In abeyance for more than a decade, the dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the two countries’ maritime borders resurfaced on June 5. The Lebanese presidency warned the Israeli government against any “aggressive actions” in the disputed maritime area.
After a floating production, storage and offloading unit belonging to the company Energean (listed in both Tel Aviv and London) arrived on Sunday, the problem was obvious: Israel and Lebanon have never drawn their borders. The Karish gas field where Israel is exploring is located in a disputed area of 860 km2 in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean where huge gas reserves have been found in recent years.
The Lebanese government even invited the US envoy Amos Hochstein – charged by President Joe Biden with mediating between the two countries – asking him to help restart talks with Israel over the issue.
Any exploration, drilling or extraction work Israel carries out in the disputed areas would constitute a “provocation and act of aggression”, said a joint statement by Lebanese President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
However, the Israeli government sees the Karish gas field as part of its exclusive economic zone and therefore believes that it’s not relevant to its maritime dispute.
‘Everything will go very quickly for the Israelis’
Custom-built for the Karish field, the platform is expected to deliver gas to Israel later this year, according to Energean.
“With the arrival of this platform, everything will go very quickly for the Israelis – the production and sale of gas will be able to start in three or four months, since contracts have already been signed with Israeli companies,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese expert in the geopolitics of hydrocarbons and director of the Middle East programme of the Natural Resource Governance Institute in New York.
The timing of this gas project could make it especially lucrative for Israel, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has left Europe scrambling for non-Russian sources of gas.
While Lebanon has been aware that the gas project was on the horizon since last year, Haytayan pointed out – but its problem has been that its fractious ruling class lacks a unified position on the maritime border issue, meaning talks have been unable to proceed.
Resolving this dispute is crucial for Lebanon – mired in an intractable economic crisis since 2019 – to be able to carry out its own exploration for hydrocarbons in the disputed area, where Block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone is located. Found just off the shore of southern Lebanon, this area is considered one of the most promising in terms of natural gas resources.
Israeli-Lebanese talks aimed at resolving the maritime dispute started in October 2020, under the aegis of the UN and the US.
US diplomat and mediator Frederic Hof, Washington’s point man on the issue from 2010 to 2012, divided the area into two parts. The “Hof line” attributed 55 percent of the area to Lebanon and 45 percent to Israel. The Lebanese side has not accepted this demarcation.
‘Thinking about their own survival’
Dialogue restarted at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in southern Lebanon in October 2020 after the two countries agreed on a framework for talks. But two months later they reached an impasse again because the Lebanese delegation claimed an extra 860 km2 in the south.
Beirut has nevertheless not made this claim official at the UN, because while President Michel Aoun initially supported his country’s bid for the additional maritime territory, he feared it could “end” negotiations with Israel – whose government said in October 2021 it was ready to resolve its dispute with Lebanon while refusing to let Beirut dictate the terms of the talks.
When the US’s Hochstein visited the region earlier this year, Tel Aviv and Beirut both expressed their willingness to resume direct talks. But to no avail.
At the end of a two-day visit to Beirut in February, Hochstein called on the Lebanese government to adopt a united position on the maritime dispute with Israel to allow it to move forward. He also dismissed Lebanon’s maximalist Line 29 proposal – thus implicitly giving Israel the green light to exploit the Karish gas field.
In February 2022, Aoun ended up saying that the more limited Line 23 was indeed the Lebanese maritime border, Haytayan noted, backtracking from his original position as a proponent of the maximalist Line 29. “This presidential reversal was a gesture of goodwill the American negotiator expected as a means of allowing the negotiations to restart,” Haytayan said.
But negotiations remain stalled. “The Lebanese political class isn’t thinking about the interests of the people or the country’s financial well-being; they’re thinking about their own survival,” Haytayan said.
‘Time to decide!’
That explains why they didn’t think it was important to settle the maritime border issue – even though Israel has been keen to do so.
“It remains to be seen whether the American envoy will be interested in negotiating with them,” Haytayan said. “Do the Lebanese leaders want to negotiate from Line 23, the official position adopted in 2011, or do they want to go as far as line 29, a position they claimed in 2020 but never formalised with the UN?”
“It’s time to decide!” Haytayan said. “If Lebanon wants to negotiate from Line 23, then the Karish field falls outside of the disputed area [putting it in the Israeli zone].”
Making a decision about what Lebanon wants is the “only way to ensure that the people in the region can bolster their development” through natural resource extraction, Haytayan continued.
“Lebanon has no more time to lose; it needs to resume negotiations and conclude them by getting a favourable result,” Haytayan added.
Both parties have a further incentive to resolve the maritime border conflict: It risks interacting dangerously with the ongoing tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah – the Shia military pollical movement that has proclaimed itself the defender of Lebanese hydrocarbon resources, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly threatening Israel with bombing its installations in the event of unilateral exploration in disputed maritime areas.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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