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Lebanon-Israel Maritime Talks Still All At Sea – OpEd

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Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, in power for 30 years, faces an acute dilemma.  On the one hand, Hezbollah cannot possibly endorse the formal negotiations now in progress between Israel and the Lebanese government, of which it is a part. On the other hand, it cannot be the one to torpedo an agreement that could rescue Lebanon from the economic problems that are almost overwhelming it. 

The crisis is so severe that people have taken to staging armed bank hold-ups to recover their savings.  At least five such bank “heists” were reported on September 16, two days after a young woman stormed a central Beirut bank with fuel and a plastic gun to demand the deposits of her sister, who needed to pay for cancer treatment.  The woman made off with around $13,000 and became an instant hero on social media.  The severity of Lebanon’s crisis has been widely blamed on a self-serving political elite dominated by Hezbollah, and decades of corruption.

Lebanon and Israel have been locked in US-mediated negotiations for some two years in an effort to agree on a maritime border that would determine which oil and gas resources belong to which country. The struggle is over a gas-rich area of the Mediterranean with an estimated value reaching billions of dollars.

US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in the region in the first week of September to help overcome the issues still standing in the way of a settlement, and to try to push the parties closer to an agreement.  The three principals – the US, Israel and the Lebanese government (even though Hezbollah has a place in it) – have indicated a willingness to get a deal concluded as soon as possible, while Hezbollah itself has been ratcheting up its threats to launch a military attack on Israel’s Karish gas reserve field, to protect what it regards as Lebanon’s rights.  

The dispute goes back to 2007, when Lebanon and Cyprus reached an agreement over the limits of their maritime borders. The southern boundary in that agreement represented Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel. Cyprus has ratified the agreement; Lebanon has not. 

In 2010, Israel signed an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement with Cyprus, using the coordinates within the Cyprus-Lebanon agreement as its northern boundary.  Israel lodged these coordinates with the UN in July 2011.  Lebanon refused to accept them, claiming at the time that its maritime border with Israel lies well to the south, along a boundary known as Line 23.  An official document issued by the UN in 2011 confirmed that this was Lebanon’s view, and Lebanon has made no move to amend it.  And yet Lebanon has subsequently shifted its claimed maritime boundary even further south to a position known as Line 29, and this cuts across Israel’s Karish gas reserve field. 

The dispute first turned toxic in late 2017, when Lebanon signed a gas exploration and production agreement with a French-Italian-Russian consortium.  Seismic surveys showed promising results for what is known as Block 9, which extends beyond Israel’s claimed northern border into disputed waters. The French company, Total, announced that it would not start operations in Block 9 until the Israeli-Lebanese maritime dispute was resolved.

Back in June Hezbollah warned Israel against extracting gas from the Karish field, saying it was prepared to act, “including force”.  Threats and counter-threats between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces continued throughout the summer and showed no signs of slackening, even when the US-brokered talks appeared to be on the verge of a positive outcome.

On September 13 the head of Lebanon’s general security agency, Abbas Ibrahim, told local TV channel Al-Jadeed that the maritime border talks are close to concluding.  “We’re talking about weeks – actually, days – to finish the delineation issue,” he announced. “I’m hopeful that the situation is positive.” 

The next day Lebanese President Michel Aoun said there had been “major progress” in the US’s mediation efforts. “Lebanon has achieved what enables it to exploit its resources in its waters.”  He added: “There are technical details that are currently being studied in order to realize Lebanon’s interest, rights and sovereignty.”

What might the “major progress” amount to?  According to Israeli and Lebanese officials, an Israeli proposal would allow Lebanon to develop gas reserves in the disputed area provided it agreed to retain Line 23, or something close to it, as the maritime Lebanon-Israel border. This would open Block 9, and its promising Gana prospect, for exploration and exploitation by Lebanon.  At the same time it would guarantee the Karish gas reserve field remaining in Israeli waters. According to one media report, Lebanese officials demanded a written version of the proposal before providing a final answer.  At the time of writing no final answer was forthcoming.

Meanwhile Israel insists that natural gas extraction from the Karish field will go ahead despite the drones launched by Hezbollah at it in July, and their blood-curdling threats.  “The hand that reaches for any of this wealth will be severed,” warned Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. 

An Israeli official reiterated: “We are planning on starting extraction the moment the work there finishes.” On September 8 the London-listed Energean company, licensed by Israel to extract gas from the Karish field, announced that it would begin yielding output within weeks.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said late last month that any attack by Hezbollah on Israel’s gas assets could reignite war between the two sides.

Despite the tub-thumping, political imperatives are favoring an agreement.  Lebanon’s foreign minister, Abdallah Bouhabib, in a press interview, pointed out that Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, is due to step down in October, and that Israeli elections in November could see the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu. If that happened, opined Bouhabib, “he may blow up the agreement.  Here [in Lebanon], a president with a different approach and vision may come. Therefore, the time is right for an agreement.”

Let us hope this particular ship, after a stormy passage, sails into a safe haven. 

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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