HomePoliticsAnalysisWasted opportunities

Wasted opportunities

With Lebanon’s maritime border back in the news, analysts say that military conflict with Israel is unlikely and it is crucial that the Lebanese government finds consensus in addressing this issue before time runs out.

Israeli navy vessels patrol in the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area at the border between Israel and Lebanon (Ras al-Naqoura), as indirect talks on maritime borders between the two countries, still technically at war, resume under UN and US auspices, on May 4, 2021. Photo: Jack Guez, AFP

On June 5, a floating production, storage and offloading unit belonging to the company Energean (listed in both Tel Aviv and London) arrived at the Karish gas field just off the coast of Lebanon and Israel.

The move immediately resulted in the Lebanese presidency warning the Israeli government against any “aggressive actions” in this supposedly disputed zone.

However, the Karish gas field technically does not lie within the area of Lebanon and Israel’s long-disputed maritime border zone, which is the crux of the issue for crisis-stricken Lebanon.

Negotiations between the two countries began over a decade ago, but no progress has been made on delineating where the maritime border is actually located.

The United States has been heavily involved in said negotiations, but this has not helped yield any results, and, considering Lebanon is not in any position to oppose Israeli gas exploration and drilling, time is of the essence for Lebanon’s highly-polarized political establishment to find consensus and stand up for the country’s territorial rights.

Analysts say that, at the end of the day, it really does not matter where Lebanon and Israel draw the line, as long as the Lebanese government manages to find an agreed-upon negotiating position and actually establish where Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel ought to be.

Lost opportunities

Lebanon and Israel have had unfriendly relations, to put it mildly, since the state of Israel’s establishment in 1948, with Lebanon participating in the first Arab-Israeli war.

However, the maritime border debate was not really present in Lebanese politics until the last 15 or so years, as Israel wanted to concretely delineate the border and it became apparent that there were natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut, outlined the origins of the controversy as beginning in 2000 when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon.

Following their withdrawal, Israel submitted a map to the UN in which the line designating the maritime border was far further north than it should have been, and, as Khashan put it, the Lebanese Army “foolishly” accepted it.

The issue was then reopened in 2007 when Lebanon attempted to determine the maritime border with Cyprus.

Dianna Kaissey, an advisory board member and former Executive Director at the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative (LOGI), told NOW that the negotiations with Cyprus were also carried out poorly and did not result in a meaningful agreement, as neither the Council of Ministers nor the parliament signed off on it.

Then again, in 2009, serious efforts to determine Lebanon’s maritime borders were undertaken, with the government asking the UK Hydrographic Office to look into the matter, eventually presenting a study, but it was ignored and never acted upon.

Around this time, Lebanon also created its own initiative to determine the maritime border, forming a committee made up of members of the Lebanese Army and experts.

This committee established line 23 in 2011, and it was sent to the UN as Decree 6433, but Kaissey said that the determination of this potential border made “no common sense,” as it was based on flawed pretenses. The main point of issue was Tekhelet, which is claimed by Israel and has been called an island, but Kaissey argued that it does not fit the legal definition of such.

Kaissey explained that, by definition, an island is a dry landmass that is either inhabited or could be inhabited, and Tekhelet is a rock, as it is wet and cannot be inhabited.

Between 2011 and 2013, the US sent Frederick Hoff to mediate negotiations, and he eventually came up with the Hoff line, dividing the disputed area, giving Lebanon around 500 sq km and Israel around 360 sq km, which Israel accepted.

However, Lebanon rejected the proposed compromise, and negotiations stalled, but, importantly, Lebanon did not contest line 23.

I want to see internal consensus, we all need to agree, everybody needs to agree, and it should be participatory, unanimous, and to the best of Lebanon.

Indeed, no serious actions were undertaken by the Lebanese government regarding this issue, save for the Lebanese Army forming its hydrographic department to study the Lebanese border.

Importantly, the line that is now referred to as line 29 was discussed around this time.

“There were several lines that were proposed, among them, was a line that, back then, they did not call line 29, but it’s the same coordinate as line 29 now,” Kaissey told NOW.

Line 29 establishes the maritime border further south, adding an extra 1,430 sq km to the already established 860 sq km disputed zone between line 23 and the initial line determined by Israel. Line 29 also encompasses part of the Karish gas field, thus giving Lebanon a partial claim to the gas within it.

Finally, in 2018, another study was released by the Lebanese Army saying that line 23 is wrong and the real border should be line 29.

The negotiations restarted in 2020, and Lebanon made line 29 its new negotiating position, which took the US and Israel by surprise, as they had not expected such a change. They responded, however, saying that since Lebanon itself had not officially declared line 29 to be the maritime border, it was not up for debate.

The negotiating team then asked to change the line internally, and make line 29 the official maritime border.

Everything seemed to be going to plan, as former Prime Minister Hassan Diab approved the change, and the adjustment was sent to President Michel Aoun, but at the last minute, Aoun refused to accept line 29.

Since then, negotiations stalled until the arrival of the floating production, storage, and offloading unit at Karish on June 5.

Now, Lebanon has requested for the current US negotiator, Amos Hochstein, to come to Beirut and try to renew talks and finally determine the maritime border.

More infighting and the threat of war

The current controversy had led to a variety of responses among Lebanon’s political factions, continuing the last decade of parliamentary squabbling.

Ironically, Hezbollah supports line 29 even if its presidential ally, Aoun, does not, and has said that it will intervene militarily against Israel if the Lebanese government asks for its help, while its affiliated media portray Hochstein as an Israeli agent who fought in Lebanon during its occupation of the South in the 1990s, regardless of whether this is true or not.

