12:02 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. This call will be on background for attribution to “senior administration officials.”
For your awareness, not for reporting, on the line are [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].
The contents of the call will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
[Senior administration official] and [senior administration official], I’ll hand it over to you to get started.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. This is senior official number one. I’m going do a very quick topper, and then I have to head out to something else. And I’ll leave you with senior official number two, who was involved in these negotiations for many months and, frankly, for many years, if you go back to the Obama-Biden administration.
I just want to briefly point out President Biden’s policy for the Middle East region — a more stable, prosperous, integrated region — and how that kind of manifests itself.
It manifests itself through broad energy deals connecting Iraq’s electricity grid to Jordan to the GCC.
It manifests itself through using persistent diplomacy to do our best to try to wind down and end conflicts — including the war in Yemen and even just persistent disputes, such as a Red Sea island dispute which we resolved over the course of the President’s visit, Israeli (inaudible) of Saudi airspace.
And this very important — what we think is a truly historic breakthrough — really the first agreement of its time between Israel and Lebanon mediated by the United States — two countries that are technically in a state of war.
So I want to turn it over to [senior administration official] but just emphasize at the top: This is something that Vice President Biden identified a decade ago as a real opportunity. And the diplomacy began back then, it continued through now three administrations, and it led to the historic breakthrough today thanks to who I’ll now turn it over to, senior official number two.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official]. Today, after really months of U.S. mediation, specifically the new phase of these negotiations that started in late 2021 into early 2022, the government of Israel and government of Lebanon have agreed to formally end their maritime boundary dispute and establish a permanent maritime boundary between them.
This is a long-running dispute of multiple decades. And negotiations that started mediation on this issue started over 10 years ago with no conclusion and, in 2020, took a turn where both parties essentially stopped negotiating.
At that point in the fall of 2021 and early 2022, we restarted the negotiations under seeking for a different — seeking a paradigm shift that would allow for a breakthrough.
That breakthrough happened over the last few weeks. And over a very intensive last several days and very long nights, the governments of Israel and Lebanon agreed — individually and separately agreed with the United States — to end this dispute.
Earlier today, just a short while ago, President Biden spoke with Prime Minister of Israel Yair Lapid and the President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, and confirmed the United States’ congratulations — extended the United States’ congratulations on reaching this milestone and the U.S. commitment and President Biden’s administration’s commitment to continue supporting both countries as we move forward into implementation.
Both leaders confirmed their readiness to move forward after this breakthrough and to begin discussing implementation.
So, today’s — I’ll just add and I’ll open it up to questions: The importance of this is that both parties get what is really critically important for them.
Lebanon has been suffering through a significant economic crisis that is — covers all sectors of the economy. But without addressing the energy crisis and the electricity crisis within it, it is impossible to see any hope for economic recovery.
Most Lebanese people have less than two hours of electricity per day. It is impossible to run hospitals, critical infrastructure, and homes and heat and water and food without the access to electricity.
This agreement will provide Lebanon with a fresh potential for foreign direct investment — investment specifically in the energy sector; begin their exploration for hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean as the only country in the Mediterranean that has not done so yet; and will, over time, improve the energy conditions in the country and perhaps have an immediate response to the electricity crisis long before these fields are discovered and developed.
Most importantly, this gives the country and the people of Lebanon hope — something that is desperately needed.
So, we are grateful for the leadership of President Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Mikati for this remarkable breakthrough.
On the Israeli side, Israel already had significant gas resources, hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean. It has been very successful in developing them. This will provide Israel with a kind of security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean necessary to continue to rely on those waters for the lion’s share of the electricity in the country and for the ability to export and be part of the solution for the global and European energy crisis.
Israel has been — has achi- — maintained all the security mechanisms and infrastructure that they need in order to make sure that the — that their shoreline and their country is protected. Israel will also ensure that they have — through separate agreements, will be able to be compensated for any share of hydrocarbons that is on their side of the — of the newly formed boundary.
Let me be clear: We do not know if there are hydrocarbons in this area. We don’t know — if there are, we don’t know how large they are or where they are. So any — any headlines on valuation of gain or loss are — are premature at best.
This has not been an easy negotiation, but the agreement is historic. And I — we expect that there may be other difficult moments as we implement this agreement moving forward. The United States continues and will continue to offer its help in facilitating any discussions in the future that — where diplomatic efforts are useful.
I will end it there and happy to take any questions.
Q Thanks for doing this. Could you comment on whether the agreement relates to Hezbollah threats in Karish, if you’re concerned? Can Israel go ahead and start exploring gas there despite the threats made by Hassan Nasrallah?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Karish field was not in the disputed area. And I — Israel already began testing on that field. That field is not — my understanding — is not yet ready for development. But once this — I don’t see any threat to the Karish field being developed.
I think that the — these negotiations were not held under — under threats or, rather, the threats are not — were not what drove these negotiations. What drove them was the need to secure the entire coast for Israel and to provide economic interests for Lebanon.
