Israel-Lebanon negotiations: Is the maritime border the issue at stake?

AN ISRAELI military observation tower overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and part of the maritime border with Lebanon, is seen near Rosh Hanikra. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)
(photo credit: REUTERS)

American energy independence and Israeli natural gas findings have led to historic political opportunities for both America and Israel.

American energy independence and Israeli natural gas findings have led to historic political opportunities for both America and Israel.
The once-frozen position of the Arab League is slowly thawing toward Israel. Subsequently, historic peace accords with Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Sudan are signed, and many others are on the way.
The fear of a growing Iranian threat has led Sunni nations to soften their stance on rejecting Zionism. Israel and many (Gulf) Sunni nations have aligned with each other against the greater threat of Iran and its proxies (e.g., Lebanon/Hezbollah, Syria, and Yemen) to counter their destabilizing effect on the region (Iraq).
Though the trilateral maritime talks have been postponed (while the Americans continue negotiating with each side separately), their existence is noteworthy.
Weeks ago, negotiations began regarding the demarcation of the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon.
These negotiations are being mediated by the US (on behalf of the UN).
Given the number of undiscovered oil and gas fields in this area, compounded by Israel’s recent natural gas findings, these borders will set the terms of exploration for the coming decades.
Both Lebanon and Israel sold their rights to searching both the conflicted and surrounding areas. Lebanon sold these rights in 2017 to search the Block 9 area, of which a small portion is located in the area of dispute, to a consortium of the companies: Novtek (Russia), Total (France) and ENI (Italy). In addition, the rights to search Block 4, which is not in the area of dispute, were sold, and disappointingly, initial geophysical surveys have not indicated that this block has high potential.
It is commonly believed that a geological formation in Block 9 may contain an amount of gas like that of the Israeli Tamar gas field. Work in this block is expected to begin before the end of 2020. In general, gas drilling in Lebanon is seen to be extremely profitable given its proximity to land and its shallow depth.
Despite all of this, it is important to note that there has not yet been any actual drilling in Lebanon that verifies any oil and gas findings.
On Israeli side, in June of 2020, Israel’s Minister of Energy, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, announced a competitive procedure for gas and oil searches in Block 72 – part of which is located in the area of the dispute. Steinitz claimed that previous searches in the Block 72 area yielded a potential natural gas reservoir, geologically similar to the Karish and Tamar gas fields.
In addition to all this, Greek-British company Energean announced a month before the start of the negotiations that the potential of harvesting gas from the Karish gas field – located in Israeli territory although proximate to the border with Lebanon and north and west of Block 72 – is three times its original estimate.
The maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon stemmed from the different calculations of the angle of the border in relation to its vertex on the final point on land.
It also emanates from the disagreement on the location of the final point of land in the Rosh Hanikra area. This is just one of a few areas located on the Blue Line recognized by the UN after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, that – according to the Lebanese – are inaccurate.
Both countries submitted their versions of the maritime border to the UN, creating the “dispute triangle,” an area of 860 square kilometers, in which part of the Lebanese Block 9 and part of the Israeli Block 72 are located. The determination of the final borders can make a difference of hundreds of billions of dollars, over the course of several decades, in revenue from gas and the possibility of existent oil reservoirs in the area.
This prompts the question, why now?
Every attempt at peace with Israel has been quashed by the Lebanese.
The Abraham Accords and the new alliances with the Israel and Gulf nations only exacerbates the rift between Lebanon and Israel. Lebanon is in the midst of an economic crisis that has been worsened by COVID-19 and the August explosion in Beirut. While the country is in dire straits and in desperate need of economic support the International Money Fund has suspended aid to Lebanon out of fear that the funds will be misdirected towards terrorist activities.
Signing this technical agreement with Israel sends a message of goodwill to the world, while also offering an economic lifeline to Lebanon. Foreign aid and economic assistance are no small matter. While this is not a peace agreement, communication between institutions may just be the first step.
Hezbollah has been explicit that settling the maritime border dispute with Israel should in no way be seen as a sign of recognition of the “Zionist entity.” After all, these negotiations are not being facilitated by the Lebanese government because there isn’t a Lebanese government. Political and economic disrepair have empowered Hezbollah to gain control, thus these talks are being held by a close Hezbollah ally, President Michel Aoun.
Today, Hezbollah is not just another state within a state – IT IS the State. To many of Lebanon citizens’ resentment, Hezbollah controls its government facilities with no oversight. As such, any funds that Lebanon will receive from a potential agreement will bankroll Hezbollah and not its citizens.
Given these blurred political lines, the danger lies in empowering Hezbollah. Will a positive result of these negotiations yield an economic win for Hezbollah or for the Lebanese people? And if it is likely the former, how does it benefit Israel to negotiate in any way?
Israeli security authorities argue that an agreement will place restraints on Hezbollah. Lebanese oil interests will act as a deterrent in the region. Since for the first time, Hezbollah will have something to lose, especially considering that the flow of money has slowed from Iran. More so, an economically-sound Lebanon invites a level of stabilization for the country. If Lebanon is thriving, its citizens will be less receptive towards the destabilizing impact of regional terrorism.
On a geopolitical level, the maritime border negotiations are only the microcosms of conflicts between four superpowers fighting for influence in the Middle East, whether directly or via proxies: the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Jockeying for power is not a new development in the region; that said, this time they all have a shared interest in successfully demarcating maritime borders.
A deal such as this will help establish Russian influence in Lebanon. This is only bolstered by the Russian petroleum refining company, Rosneft, who purchased rights to oversee the oil terminal in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli for the next 20 years.
America has always had a vested interest in the region and is Israel’s closest ally. The US believes that this agreement will bring stability and lessen the danger of Hezbollah attacking the Israeli gas rigs – an obvious concern of American oil companies that plan to operate there.
Iran is also burdened with a deteriorating economy as a result of American sanctions, as such the Iranians see this agreement as a source of income for Hezbollah, in other words – a new income source for the Shi’ite Axis and the Iranian patronage.
On the Turkish front, Lebanon will be able to export gas to Turkey as well, or through Turkey to other countries in Europe, bringing dividends to President Tayyip Erdogan. This is all the more important as Erdogan has been unable to resolve the Turkish conflict with Cyprus to begin the construction of a pipeline transiting Turkey to Europe. This was only compounded by Israel reaching a deal for the construction of pipelines from Cyprus to Greece.
Geopolitics aside, the overarching theme is that economic stability will yield positive outcomes for the region. We are hopeful that should Lebanon be able to profit from its natural resources, over time, it will choose to emancipate itself from Iran. Alternatively, Lebanon can continue to exist as a proxy for Iran. The remote chance that these talks lessen the likelihood of that outcome makes them worthwhile.
However, Lebanon’s willingness to grasp this opportunity should not be misinterpreted as moderation. Israel must proceed with caution and not conflate these negotiations with the ongoing peace accords in the region and recognize it as the economic albatross that it is.
Until there is a drastic change in Lebanon’s outlook towards Israel – that indoctrinates its children with an ideology of hate and martyrdom – the ongoing Iranian threat to the region will still prevail. 
Lt. Col. (Res.) Sarit Zehavi is the founder and CEO of Alma Research and Education Center.
Fred Zeidman is cochairman of the Council for a Secure America, chairman emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and chairman of Gordian Group.

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