By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
t was only two or three years ago that leading energy experts cast doubt on the commercial viability of investing in the exploration and extraction of deep-water natural gas. Since then, and most recently thanks to Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine, gas prices have more than quadrupled and, as the EU weans itself off Russian energy supplies, alternative sources of natural gas are in great demand.
One region that might benefit most from these developments is the Eastern Mediterranean, although its political and security volatility are turning this modern-day gold rush into a source of dispute. Lately we have seen the threat of a military clash between Israel and Lebanon emerge over the development of the Karish gas field.
It took five weeks of traveling by sea for a gas-drilling rig to reach its destination in the Eastern Mediterranean — a location that is claimed both by Israel and Lebanon as being in their territorial waters. In light of threats made by the Lebanese government and the Iran-backed Hezbollah, the gas platform was escorted by Israeli naval vessels, including submarines, and upon its arrival a naval version of the Iron Dome missile defense system also arrived in the area to protect the platform.
This is only the latest chapter in a long-running maritime border dispute between the two countries — a dispute that has gathered momentum since the discovery of offshore natural gas deposits. The two countries are officially still at war with each other and have been since 1948, which is why negotiations over their respective claims to these 860 sq km of the Mediterranean Sea are being conducted through a US intermediary.
Lebanon last week warned Israel against what it called “aggressive action” in disputed waters, referring to the Karish gas field. President Michel Aoun declared that any activity in the disputed area would amount to an act of aggression and a provocation, while Prime Minister Najib Mikati flexed his muscles by instructing his military command to keep him informed of any new developments.
One can hardly see the Israelis taking too much notice of threats coming from a very fractured Lebanese government, but the more explicit warning by the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, that his organization “has the capacity to prevent the enemy from beginning to extract from Karish, and all the enemy’s actions will not be able to protect this ship,” will have been responded to with all the necessary caution.
As a rule of thumb, despite the dwindling power of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, or maybe even because of it, Israel is never complacent in the face of threats originating from that source. Regardless of how accurate Israel’s intelligence may be about Hezbollah’s intentions, and even though the organization’s leader has been living in hiding since 2006, the historically fraught relations between the two and the fact that Hezbollah is, to a large extent, the spearhead of Tehran’s confrontation with Tel Aviv dictates extra caution when such threats are aired.
There are aspects of this Israeli-Lebanese border dispute that epitomize the nature of relations between the two countries and which hinder their ability to constructively communicate. First is the fragility of both political systems, although in this case it is Lebanon’s that is stalling a possible solution; and second is the asymmetrical power balance between the two countries. Furthermore, it is not only the maritime border dispute that has yet to be settled, but also the land border, which has not been agreed upon for more than 70 years.
An investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz concluded that, despite Lebanon’s claim that Israel violated its maritime sovereignty and “invaded its marine resources” by stationing the Karish gas platform in its current position, its location is not in the disputed area. If this is so, the dispute should amount to no more than a storm in a teacup. However, the history of relations between the two countries shows that well-established facts play only a secondary role in their perceptions of each other’s behavior.
The discovery in recent years of huge natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean provides, on the one hand, a great opportunity to boost the economies of countries in this region. But on the other, considering the geopolitical tensions between some of them, including Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Syria, in addition to Israel, Hamas-controlled Gaza and Lebanon, this underwater bonanza is more likely to exacerbate existing strains between these countries, rather than encourage cooperation and enable them to put aside old rivalries.
It is estimated that the Lebanese offshore oil and gas reserves are worth about $250 billion, which is about eight times the country’s gross domestic product in 2020. However, translating this potential into hard cash requires considerable investment — an injection that would be justified by current energy market conditions — but the Lebanese government does not have the necessary resources and foreign investors might consider it too risky to partner with a country whose domestic and international affairs are extremely volatile.
Israel’s decision to expand its drilling in the Mediterranean is equally a source of worry from a climate change perspective and represents the detrimental impact of the current energy crisis on the climate change agenda. Only a few months ago, its government decided to freeze moves to further expand its gas fields in order to meet the commitments of its green policies. Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine is changing the calculus between the urgent need to replace Russian energy supplies and the drive to go greener and develop renewable energy resources.
Consequently, Israel and Egypt last week signed an agreement with the EU to boost gas exports to Europe. The situation is particularly alarming in a region that is one of the worst-affected by global warming, the results of which are predicted to lead to conflict with consequences never seen before.
In the meantime, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser on energy security at the US State Department, who has been mediating between the two neighbors, rushed to Beirut in an attempt to ease the tensions between Lebanon and Israel. For the sake of both countries, this maritime border dispute must be resolved without another round of violence. Lebanon can then take its first steps into the energy market. But the fragility of its society and political system, and the damaging role Hezbollah plays in it, means there is always the possibility that such a disagreement might still turn into a military conflict.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg