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Utilizing the Crisis: The Demarcation of Lebanon-Israel Maritime Borders

The conundrum of the demarcation of maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel has been recently stirred up following the arrival of the Energean Power floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel, owned by ENERGEAN PLC on the 5th of June 2022, to the disputed Karish offshore field.

This dilemma surfaces occasionally, but this time it comes under new international circumstances (the Russian-Ukrainian war), as well as domestic ones in the two countries, especially the approaching Israeli elections in November, and the presidential elections slated for the end of the year in Lebanon. Both parties are trying to utilize the issue of natural gas and boundary demarcation in a way that serves their own interests and achieves pre-elections political gains. 

The Conflict

The dispute between Israel and Lebanon over gas fields in the East Mediterranean has been ongoing since 2007. As explorations increased, maritime boundary demarcation became important for both countries. Israel demarks its maritime boundaries with Lebanon by a line that extends from the farthest land border point at a right angle with the shore. The disputed area is triangular in shape with an area of 850 sq km.

Indirect negotiations over maritime boundaries with US mediation spanned over a decade, and focused on the ownership of the natural gas findings in the disputed area. Negotiations then stopped, then resumed in July 2022.

The discrepancy in this dispute is a result of Lebanese institutions’ mistake in defining the line that marks the Lebanese south maritime borders. Lebanon has started maritime boundaries demarcation negotiations with Cyprus in 2007-2009, where border line number 1 was suggested to be considered, then when negotiations resumed in 2010, Israel insisted on that line, while Lebanon requested –upon revision– to consider line number 23, which is 860 square Km of territorial waters below Line 1.

The American mediators suggested –in 2012– through their envoy Fredrick Hoff to divide the distance between line 1 and line 23 equally, which gave 55 percent of the area to Lebanon and 45 percent to Israel. However, without giving reasons, the Lebanese government failed to agree on that proposal, and negotiations then stopped. 

Upon resuming the indirect negotiations in late 2020, the Lebanese delegation presented updated legal and hydrographic documents related to the Naqura maritime area, demanding line 29 (that includes additional 1430 square Km to the south of line 23). However, this request has not been officialized as Lebanon did not amend its decree # 6433/2011, which considered line 23 as the maritime border line with Israel from the beginning of negotiations.

As per Lebanon’s original requests and with respect to line 23, Karish field lies within the Israeli waters, while the new Lebanese demand for line 29 puts the northern part of it inside the Lebanese waters, which made it a subject of conflict. Lebanon now still has to amend its decree of maritime boundaries, the version that is recognized by the UN.

Israel rejects the new Lebanese request to consider line 29. In order to resolve the dispute, the two countries underwent 5 rounds of indirect negotiations with mediation of the American envoy Amos Hochstein. Meanwhile, Israel is working on developing the Karish field with ENERGEAN, through deploying floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel south of line 29. Karish field is expected to add 1.41 Trillion cubic feet of natural gas to Israel’s reserves, which is less than the other fields Liviathan and Tamar. Israel justifies its actions by saying that Lebanon has not officially demanded the area where the company works.

The negotiations had been discontinued in May 2021, but on June 5th, 2022, the rig Energean Power arrived to the Karish field which Israel claims to be within its Exclusive Economic Zone EEZ, while Lebanon claims to be located in a disputed zone, thus, the conflict erupted again. Lebanon considered the arrival of the rig to a disputed zone a provocative act.

Threatening by Hezbollah started to rise. Hassan Nasrallah vowed in July 2022 to send a drone to Karish location, the drone has been intercepted by the Israeli air forces. Israel threatened back through its Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Aviv Kochavi who announced that the Israeli army is fighting on 6 fronts and confronting numerous and various threats, and that the army has set a list of targets that will be destroyed inside Lebanon. The Israeli media confirmed the arrival of marine ships equipped with submarines to protect the rig, in addition to a marine version of the Iron Dome system. This raised fears of initiating a war over gas resources in the disputed areas, especially after Nasrallah statement that (All options are possible, and Hezbollah does not fear war).

