Lebanese-Israeli maritime border negotiations have entered their final and most serious phase since the US-mediated process began two years ago. The US envoy, senior adviser for energy security, Amos Hochstein, has begun circulating a draft agreement that aims to settle the dispute over the border area and enable the two countries to safely extract gas from fields like Qana and Karish.
Israeli Prime Minister Yael Lapid has said that the US proposal is appropriate and preserves Israel’s security and economic interests in the area under dispute, while Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, close to Hizbullah, said the negotiations were moving in a positive direction and were on the verge of an agreement.
The Israeli and Lebanese officials’ statements offered a clear sign of progress, especially given the way in which tensions spiked in the summer as the two sides traded hostile threats over rival claims to underwater gas fields.
Israel had engaged a British firm to begin drilling for gas in the Karish field. But in July when the ship approached the site to commence operations, Hizbullah dispatched warning drones, which Israel shot down one after the other.
Then, in August, Hizbullah’s military media released a video displaying the coordinates and descriptions of Israeli gas rigs. The film then cut to images of missile launchers. The implication was clear: if Israel started drilling and extraction operations, the missiles would strike its installations.
Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah subsequently made the threat explicit in televised remarks. Israel took them seriously enough to declare a state of maximum alert on its northern border and postponed drilling operations in the Karish field that had been scheduled to begin in early September.
The substance of the present draft agreement remains confidential, but according to leaked information it is ten pages long, in English, and lists the agreed-on coordinates of the maritime border.
This suggests that the two sides have resolved their differences over the two fields in the disputed area. Most likely, each country will receive exclusive access to one of the fields for it to utilise and grant drilling rights as it wishes. However, at the same time, it would be obliged to divide the profits with the other side.
The dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the maritime zones dates from the first discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2007. At that time, Lebanon was late in performing the hydro-geographic studies needed to accurately pinpoint its maritime borders and deposit the coordinates with the UN.
Taking advantage of this, Israel took steps to contract a firm to begin drilling operations and impose a fait accompli. At that point, it claimed that the maritime border between the two countries began at Line 1 and that Lebanon had no right to anything south of that line.
Since 2011, Lebanon has asserted by virtue of an executive decree that its southern maritime border is on Line 23, which is situated south of Line 1 and adds around 860 km2 to Lebanon’s territorial waters. In a first attempt to mediate in this dispute, Washington proposed that the two countries split the distance along a so-called Line H. Lebanon rejected the proposal out of hand.
More recently, Lebanon has undertaken a number of hydro-geographic studies in collaboration with international firms equipped to demarcate the border with high precision, factoring in the contours of the rugged coastline and rocky formations.
Those studies concluded that the border should be shifted further south to Line 29, which would entitle Lebanon to an additional 1,430 km2 of territorial waters. Acting on this determination, Beirut initiated the steps to officially notify the UN of the new southern border.
However, it stopped following through on the process as of October 2019 when the government collapsed and was succeeded by a caretaker government that lacks the authority to pursue matters with the UN. This status has weakened Lebanon’s negotiating position as Line 23 remains the officially recognised line adopted by the government of Lebanon as long as procedures for securing recognition of Line 29 are incomplete.
Curiously, the US seems to work up enthusiasm for brokering maritime border negotiations between Lebanon and Israel whenever Lebanon has a caretaker government with limited powers.
The Russian war in Ukraine has also played a part in reviving the US mediation, which had ground to a halt several times over the past two years. Europe now urgently needs an alternative to Russian gas, and the fields in the Eastern Mediterranean offer a solution.
But even if the marathon to forge an agreement has entered its final lap, it is taking place against very sensitive backdrops in both countries. In Lebanon, Michel Aoun’s term as president is due to end on 31 October and no successor has been agreed on.
In Israel, new Knesset elections will be held the following day, on 1 November. A major contestant will be former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of the agreement. Netanyahu has frequently criticised the current Israeli government’s negotiating performance, charging that Lapid has caved into Nasrallah’s threats and is sacrificing Israel’s strategic interests.
The negotiations are also coming under attack in Lebanon. Some claim that Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law who has set his sights on succeeding his father-in-law as president, has campaigned behind the scenes to delay the procedures for demanding the recognition of Line 29 as Lebanon’s southern maritime boundary.
They argue that Bassil wanted to facilitate the US-brokered deal with Israel, thereby bringing himself back into favour with Washington, which would then lift the sanctions it imposed on him in November 2020 and give him the go ahead to run for president. If such accusations are true, this means that Lebanon’s ruling elite, inclusive of Hizbullah, have forfeited Lebanon’s right to 1,430 km2 of territorial waters and part of the Karish gas field.
On the other hand, these elites need the agreement in order to rescue the country from its dire economic straits. The billions of dollars anticipated from gas sales to Europe would immediately make up for some of the losses in the Lebanese banking sector. An estimated $80 billion worth of frozen deposits in Lebanon’s commercial banks are currently inaccessible to their clients.
According to energy experts, the gas that could be extracted from the fields under dispute would guarantee a stable supply of electricity for many years to come. It would end the long dependence on petrol-powered electricity generators that has weighed so heavily on budgets for many years.
Of course, it could take years before the technical and logistical network is in place in order to extract and process the gas and reap the revenues. But the agreement itself will boost impressions that the situation in Lebanon is stabilising, which could stimulate renewed influxes of foreign investment.
In the light of what is at stake, the most precarious moment for the agreement will come when its full substance is made public. At that point, it will face an onslaught of criticism and the Lebanese and Israeli officials responsible for agreeing to it will come under attack for variously bowing to US or European pressures, caving into threats from the other side, or selling out national interests.
This will be the time when the agreement will be most vulnerable to attempts to undermine it, all the more so if the governments in both countries a month from now are not the ones that reached the deal. In fact, Netanyahu has already made it clear that if he wins in the forthcoming elections he will not honour that agreement, while in Lebanon there is no guarantee that the agreement will garner enough support in parliament to ratify it.
Meanwhile, the current negotiations over maritime boundaries in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean have offered both sides a new window onto the nature of their conflict. Israel can now perceive that a Lebanon financially dependent on sharing the revenues from the gas fields may be less dangerous than an economically collapsed Lebanon that sees nothing to gain from an agreement with Israel.
Lebanon, including its most hardline elements such as Hizbullah, now has no objection to reaching an agreement with Israel, despite decades of refusing to even consider such a prospect, if the agreement brings economic benefits and serves the country’s strategic interests by ensuring a significant domestic source of gas.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.