In that context, the United States always supported Israel’s right to develop Karish, and we are — we are satisfied and happy that Lebanon will now be able to develop the fields — the one that everybody is talking about, as well as other fields in those waters.
Q Hey, thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask: Is there any concern that the governments of each or either of the two countries could potentially not approve this deal, seeing that it still needs government approval? What’s — what’s the sense that you’ve gotten from your talks with — with both sides?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that we — we’ve been negotiating intensively of late the last several days. The governments in both sides are aware of their political — the political reality that they — that they live in. And I have every expectation that this agreement is going to be signed and put into force as quickly as possible.
And I think, at the end of the day, that will happen because this agreement is such critical — delivers such critical wins for both sides.
Q Hi. Thanks for doing the call today. Can you explain in a bit more detail how the compensation for Qana and other potential — other potential developments would work? Like, does Total need to sign a new agreement with Israel? To what extent has Lebanon, you know, had to modify its agreements with Total; when all of that (inaudible) would be finalized?
And then also, does this make it easier for the Arab Gas Pipeline agreement to move forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I’m not going to get into the details of specifically the parts where both the governments Israel and the government of Lebanon. I leave it to them to address the details of the agreements, specifically on commercial terms. That is for them to do.
As far as the Arab Gas Pipeline: Look, I think I’ve been — we, the United States, have been fairly clear that we think that importing gas from Egypt through Jordan, all the way to Lebanon, is a positive development for Lebanon. We would like to see that happen. There are some steps that Lebanon still needs to take. And there are steps that the World Bank will then take.
We have been very clear that subject to the — those two things happening, we will do a final review in the United States to ensure that it is in line with U.S. sanctions. But I am confident, based on what I know, that we can get gas flowing to Lebanon on a fairly quick basis if these reform steps that Lebanon has committed to taking will actually be taken.
Q Thank you so much for this talk. So first of all, how critical is the timing issue here? What happens if Israel doesn’t approve this until the upcoming election?
And the second question is: This is such a political debate in Israel. These negotiations have been going on for years, as you said. It’s been suggested in Israel that the agreement now was very different (inaudible) one been discussed before (inaudible). If you can comment on that. And what is the big difference? What happened now that didn’t happen before?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that the — as I said before, this negotiation has been taking place over years. I think it’s important to — when it comes to matters of such significance to when you can reach an agreement when the opportunity is there, and there’s a pathway towards an agreement, that is — then that momentum should be taken advantage of, and the agreement should be — and we should sign these agreements. That is what happened here.
This agreement is historic for a number of reasons. One, it is the first boundary demarcation by a group — by mutual agreement between Israel and Lebanon.
It provides security and safety for Israel. It provides economic opportunity and hope for Lebanon. It means that the Lebanese waters could soon very well see rigs and infrastructure — physical infrastructure there, just as there is to the south in Israeli waters. And I think we’ve — there are several steps that have been taken here to address security guarantees for Israel.
Therefore, we believe that the government of Israel will do what it needs to do from a legal perspective. That is something for them to make. Those decisions that are for the government of Israel to make.
But I think it’s important for the people of Israel and the people of Lebanon that we are able to take advantage of this opportunity — one that most would not have expected between Israel and Lebanon — and ensure that this opportunity is taken advantage of.
No one can guarantee where the future lies, but — and therefore no one can guarantee that opportunities for the future of Israel, for the security of Israel, and for the economic prosperity of Lebanon will still be there at a different time.
Again, many people have said over the last several days that a better deal could have been done for one side or the other. Others have claimed that they could have negotiated a better deal — some from the region, some from the United States. They were in power; they did not reach a better deal. And when those better — so-called “better terms,” either — for either side were on the table, they ended up not reaching and not concluding an agreement.
This agreement is not a win-lose agreement. The parties are not getting more than the other, because they get different things.
The win for Israel is around security, stability, and economic — and economic gain. The win for Lebanon is economic prosperity, economic development, foreign direct investment, and hope for an economic recovery.
Q Thank you so much for doing this. If you can just sketch out the details of this agreement in terms of who gets what, especially with regards to these two disputed oil fields that we were just talking about.
And then secondly, on the — going back to the Hezbollah threat, is there any language packed into this agreement or any guarantees that — you know, what might happen if conflict resumes or how Lebanon might constrain Hezbollah from acting on their threat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, one, there is a gas field called Karish on the Israeli side that was not part of the disputed territory. The initial claim lines were north of that. And Israel is doing what it needs to do, working with the company — the European company that is developing it.
I don’t have much to say about what they’re doing. It has not been — that is not a factor in these negotiations.
There is a field that transcends from what was the un- — the dis- — within the disputed zone, it was — transcends from undisputed Lebanese waters to undisputed Israeli waters. It has never been drilled. It has been discovered, but not drilled. So it is unclear how much and where the deposits of gas are.
That’s something that now can be — now that we have this agreement, that can be discovered, it can be developed, and Lebanon can benefit from it.