Accordingly, President Aoun called for resuming the negotiations with the mediation of Hochstein who recently visited Beirut on July 31st. During that visit, Lebanon proposed a halfway solution in which it will demand line 23 against Israel renounces additional 80 square Km to the south of that line. This additional area puts the entire Qana area –sedimentary rocks that have unconfirmed gas reserves, north east of Karish- inside the Lebanese waters.

It is expected that Israel will accept that proposal according to which it will renounce around 400 sq km to the north of line 23 (which it was supposed to seize as per Hoff’s proposal 1n 2012), in addition to Qana. It is expected also that Israel demands a portion of the future revenues of Qana, or a regional compensation to the north of line 23, which means an S-shaped border line, and not a straight one.  

The Israeli response to Lebanon’s proposal is still not clear, but it is expected to reach some sort of solution rather than military confrontation. However, the predicament of differences between domestic Lebanese political forces remains. Those differences have hampered reaching a solution for the dispute as they do not adopt a single opinion regarding line 29. Some domestic suggestions talked about giving up total control on Karish to Israel, against the entire Qana field.

Moreover, the political instability in Lebanon and the continuous government change since 2019 demonstrations, which caused the border issue not to be a priority. Besides, rectifying the mistake in decree 6433/2011(which approved line 23 as a border line and has been sent to the UN) requires assembling the Lebanese cabinet, ratifying the decree by the president and re-sending it to the UN.  

While with the current situation in Lebanon, the economic crisis, political instability and the anticipated presidential elections, there are two scenarios: working through Hezbollah to make use of the current deal and finalize the demarcation agreement within the remaining short time ahead of the elections to achieve a political gain, or reaching an agreement after the elections that are expected to take place by the end of the year. 

As per Article 69 of the Lebanese constitution, the government is considered (resigned) from the start date of a new presidential term, hence, the current Najib Mikati government is an interim government, until a new president is elected, in addition, amending the 6433 decree requires a permanent government. 

On the other hand, parliamentary elections are to be held in Israel in November, which makes the boundary demarcation issue a playing card in the elections campaign. However, demarcation of boundaries and its gains for both parties becomes of great importance within the global context as well as the economic situation in Lebanon that makes it in need for its oil and gas wealth. 

Multiple Motives

In his interview with Al-Mayadeen channel in August 2022, Hassan Nasrallah said: All Israeli gas fields are vulnerable to our missiles, and not only Karish, there is no land or sea target that is not within the reach of Hezbollah accurate missiles. He also added: If oil and gas production commenced in Karish in September 2022, before Lebanon’s rights are guaranteed, we are going for confrontation.

Statements by both sides are meant to achieve several goals that can be explained as follows:

Restoring influence: Boundary demarcation issue represents a mean for the party to restore its influence after the decrease of its followers in the last parliamentary elections in May 2022. Hezbollah and its ally parties’ influence has retreated. In 2018 elections, they won 71 seats, while in May 2022; they won 61 seats (13 for Hezbollah, 15 for the Amal movement, 18 for the Free Patriotic Movement, 3 for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-ARF, 2 for Elmarada movement, 2 for the Projects Association, 3 for independents on the parties lists, and 5 for independent allies for Hezbollah but not on its lists).

As a result, the party considers the boundary demarcation subject a good opportunity to promote its domestic as well as external role through repetitive announcements to target Israel gas vessels and rigs, aiming to strengthen its image as resistance against Israel, and the concept that the party’s weapons are only for protecting Lebanon’s rights and integrity, in addition to backing Lebanon’s situation in the US-mediated negotiations.

Pressure in Regional Issues: Boundary demarcation subject represents a tool of exerting pressure by Iran in its nuclear negotiations, through utilizing its allies’ actions, threats to regional countries as well as the instability they cause to regional interests, in the way that helps it acquire more gains, and sends messages that Tehran possesses power to disturb progressions in the region, specifically the demarcation of Israel’s north borders with Lebanon, consequently, the natural gas that passes to Europe from the Middle East. In addition, In case Lebanon starts gaining revenues from its gas production, Hezbollah may become able to influence energy cost in the way that serves Iran’s economic interests, taking into consideration that Lebanon is an open field for multiple rival players.

