A peace-shaping deal for the Mideast

Israel and Lebanon near a deal on their fuel-rich maritime boundaries that might also fuel better bilateral ties.

Lebanese soldiers patrol near an Israeli Navy vessel on the Mediterranean Sea, Sept. 4.

Almost daily, from Libya to Iran, dangers from the Middle East’s fault lines shift from place to place. Yet when one fault line starts to heal – as may soon be the case in a rift between Israel and Lebanon – the region gains a pinch of peace.

The two neighbors are reportedly nearing a deal to set a maritime boundary in their disputed Mediterranean waters that would allow each to tap newly discovered natural gas fields below the seabed. Mediated by the United States, the indirect, energy-fueled talks could result in a soft recognition by Lebanon of Israel, similar to the 2020 accords that opened ties between Israel and several Arab states.

One underlying cause for this fault-fixing in the region is rising demand by young people for economic results from leaders rather than constant confrontation with foes. Young Lebanese, for example, are fed up with their collapsed economy and a governance that divvies resources along the country’s religious divisions.

In addition, Europe is urgently seeking Mediterranean gas to offset a sudden loss of Russian fuels during the war in Ukraine. It is assisting the U.S. in forging an Israel-Lebanon agreement.

The boundary-setting talks, however, are threatened by Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful militant Shiite group that serves as an Iranian proxy. It warns of an attack on Israel-backed drilling rigs even as Israel promises massive retaliation if Hezbollah strikes.

Still, Hezbollah feels domestic pressure to tap the offshore wealth for Lebanon’s sake. More than half of Lebanese do not believe the group promotes the country’s stability, according to a 2021 Zogby poll. And Hezbollah and its supporters lost their parliamentary majority in an election in May.

For its part, Israel wants to lift up Lebanon’s leaders who seek reform and peace. “A Lebanese gas rig is an Israeli interest and improving the economic situation of the Lebanese people is also an Israeli interest,” said Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, the head of Israeli military intelligence. “The people of Lebanon also understand what the result of war would be.”

A deal between the two countries, according to the International Crisis Group, would set “an important precedent for greater bilateral comity” and avert the prospect of dangerous escalation. In the Middle East, peace comes by the all-too-infrequent shaking of hands, across one fault line at a time.

Editori's note: An earlier version of this editorial mischaracterized the placement of the Israeli rig.

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