following months of negotiations and a signing ceremony is expected along the two countries’ border by the end of the month.

“Although this agreement is not a normalization process with Israel, but it helps us, you know, to restore more stability in the region where we need to attract the investors,” Bassil said. Lebanon is in the grip of its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.

In July, the Israeli military shot down three unarmed drones belonging to Lebanon’s Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah flying over the Karish field. At the time, Lebanon said it was in a disputed area. Hezbollah’s leader has issued warnings to Israel over the maritime dispute, saying that “any arm” that reaches out to steal Lebanon’s wealth “will be cut off.”

“I think that the equation established with the strength or the force of Hezbollah and the threat to use it is what helped,” Bassil said about the heavily armed group that fought Israel to a draw in 2006.

Lebanon hopes that demarcating maritime borders will pave the way for gas exploration to help lift it out of its crippling economic crisis, while Israel wants to exploit gas reserves and hopes the deal will reduce the risk of war with Hezbollah.

Bassil, a former energy minister, said the deal with Israel should lead to Lebanon launching negotiations with Syria to solve the dispute of more than 900 square kilometers (347 square miles) between the two countries as well as reviewing Beirut’s maritime borders with the island of Cyprus.

“It is the gas era and Lebanon should not be outside of it,” Bassil said, adding that demand for gas around the world triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since late February helped seal the deal.

“We had the guarantees, clearly, from the U.S. and also from France and Total that once this is done … Total as block operator will restart its petroleum activities offshore Lebanon,” Bassil said. He was referring to the French oil giant Total that hopes to start drilling in block number 9 along the border once the agreement is signed.

In 2017, Lebanon approved licenses for an international consortium including France’s Total, Italy’s ENI and Russia’s Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of 10 blocks in the Mediterranean Sea. Novatek recently withdrew and officials, including Energy Minister Walid Fayad have said that Qatar is interested in filling that gap.

Bassil, who has served as Lebanon’s foreign and telecommunications minister, said he was sanctioned in 2020 by the U.S. because of his alliance with Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by Washington.

The U.S. government designation, under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, said Bassil was “at the forefront of corruption” in Lebanon, was involved in “misappropriation of state assets” and “the expropriation of private assets for personal gain.”

Bassil said during the interview that he is appealing the case in the U.S. by contacting the Treasury Department demanding that details of his file be made public.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.