The Lebanese Forces seem to be less inclined toward line 29, with Samir Geagea, the party’s leader, sarcastically quipping that “all Lebanese have turned into experts in geography and cartography.”

The newly elected independent MPs have also supported line 29, with Melhem Khalaf, among others, showing his support for a maximalist approach.

Regarding Aoun’s refusal to accept line 29, the answer is quite simple: he wants to leverage Lebanon’s territorial rights for personal gain.

“He was willing to make a concession that, as far as line 29, provided the US would remove his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, from [the economic sanctions] list,” Khashan told NOW.

Indeed, the US sanctioned Gebran Bassil, the leader of Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), in 2020 for corruption under the Magnitsky Act. Aoun has sought to leverage his position to try and remove these sanctions, regardless of how likely that outcome may be.

His motive has not gone unnoticed, and Khashan added that even Aoun’s allies are likely not happy that he had done so, given their agreement that line 29 should be the negotiating position.

“Of course, they don’t want the Lebanese government to say that the Israelis have [gone too far] because Hezbollah does not want to fire a single shot against the Israelis because they know the [consequences] of provoking the Israelis into a confrontation.

Regarding the Lebanese Forces, Khashan indicated that their main motive for opposing line 29 was the lack of gains it would produce for them and their Christian constituency. Line 29 would only affect the oil fields in the predominantly Shiite south of the country, which is of little interest to the Lebanese Forces. Instead, Khashan pointed out that they would likely prefer to see gas exploration occur off the coast of predominantly Christian areas, such as those just north of Beirut.

There is also the issue that Hezbollah has said it is ready to go to war with Israel over Lebanon’s resources, with the party’s General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, stressing this point in a speech on June 9, but Khashan indicated that this was unlikely.

Nasrallah also indicated that “Lebanon’s losses in case of any war with Israel are nothing compared to the Zionist entity’s losses,” and the Greek company operating the ship that set sail for Karish is “fully responsible” for any material or human losses that could be inflicted upon the ship.

However, Khashan indicated that this sort of rhetoric was largely just for optics, and Hezbollah does not, in fact, have any desire to go to war.

“Hezbollah has always used the idea of defending Lebanese gas wealth in its EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] as one of its reasons for maintaining its military arsenal… Now, Hezbollah is coming up with a ridiculous play. They say, if the Lebanese government, that they control, tells us that the Israelis are [infringing] on our EEZ, we will do something about it,” he explained.

“Of course, they don’t want the Lebanese government to say that the Israelis have [gone too far] because Hezbollah does not want to fire a single shot against the Israelis because they know the [consequences] of provoking the Israelis into a confrontation,” he added.

One of Hezbollah’s pillars of legitimacy with its constituency is derived from “defending Lebanon and its sovereignty,” but, at the same time, it has no interest in fighting Israel, as that would have costs that are simply not worth it.

Importantly, though Hezbollah supports line 29, it would never support sharing Karish’s gas with the Israelis, as such a move would necessitate normalization or even peace with Lebanon’s southern neighbor. Peace with Israel would destroy a crucial, if not the most crucial, pillar of Hezbollah’s existence and delegitimize its armed struggle.

A need for consensus

Both Khashan and Kaissey agreed that, at this point, the Lebanese government just wants to reach an agreement, but Kaissey stressed that consensus is the most crucial aspect of Lebanon’s negotiating position.

“The Lebanese are ready to accept any agreement right now. By sending the ship to explore and start digging… Israel has called Hezbollah’s bluff,” Khashan told NOW.

Kaissey, who preferred not to speak about the details of internal politics, was more interested in accountability and a single Lebanese position.

We will go down in history as one of the worst cases taught in how not to handle… a country’s maritime borders.

Specifically, Kaissey made clear that the Lebanese people deserve answers to why the UKHO’s study was buried when it mentioned that line 29 was a viable legal argument.

“This is where the first accountability questions should start. In the same year, in 2011… the UKHO study was done and presented to the Council of Ministers, but it never saw the light,” she said.

Indeed, Kaissy indicated that the independent MPs were the most interested in investigating why the study was ignored. 

“There has to be a formal questioning by the only formal body that we now have that has the buy-in from the people: the parliament,” she added.

In addition to accountability, the next step is creating a unified negotiating position and actually coming to an agreement with the US and Israel.

“I want to see internal consensus, we all need to agree, everybody needs to agree, and it should be participatory, unanimous, and to the best of Lebanon,” Kaissy told NOW.

“They’re looking at us with wonder because, at the 11th hour, we are still internally struggling to agree on adjusting a decree that will put us back on the negotiating table, and now for the production to stop, and allow us to move forward in preserving what is obviously our right,” she added.

She went on to declare that Lebanon has essentially followed the worst possible way of dealing with this type of issue, saying that “we will go down in history as one of the worst cases taught in how not to handle… a country’s maritime borders.”

She concluded that it really did not matter what exact position the Lebanese government chose to follow, but she stressed that time is running out.

The Israelis will start pumping the gas from the Karish oil field in the next two to two and a half months, and, after that, Lebanon will essentially lose its claim to that area.

Lebanese politics’ fractious nature makes consensus difficult, especially given the current level of polarization in parliament. Regardless, it is absolutely critical that Lebanese politicians rise above their usual bickering and actually come to some sort of agreement that will help the country move forward.

David Isaly is a journalist and researcher with @NOW_leb. He tweets @DEyesalli.