By Arab News
By Diana Moukalled*
Israel is threatening Lebanon. There is nothing new about this statement, as conflict between the two countries has existed for decades, but the big change in the nature of the hostilities in the past few months calls for reflection. It seems as if Lebanon has entered a new phase of the conflict: Over oil and gas, not Jerusalem.
Historically, Lebanon has never been labelled as an oil-producing country, but 2017 was a remarkable year, as the Lebanese government called for bidding on five prospective maritime oil blocks, out of 10 it has earmarked, which prompted a swift Israeli reaction of threats and intimidation.
A few weeks ago, Israel openly threatened Lebanon and even advised international companies to refrain from drilling for fuel from block 9, which is opposite the Lebanese coastal town of Al-Naqoura, claiming that part of the block is in an area of which it claims ownership. The surface of the disputed area is about 860 square kilometers and came about because the historical conflict between the two countries didn’t allow the international community an opportunity to carry out official border demarcation. Each of the two countries has their own version of the maritime territories, but no borders have been officially recognized.
The Israeli threats were followed by an American intervention with the visit to Beirut of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He was preceded by his envoy David Satterfield, who also repeated his visit to Lebanon after Tillerson’s trip.
It is clear that the US is willing to revitalize an old proposal, known as the Hof line, in reference to the American mediator Frederic Hof, who worked on resolving the border conflict in 2012. His suggestion was to give Lebanon 60 percent of the disputed waters and Israel 40 percent — this was rejected by Beirut.
The main issue remains the possibility of increased tensions, especially now that the conflict over oil interferes with other dangerous military and political concerns, including those related to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hinted recently that this issue doesn’t need to be resolved in a rushed manner, declaring that the region is engaged in a battle for oil and gas and that Lebanon is inseparable from the region. Of course Nasrallah did not miss the opportunity to confirm that Hezbollah will negotiate, and maybe even fight for the oil.
So Nasrallah defined the rules of the game and nobody in Lebanon will be able to violate these rules. One sure thing is that Lebanon cannot take any decision that contradicts what was defined by Hezbollah. If this was to happen, it would only be in coordination with Hezbollah and would be for the purpose of triggering a new set of negotiations — potentially linking any stepping back with other concessions, such as putting decisions related to the oil and borders in the hands of Hezbollah and Iran. This would put this issue on the negotiating table and there is no real guarantee for safeguarding the rights of Lebanon in the marketplace of international politics.
With the Americans whispering that Lebanon has to abide by the Hof line if it is to preserve its southern-most oil fields — or it should forget about them if it refuses the plan — Lebanon may be forced to opt for international arbitration. This means that the issue would take a long time, delaying Lebanon’s admittance to the club of oil-producing countries.
It seems so far that the Americans aren’t able to give Lebanon what it wants, but they are seeking to avoid any escalation as they don’t want any more chaos in the region. The US administration doesn’t want any escalation in light of the ongoing war in Syria and its related conflict with Moscow.
Some consider Tillerson’s warnings against Hezbollah last week to be a response to Lebanon’s unwillingness to concede or negotiate. The message was sent to Hezbollah in particular, and through it to the Lebanese government.
In the absence of a green light for open war at this stage, Hezbollah and Iran are focusing on the outcome of the conflict in Syria in light of the clashes between international powers there. Hezbollah, with Iran behind it, is preoccupied with clearing a path from Tehran to Beirut via Damascus, and from Tehran to Southern Lebanon via the Syrian part of the occupied Golan Heights. In this context, Nasrallah included the Golan as an element in the war over oil and in saving this wealth.
Therefore, the resolution of the issue surrounding oil block 9 will be part of the agreement on Iran’s role and its area of influence in Syria. This is where the future mutual concessions will happen, without any guarantee that they will be in Lebanon’s favor.
*Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. Twitter @dianamoukalled