In the midst of all the solemn reports that have come from Lebanon over the past few years, there is suddenly a chance for some good news that could alter the country’s current downward trajectory. Both Israel and Lebanon have sent signals that, after years of intermittent indirect talks to define their maritime borders, a US-mediated offer could soon get their seal of approval.
On Monday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted that negotiations to demarcate the country’s southern maritime borders had reached the “final stages” in a way that guarantees the nation’s rights to explore for oil and gas. Aoun — an ally of Hezbollah in the country’s bitterly divided political stage and whose term is about to end — would not have sent such a positive tweet without checking with his key supporters first.
On the other side of the disputed border, Israeli officials have hinted that a recent compromise proposal by US mediator Amos Hochstein regarding the exact route of the border in the Mediterranean Sea may be acceptable to Israel, even though, according to Tel Aviv, it leans more to the Lebanese side. According to Haaretz, the compromise proposal focuses on the so-called Line 23 — an intermediate line between the Lebanese demand regarding the location of the border (farther south) and the Israeli demand (farther north), albeit closer to the Lebanese demand.
A decade ago, Lebanon had accepted Line 23 as its maritime border with Israel. It has since insisted that its southern maritime boundary should include Line 29. Israel’s Karish gas field straddles Line 29 and is within a few miles of Lebanon’s Qana field. The maritime dispute has been going on for decades, but the discovery a few years ago of large quantities of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean’s waters has renewed claims of sovereignty over disputed boundaries.
Israel had announced that drilling would commence in Karish this month, only to receive direct threats from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the most recent of which was made last week. But while repeating his threats, Nasrallah appeared to be giving his blessing to an anticipated agreement. In his words, “Lebanon has a historic opportunity before it that won’t be repeated. It’s our own chance to produce oil and natural gas to deal with the economic crisis and our lives.” He later said that Israel would not start drilling in September but would instead prepare pipelines.
Ironically, the fact the two offshore fields are within striking distance of each other may work to assure mutual keenness to preserve stability. If Lebanon and Israel accept the amended Line 23 offer, then both will have great interest in preserving the tense peace along their borders. That alone is an achievement, especially for economically crippled Lebanon
The discovery of large quantities of natural gas has renewed claims of sovereignty over disputed boundaries.
The changes in position of both Israel and Lebanon are based on expediency, both political and economic. The US would have walked away if Lebanon had insisted on sticking to the Line 29 claim. That would have hurt both sides. Israel may not be able to exploit the Karish field for the time being, but it can continue exploiting other fields farther south. For Lebanon, a US withdrawal from the talks would leave it with nothing.
Aoun and Nasrallah both need to deliver some good news to an increasingly frustrated Lebanese people. Since the May elections, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been unable to form a new government and pass a state budget. Lebanon’s economic troubles are mounting, with the currency in freefall and essential services breaking down.
A maritime agreement may revive talks with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank over a financial bailout. It may even persuade Hezbollah to allow a new government to form ahead of the crucial upcoming presidential election.
Of course, Lebanon’s path toward finding, drilling, pumping and selling offshore oil and gas is long and risky. On Monday, the Lebanese government said it was interested in taking over a 20 percent stake in the consortium that is licensed to explore two oil and gas blocs after the Russian company Novatek said it was withdrawing. Reuters reported that, in 2020, the consortium, led by Italian and French companies, announced that it had completed exploratory drilling in Lebanon’s offshore Bloc 4 off the coast of Beirut and said it had not found a commercially viable amount of hydrocarbons.
So far, and unlike the Karish field, there are no proven hydrocarbon reserves in the Qana field either, according to experts. Initial surveys suggest that the field has “high prospectivity,” but one cannot be sure without conducting exploratory drills — something that has not been done so far.
But whether or not there is oil and gas, a deal with Israel could lead to a political breakthrough that Lebanon badly needs. It could reopen talks with international financiers and even pave the way for a compromise among Lebanon’s power brokers.
A maritime deal would also achieve border stability between the two countries, sending the message that, for now, Israel is the least of Lebanon’s problems.
Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010