Analysts believe that Nasrallah’s strong messages to Israel –at this specific time– as well as impeding any border agreement are as per instructions from the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his response to Israel’s attempts to hinder reaching an agreement by Biden’s administration with Iran to resume nuclear deal negotiations in Vienna.

It should be mentioned that the success of the nuclear deal negotiations means the return of the US to the deal from which it had withdrawn in May 2018. It also means lifting the economic sanctions on Tehran and enabling it to widely export its crude oil, especially that Hezbollah’s announcement of launching 3 drones towards Karish field coincided with the failure of the Doha mediation between Washington and Tehran to resume the nuclear deal, also because the current energy crisis –caused by the Russian war on Ukraine– serves Iran’s economic interests as the sanctions on Russian oil strengthens Iran\s chances to supply Europe with its oil.  

Intensifying explorations: As the current Russian-Ukrainian war reshaped the geopolitical map of the world, and emphasized the significance of the Middle Eastern natural gas as an alternative to Russia’s, countries work hard to benefit from the global context in energy, which means expediting the boundaries conflicts resolution, and settling disputes to allow benefiting from the oil and gas reserves, as well as more cooperation between Israel and East Mediterranean countries.

The United States Geological Survey Dept. estimates indicate that the Sham region in East Mediterranean contains around 1.7 Billion barrels of extractable oil, as well as 122 Trillion feet of gas; hence, Israel is eager to settle its border disputes and increase its gas production to export it to Europe benefiting from of the Russian-Ukrainian war. This comes after the recently signed memorandum between the European Union, Israel and Egypt on June 15th, 2022, to transport gas from Israel to be liquefied in Egypt, then shipped to Europe by sea, as Karish field secures huge gas reserves for Israel to export, however, not as much as Russian gas.

As for Lebanon, under a badly critical economic situation, settling maritime boundary disputes will allow more exploration, hence, exportation, which will reduce its imports and ease economic burden, and reflects positively on the interior. This has been clear in Nasrallah’s statement: “The US and Europe need oil and gas, Israel sees an opportunity, Biden doesn’t want war in the region … This is our chance to exert pressure in order to obtain our oil, Lebanon can get what it wants now, and not tomorrow”. 

Curbing the economic crisis: The energy crisis in Lebanon represents a huge obstacle in the way of agricultural as well as industrial sectors recovery. The severe shortage in fuel caused power outage all around the country, severe shortage in medications and medical services as well as national reserve drain, in addition to increased cost of importing basic needs, reduction in GDP to $20.5 billion in 2021 and reduction in the GDP per capita by 37.1 percent. The World Bank ranked the economic crisis caused by the daily power outage as one of the worst crises since 1850.

The gross debt in Lebanon reached 183 percent of GDP in 2021, which makes it the 4th highest debt ratio in the world, following Japan, Sudan and Greece. Moreover, the increased energy invoice due to the Russian-Ukrainian war, knowing that Lebanon imports oil and gas for $300 million annually, this has increased by $30 million.

Elections: Analysts refer President Aoun’s invitation to resume negotiations and his reluctance in amending decree # 6433, to the will of the presidential team to not consider line 29 (this means giving up around 1430 sq km of the Lebanese rich territorial waters), as his son-in-law Gebran Bassil is keen on facilitating reaching an agreement with Israel in order to persuade the US administration of lifting sanctions on Bassil which prevent him from running for president. 

In all, it is unlikely both parties will resort to war. They want to avoid direct confrontations that will cost them economic and military losses, especially with their intentions to benefit from the underwater treasures and export the surplus as the world faces a crisis due to the Russia-Ukraine war. 

It is likely, however, that the war of words between Israel and Hezbollah is meant to achieve their goals. Perhaps, deploying the rig to the field is a means to exert pressure on Lebanon to accelerate the negotiation process.        

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