Lebanon calls for US intervention in dispute with Israel over maritime borders
The arrival of the Energean Power has revived the issue. The vessel is ready to develop the Karish gas field on behalf of the Israelis. US envoy Amos Hochstein is expected next week. On the border question, Hezbollah leaves the field free to the government. The respective exclusive economic zones are at stake.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Dormant in recent months, the issue of the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel, which is the subject of indirect negotiations between the two countries under the aegis of the United Nations and the United States, is back in the news with the arrival in the region of the FPSO[*] Energean Power, a floating rig vessel, set to begin operating in the Karish gas field on behalf of Israel. The rig is expected to begin delivering gas in the 3rd quarter of 2022.
At the invitation of Lebanese authorities, US envoy Amos Hochstein, who is leading the negotiations, has been urgently recalled to Lebanon, where he is expected early next week.
According to US sources quoted in the media, Hochstein put negotiations on hold last October, noting that the Lebanese side was still undecided about the demarcation line between its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Israel’s. The EEZ demarcation file includes different lines.
Line 1 benefits Israel. Based on an error made in the early 2000s, it is now abandoned. Line 23, officially adopted in 2011 by the Mikati government by decree (6433), grants Lebanon an additional 860 km² compared to line 1, but this is contested by Israel. The Hoff Line, named after an American mediator gives Lebanon 60 per cent of the 860 km² of the area claimed by Israel. Line 29, proposed in 2022, grants Lebanon 1,430 km² in addition to the 860 km2 of line 23.
According to a source close to Lebanon’s president, “Lebanon has made progress on this issue, going beyond Line 23, but has not yet officially recognised Line 29," which has led to bitter attacks from its opponents. This requires an amendment to Decree 6433 and a claim to be filed with the United Nations.
So far, Lebanon has not made the necessary changes, merely sending an official letter to the Security Council on the matter, which is legally insufficient in the eyes of the United Nations.
At the President’s Office, everyone is aware that claiming Line 29, which covers part of the Karish gas field, would put Lebanon in direct confrontation with Israel, bringing negotiations to a halt for the foreseeable future, even though Lebanon is betting on gas to get out of its current financial impasse.
Faced with the fait accompli of the rig, Lebanon’s president and prime minister issued a joint statement, saying that all the work “of exploration, drilling or extraction by Israel in the disputed areas constitute a provocation and a hostile act”.
Yet, “everything points towards talks and, for the first time, all parties are demanding them," writes journalist Scarlett Haddad, who has close contacts in the President’s Office, in the daily L'Orient-Le Jour.
Although Energean Power has reached the Karish gas field, claimed by Israel, the vessel did not approach line 29 claimed by some Lebanese as the southern limit of Lebanon’s EEZ; “this was made clear to Lebanese authorities through discreet channels,” the journalist noted.
"Similarly," she added, "the main partner of the company that owns the vessel, the US giant Halliburton, has undertaken contacts to avoid any confrontation between Lebanon and Israel.”
For its part, Hezbollah has made it known through various public or backdoor channels that it stands behind the Lebanese government in this case, the cited source said.
It is up to Lebanese authorities to demarcate the country’s borders; once this is officially done, the Shia party will consider it its “duty” to defend them. Until then, it has no plan to express an opinion on any line, nor take part in any indirect negotiations with Israel.
According to an independent source, the issue of Mideast energy resources, like gas, is becoming a hot topic in the context of the war in Ukraine, especially with regard to Europe's energy needs. The outlook is favourable for a peaceful development of gas resources, experts suggest.
For her part, Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharrar, quoted by Reuters, on Monday said that the Lebanese claim was “very far from reality”.
Asked about the prospect of escalation, she noted: "We are not there at all. Really, such is the disconnect (between rhetoric and reality) that I do not believe they would take action."
Nevertheless, she added that her government “is making preparations (and) I recommend that no one try to surprise Israel.”
The United States has not yet issued any comment about the situation.
(Picture: Energean Power travelling through the Suez Canal)
[*] Floating production storage and offloading.