Israeli - Lebanonese clash over maritime borders puts energy future at stake
by Fady Noun

The mediation work of US envoy Amos Hochstein continues to resolve disputed lines and strategic interests of the two countries. Washington wants to retain control of hydrocarbons in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean to the exclusion of China and Russia. The internal struggle ahead of the elections in Israel and the role of Hezbollah. 

Beirut (AsiaNews) - "Progress" has been made in the "indirect" negotiations concerning the dispute over gas extraction and the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel, but "there is still work to be done" before reaching an agreement, according to US mediator Amos Hochstein.

The special envoy and advisor to the US State Department on energy policies, was speaking at the end of a brief two-hour visit to Beirut, during which he met with Head of State Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Nagib Mikati, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry.

Hochstein's statement would be normal, if it did not come two years after the start of the US mediation in October 2020. And whose aim should be to reach an agreement to demarcate the maritime borders between the two countries. 

The mediation needs to reach a substantial conciliation on conflicting lines drawn in the past by Lebanon and Israel. This goal is complicated by the fact that Lebanon has sustained three different maritime borderlines over time.

A first line dates back to 2007 (Line 1), the result of negotiations with Cyprus, registered at the United Nations and recognised by Israel. Two years later, however, Beirut realised that this line was the work of unqualified personnel, and that the correct demarcation is the so-called Line 23, which the Lebanese essentially formalised in 2011 through Decree 6433 (see map). Lebanon therefore claimed the additional 860 square kilometres separating lines 1 and 23. 

Israel refused to recognise line 23. A mediation, initiated between 2010 and 2012 by Frederic Hoff, led to the drafting of an additional median line, renamed the 'Hoff Line', which grants Lebanon 55% of the disputed 860 sq. km.

Nonetheless, Lebanon has maintained an active demand to take control of the entire 860 square kilometres at the centre of the dispute. In November 2020, indirect negotiations with Israel opened in Ras Nakoura, under the joint supervision of the United States and the United Nations. When a new twist occurred in the middle of the mediation, with the Lebanese army producing a document stating that the true line demarcating Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)  is Line 29. It even grants Lebanon an additional 1,400 square kilometres of exclusive space. Strongly contested by Israel, this development put an end to the Ras Naqoura indirect negotiations (May 2021), which were replaced by the irregular 'shuttles' initiated by Amos Hochstein.

Two important deposits

The stakes are high, especially for an economically bankrupt Lebanon, because there are two important gas fields in the disputed area: Karish and Cana. However, the maximalist line renamed line 29 and drawn by the Lebanese army cuts off the Karish field, most of which is in Israel's EEZ, while the Cana field overflows into the area between lines 23 and 29, both contested by Israel.

It should also be noted that Lebanon, at least officially, does not claim any rights to the Karish field. On the other hand, it would like to benefit exclusively from the Cana camp, in accordance with a line that would be in practice a 'reinforced line 23'.

Moreover, Lebanon categorically rejects any prospect of joint exploitation of the Cana field, just as it does not want to provide any compensation to Israel in return for granting exclusivity over the field in question. In short, Beirut rejects any step that could be equated, from near or far, with collaboration or normalisation with Israel.

Hezbollah's threats

Tensions between Lebanon and Israel on this issue escalated with the arrival last June at the Karish camp of a gas extraction and storage platform, built for the Jewish state by the London-based company Energean Plc.

The prospect of the start of gas extraction activities at Karish, while the delimitation of the waters between Israel and Lebanon remains pending, prompted Hezbollah to issue a warning to the Israeli leadership.

Three Hezbollah drones, unarmed, were sent to the platform area. 'Rather war than starving to death', said Hezbollah's secretary general, in essence, convinced that it is actually the US that is holding the strings.

In response, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned on 22 August that a Hezbollah attack on Karish could trigger a new war between his country and Lebanon.

Then there is Hezbollah's further clarification that it remains bound, on the issue of the delimitation of maritime borders, to the official decisions of Lebanese institutions, which it does not claim and does not intend to replace in negotiations. 

At the heart of this conflict is, of course, the control of hydrocarbon wealth in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region. It should also be pointed out that Hochstein was part of the delegation that accompanied US President Joe Biden during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia in July this year. In an interview with the Cnbc channel, Hochstein himself confirmed that the US is moving to try to keep China and Russia away from the energy resources available in the region, while at the same time preparing for the energy transition to renewables as part of a process that, however, may take several decades to be implemented in practice.

This is why the immediate goal of US policy remains to free Europe from its exaggerated dependence on Russian gas, as became evident with the war in Ukraine, while at the same time keeping prices at the distributor at reasonable levels for the US consumer.

Resumption of the Naqoura talks?

However, it remains difficult to determine the status of Hochstein's mediation, the details of which are not yet known. "I have good feelings after what I heard today and after the discussions we had, although much remains to be done," said the US mediator after his meetings with the Lebanese authorities. For his part, Berry proposed the resumption of the Ras Nakoura indirect negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, under UN supervision, which were broken off in May 2021.

If this latter proposal is accepted, it could be important because it would ease the tension in the region, neutralising the threats made by Hezbollah against the Jewish state. The resumption of these talks would deprive the pro-Iranian party of any pretext to unilaterally attack Israel, should gas extraction from the Karish field begin before the official recognition by Israel (and the US) of Lebanon's rights to exploit its offshore wealth and the Cana field in particular. Under this scenario, the front-runners Total and Eni would make a declaration of intent for exploitation, which would be tantamount to an international 'green light' to the start of drilling in the Lebanese EEZ, as the government in Beirut wants.

But observers warn of possible surprises. One would be to drag out the mediation in order to allow Israel to gain advantages on the demarcation of the land borders between the two countries, particularly at the level of Ras Naqoura; the other would be to prioritise the general elections in Israel (25 October 2022, in theory) and use the mediation to increase the chances of the ruling coalition in the face of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud rivals. Although they may only seem like details, these two points must be followed closely, as well as a possible reaction by Hezbollah.