Lebanon is focusing on the demarcation of its maritime borders with Israel in order to harvest its underwater oil and gas resources at a time when the country is facing a severe financial crisis.
The two countries have been officially at war since Israel was created in 1948, and they have long been at odds over maritime borders in the east of the Mediterranean. The dispute has been a hot topic over recent decades owing to the discovery of large reserves of natural gas in the area.
Since January 2017, Lebanon has used every means it can to defend the Block 9 gas area in its regional waters in the Mediterranean near the maritime border with Israel.
Block 9 dates back to 2009 when the US company Noble Energy discovered oil and gas reserves covering an area of 83,000 square km near the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel.
Lebanon’s regional waters cover an area of 22,000 square km, and the area at the centre of the dispute with Israel is 854 square km divided into ten zones or blocks, of which Block 9 is currently being contested.
Lebanon’s share of natural gas in the Mediterranean is estimated at 96 trillion cubic feet. Since there are no formal relations between Lebanon and Israel, the negotiation of maritime borders is difficult, and Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said his country was ready to finalise its maritime borders and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with Israel through the same mechanism used in the demarcation of the Blue Line supervised by the UN.
Berri’s statement was made during a meeting with Stefano Del Col, commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which included discussions of the Blue Line and maritime borders.
When Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, the UN drew up the Blue Line to mark the withdrawal. The line did not accurately follow the official border, and Israel has often tried to infringe it.
According to a statement by Berri, Del Col said it should be possible to apply the same mechanism for maritime demarcation.
There have been reports that US contacts between Lebanon and Israel on the issue have made progress, and the parties could meet under UN auspices through US mediation to settle the matter.
The negotiations are being led by US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield, who traveled to Beirut on an unpublicised visit.
Despite rising tensions between the US and Iran, Satterfield went to Beirut after the Iran-backed Hizbullah group agreed with the Lebanese government’s position to enter into direct negotiations to settle the border dispute with Israel. The talks are scheduled to begin in the coming weeks.
The US has been mediating the maritime border dispute since 2012 regarding an area of 860 square km in the Mediterranean where gas was discovered in 2009. In 2018, an agreement was made between France’s Total oil company, Italy’s Eni, and Russia’s Novatek to begin gas exploitation in two areas off Lebanon’s coast, including the disputed Block 9.
This escalated the tensions between Lebanon and Israel.
While preparing for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Beirut on 22 and 23 March, Satterfield had a meeting on 5 March with Berri, who plays a key role in Lebanon especially regarding border disputes with Israel.
The US administration wanted Berri to join Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri in agreeing to hold talks with Israel “in order for Lebanon’s leaders to reach a consensus on how to proceed in negotiations regarding the border dispute.”
On 6 April, reports suggested that Washington might issue sanctions on Berri’s inner circle in a message directed to Berri, also the leader of the Amal Movement, a close ally of Hizbullah.
A breakthrough was achieved when Berri changed his position on 23 April, with the approval of Hizbullah. UNIFIL commander Del Col said that “we are prepared to draw Lebanon’s maritime border and the boundaries of the EEZ by using the same process used to delineate the Blue Line under UN supervision.”
The next day, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar published leaked diplomatic cables sent from the Lebanese embassy in Washington to the foreign ministry in Beirut detailing a meeting on 15 March between Satterfield and Lebanese officials visiting the US.According to the report, Satterfield said Lebanon must agree to the US offer “or look for another mediator”.
On 9 May, Aoun presented US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard with a proposal to hold meetings at UNIFIL headquarters in Al-Naqoura in southern Lebanon under the auspices of the UN and with the US as mediator in which land and maritime borders would be negotiated with Israel.
In a sign of acceptance of the proposal, Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz said on 27 May that the talks would serve the interests of both countries in developing their oil and natural gas reserves.
Beirut has admitted the need to negotiate with Israel instead of allowing the UN to unilaterally demarcate the maritime borders. However, the US and Israel have said that the demarcation is not within the UN’s powers, and Israel has questioned the UN’s role although it has agreed that it has a role in the negotiations.
A controversial issue is whether the negotiations on the land and maritime borders should be simultaneous, as proposed by Lebanon, or whether the talks should be limited to the maritime borders as suggested by Israel.
The US insists that international law does not link the demarcation of land borders with maritime borders, while Israel has hinted that it will negotiate the latter only.
Lebanon’s response is unclear. Tel Aviv also wants a six-month timeline for the talks, but Beirut insists that they should continue until an agreement is reached since Israel could procrastinate if there was a deadline.
The roles the US and the UN will play in negotiations are of the essence, particularly since Lebanese officials want guarantees from the UN because this would legitimise any agreement. They also want Washington to put pressure on Israel.
But Satterfield believes the US’s role is to “facilitate” the talks without interfering unless absolutely necessary. One senior Israeli official said on Tuesday that Israel expected the talks with Lebanon to begin with US mediation within weeks, noting that the meetings could take place in the UN compound in south Lebanon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Lebanon negotiates with Israel