Maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon

Mohamed Al-Qazzaz, Wednesday 15 Jun 2022

Israeli activities in the Karish gas field have drawn renewed attention to the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon.

Maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon
Israeli navy vessels off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area at the border between Israel and Lebanon (photo: AP)


In his book Cain’s Curse: Gas Wars from Russia and Qatar to Syria and Lebanon, author Kamal Deeb ponders why the Arab countries, which sit atop most of the world’s petroleum reserves, have not been better at using these resources to serve their welfare.

US envoy and Aoun talk about the Lebanon-Israel maritime border at the Presidential Palace in Baabda (photo: AFP)

He was speaking as much about geopolitical interests as economic ones, especially given how the race to control natural gas resources has become an existential question for many nations today, as was the case with the race to control oil reserves in the past.

Deeb also discusses the conflict between Lebanon and Israel in his book, noting that hardly had the 2006 war between the two countries ended than a new one began over maritime boundaries.

The conflict subsided after the Arab Spring revolutions erupted in 2011, resurfacing nine years later in October 2020 when the first border-demarcation talks opened. Since then, several rounds of talks have taken place in Naqoura, Lebanon, supervised by the UN with a US envoy shuttling between the two sides.

A group of Lebanese independent lawmakers, joined by activists, hold Lebanese flags and an Arabic banner that reads: “The Line 29 is a red line,” during a protest (photo: AP)

On the whole, however, Beirut has so far not been able to emerge from its political, economic, and social straits. Populism has tended to prevail over realism, with fiery speeches and muscle-flexing taking the place of talks and intermediaries.

A recent example occurred when Israel moved the Energean Power drilling ship into the Karish gas field, triggering fury in Lebanon. Israel threatened, and Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah responded using the same language.

Before the situation could spiral out of control Washington dispatched its special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs Amos Hochstein to the region to meet with Lebanese officials and encourage them to return to the negotiating table.

According to Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and director of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), the Israeli move into Karish was not an escalatory action, as it believes that the field is not part of the disputed area between the two countries.

In 2011, the Israelis and Americans notified the UN of the coordinates of Israel’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the area, established at the northern boundary of what has been termed Line 23. This places Karish outside the disputed area, which is why Israel refused to accept the Lebanese demand to negotiate south of it and up to Line 29.

The Lebanese claim would add some 1,430 km2 to the 860 already under dispute, bringing the total disputed area to 2,290 km2. Israel further argues that the location in which the Energean Power drilling platform weighed anchor was already established in 2016-2017 when the ship obtained its licence to drill there.

Speaking from Israel last week, Energean CEO Mathios Rigas said that his firm had received assurances that Karish was in the Israeli EEZ. These guarantees were not just from the Israeli government, but also from the US and, he said, the Americans had obtained assurances from Lebanese officials that they would not do anything further with regard to Karish.

Moreover, the Lebanese government has not done what it should have done to make its claim official, namely submit the paperwork to the UN with the coordinates establishing the southern boundary of Lebanon’s EEZ at Line 29, which would bring part of the Karish field into the area under dispute.

Haytayan believes that Hizbullah is not interested in military escalation, as it is currently in a good position domestically and does not need to sabre-rattle in order to demonstrate its strength. At the same time, France, whose influence in Lebanon is still strong, is backing Hizbullah’s domestic policies. Hizbullah’s verbal escalation was probably a form of posturing ahead of the negotiations that Hochstein is expected to kickstart.

It is believed that he plans to propose a solution based on splitting the 860 km2 under dispute between the two countries. According to leaks from Lebanese official sources, the Qana prospect, which is located within Lebanon’s Block 9, extends into an area between Lines 23 and 29 called Block 72. The Lebanese want access to the whole of the Qana prospect, which they refuse to split with Israel because of the political differences between the two countries.

Haytayan does not rule out the possibility that the reason why Israel introduced the drilling platform into the Karish area was to accelerate the negotiations, not just over that field but over the entire maritime boundary. She believes that it would be in Lebanon’s interests to resolve the problem sooner rather than later so that the French-owned Total oil company, which has the right to invest and drill in Block 9, can get to work.

Total has obtained a three-year extension from the Lebanese government to its exploration and drilling licence in the area, but it needs reassurances so that it can start operations. It is reluctant to do so under the conditions of uncertainty regarding the border and the risk this poses to the company.

Eight other licences are up for renewal for fields in Lebanon’s EEZ in a process that should be completed by 15 June. However, because the government had not taken this matter seriously enough to settle the border demarcations, no companies are interested in applying for the licences.

Haytayan said that given Lebanon’s dire economic straits and the fact that the government has not yet reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on resolving them, companies are unlikely to leap at the prospect of exploring the Lebanese fields.

Progress would only be possible if the maritime borders were settled or if Total could reach an agreement with the three parties, the US, the Israelis, and the Lebanese, permitting it to invest in the 860 km2 area under dispute and split the proceeds between the Lebanese and Israelis, she said.

The latter option would run up against political obstacles, but it is still possible to think it could occur and that it could be a way out for Lebanon.

Many in Lebanon are wondering whether the domestic political disputes in the country will continue to undermine serious negotiations. As the director of the NRGI pointed out, Lebanon is up to its ears in political and sectarian disputes and tensions, which is one of the reasons why Lebanon has not been able to settle the maritime border question and exercise its rights.

Since the negotiations began in October 2020, Lebanese officials and politicians have been arguing over whether to use Line 23 or Line 29 as the baseline for negotiations. This internal tug-of-war has weakened the Lebanese position and held up the negotiations.

Today, with a new parliament in Lebanon and a key block of pro-change MPs within it, there might be a chance to persuade the Lebanese to unify their stance behind Line 29, which is the solidest option. The next step would be for the government to take measures like amending the decree it sent to the UN in 2011 and updating the coordinates so as to establish Lebanon’s claim up to Line 29.

However, even if Hizbullah’s belligerent talk is no more than talk, Haytayan is not optimistic. Lebanon has failed to win its rights because it has always approached them politically rather than technically. It should have kept its sights trained on what lies underwater, rather than on futile skirmishes above the surface.

Economic analyst Antoine Farah believes that the situation today is different from what it was in the past. The Lebanese authorities are fully convinced that Lebanon has a right to claim up to Line 29 and that negotiating for anything less will be pointless, he said.

Farah noted that Lebanon’s three main leaders, President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Miqati and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, are agreed on the need to be flexible in order to reach a solution to the border demarcation.

He said that Washington would use a carrot-and-stick approach to get results, offering incentives to encourage the two sides to reach an agreement quickly so that gas can be extracted and put to use.

If Israel and its Greek partner firm begin drilling in the Karish field, which has the potential to become a joint Lebanese-Israeli project, then any delays on the part of Lebanon in concluding the border-demarcation agreement would forfeit a share in this wealth.

Given Lebanon’s worsening economic plight and the social tensions that are mounting as a consequence, Lebanese officials face considerable pressure not to drag their feet and to take advantage of the opportunity.

Lebanon currently also has to import gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan, and its agreements with these countries are contingent on US willingness not to invoke the Caesar Act that could render Egyptian and Jordanian firms vulnerable to penalties for violating the sanctions regime against Syria.

A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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