As far as the question that you asked about conflict — future conflict — when President Biden spoke to Prime Minister Lapid and then spoke with President Aoun, the one thing that is clear is no one wants conflict.
This is — and that is what — that’s the importance of this agreement: It prevents conflict and puts in place incentives for each side to develop its interests side by side.
This is not a direct bilateral agreement. It is through the United States. But it is marking a boundary that will allow both countries to pursue their economic interests without conflict. That’s the goal.
And if there’s any questions in the future of disagreement — not of conflict, which I do not expect, but of disagreement — the United States has assured both parties that it would use its best efforts through diplomatic means to see if it could help facilitate.
Q Thank you so much. It’s Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya TV. Actually, my question was asked, but I wanted to follow again on Hezbollah.
Did the White House get any guarantees from the Lebanese government, from President Aoun himself, that Hezbollah would not sabotage the deal at any stage, and whether this is dependent on the relations with Iran — between Iran and the West, and whether they gave instruction to Hezbollah at any stage to mess up this deal? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The negotiations that were carried out by — through U.S. mediation did not include discussions with Hezbollah. This is with the sovereign leadership of Lebanon. We held meetings with the — with the president, the prime minister, and the speaker. And I have every assurance that the government of Lebanon intends
to keep its end of this agreement, as I have on the Israeli side. So that’s really all I can say on that.
Q Hey, [senior administration official]. Thank you so much for doing this. I know you briefly mentioned this before, but I was wondering if you could just discuss a little bit more some of the concerns that have been raised by former officials in the U.S. administration who have insisted that, you know, previous deals were much more “even handed” in the way that they framed it. You know, specifically people like former Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and former State Department official David Schenker, both, you know, said that from what they understand, that the deal that was reached was much less favorable to Israel, in their eyes.
Could you respond to that maybe a little more, explain what changed over the last couple of years?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me — let me repeat what I said before. Let me be very clear: There were no previous deals.
We had previous discussions about what deals could look like that were not accepted by one side or by the other side.
So there is — it’s hard to answer a question about comparing this deal to another one. This is the only deal that has been reached between these two countries this year, this decade, or previous decades.
So, comparing proposals that may or may not have given additional benefits to either side. And I can tell you that there have been several proposals for better terms — so-called better terms for one side or the other. But since they were not agreed to, they were just proposals and the threat for insecurity, violence, and conflict continued to rise.
This agreement, being the only one that actually was reached, is therefore the one that has the best terms for Israel and, in fact, the best terms for Lebanon. And the reason for that is because once it is executed, it will actually provide for security guarantees and assurances for Israel, it will provide for economic guarantees and hope for Lebanon that can actually be accomplished and put into force.
Previous pieces of paper are just that.
Q Hi. Yeah, thank you for doing this. I would like to ask — regarding Netanyahu’s statements today, even, and even the day before, saying that it’s not an historic agreement, it’s a tyrannic agreement — I wonder if you would like to comment on this and also to relate for the timing of the approval of this agreement, just several days before the Israel elections. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A variety of politicians in both countries, particularly from the opposition in both countries, have made a variety of — a myriad of statements about it. I urge them to review the agreement, get briefed by their governments on the details. And I think that anyone who looks at this from a nonpolitical, nonpartisan, but from a substantive perspective will reach the inescapable conclusion that both countries here have — have done very well and have achieved their most important goals.
The — Israel has strengthened its security and stability. And stability in the waters of the Mediterranean are more important for Israel’s security and economic prosperity than ever before. The more gas discoveries are made, the more gas is used — that gas is used for electricity and manufacturing and spurring and allowing at a time of a global energy crisis — and in Israel is one of the only countries in the world not to suffer from a natural gas crisis because of its discovery — it is important to secure those areas. And the government of Israel has achieved through this agreement the ability to secure those waters not only now, but for a very long period as we go into the foreseeable future.
And for the government of Lebanon to actually be able to finally join Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece in developing resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, that is a big win for the Lebanese people who are suffering.
Having a prosperous Israel side by side a prosperous Lebanon is the best security guarantee for both countries. Israel only benefits from a prosperous Lebanon.
So, this agreement, despite what politicians in Lebanon or politicians in Israel who are not part of the negotiations — despite what they have said, this agreement, we are confident, will provide the kind of security that both countries need.
The United States’ commitment to Israel’s security has always been ironclad. And under President Biden, it continues to be ironclad as he has been committed to Israel’s security his entire career in the Senate, as Vice President, and now as President, and has demonstrated during his recent trip to Israel.
This agreement is within line of the commitment for Israel’s security. And our — part of that commitment to security is ensuring that the entire Middle East region is prosperous, stable, and at peace.
And that is what we are striving to do with this agreement. That is why President Biden has been laser-focused on the Eastern Mediterranean, from the time he was the Vice President until today. He began this process of negotiations with Lebanon and, under his presidency, it now concluded with an agreement — a historic agreement at that.
Thank you all very much.
12:32 P.M. EDT