Israel is preparing for its fifth war against Lebanon, as it believes that Beirut is not entitled to offshore natural gas deposits, allegedly falling outside non-demarcated maritime borders. This wild assertion is advanced allegedly because the 2007 marine boundary negotiations between Israel and Cyprus on the one hand, and those between Beirut and Nicosia separately, delineated offshore lines.
On July 10, the Israeli government approved an updated demarcation of its territorial waters along the border with Lebanon, and submitted fresh plans to the UN that expanded its naval boundaries by more than 1,500 square kilometres of what were essentially Lebanese waters.
Naturally, this drew the ire of several Lebanese officials, including President Michel Sulaiman, who warned Israel against “unilateral decisions” in the segregation of a shared maritime border. Energy Minister Jibran Bassil asserted that Beirut would not give up its nautical rights though the declaration was typically tangential since no one said that Lebanon was not entitled to its natural resources.
In fact, and legitimate criticisms of Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati’s government notwithstanding, there were no differences between the Hezbollah-dominated cabinet with the Sa’ad Hariri national unity government that was toppled last January. Both prime ministers adopted similar stands in the growing conflict over offshore gas reserves. Rather, the dissimilarity was political because Hariri enjoyed some western support, whereas Hezbollah lacks any.
That is why the dispute was bound to escalate as the Israeli proposed maps lay out sea borders that conflict significantly with those suggested by Lebanon in its own submission to the world body.
Even if Lebanese authorities somehow managed to draw persuasive charts that confirmed Lebanon’s rights in the Special Economic Zone, as announced by Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, Beirut was faced with a conundrum: how to dissuade Israel?
The quarrel is not minor as significant resources are at stake. Both Israel and Lebanon are energy dependant countries that must import oil and gas, which means that the two recent discoveries, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, could allow both to be self-sufficient and even enable them to export surplus production.
The Tamar field, laying approximately 90 kilometres off the coast of northern Israel, was the world’s largest gas find in 2009 while the Leviathan field, 45 kilometres farther out to sea, was said to be the largest deep water natural gas find in a decade. The Tamar field potentially contained 8.4 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas, while Leviathan was estimated to contain an additional 16 tcf of natural gas, half of which belonged to Beirut. In fact, because the Leviathan field is located about 130 kilometers northwest of the city of Haifa, at a depth of 1,700 metres, it was largely inside Lebanese territorial waters. This is why Israel decided to redraw the map to get a hold of its contents.
It thus behooves the Mikati government to remain vigilant and rise up to the dual challenges of avoiding a war with Israel while preserving Lebanon’s legitimate national rights. Despite his personal posture, both goals will require outside support, as Beirut must call in friendly chips in this high-stakes game, which are all found in the West.
Mikati and Bassil ought to know that Israel plans to establish a pipeline to Greece, from where it could export gas to Europe, which will further endear it to European governments and, more important, to ordinary people who need heat in cold winters. Needless to say that Lebanon ought to adopt similar ‘friendly’ plans towards Europe and the West.
Instead of considering such plans, Lebanon reportedly begun to explore its own undersea oil resources with Iran, which was bound to add to the country’s volatile conditions. Time will tell whether Mikati will preserve Lebanon or become the instrument of war that will set the country back by another few decades.
For now, and since the only internationally enforced accord between Lebanon and Israel is the so-called Blue Line that was drawn up by the UN after Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, a maritime settlement will not be easy to reach. Israel will thus advance the notion that the West and especially Washington ought to side with it and reject any Hezbollah contentions. Few should be surprised if the Obama administration, which is already in election-mode, sides with the Israeli interpretations — despite perfunctory declarations to prevent a flare-up of hostilities.
Today, Lebanon is confronted by an overlapping boundary question, which will require utmost attention if war is to be averted. Mired in interminable political squabbles that will never be resolved, Lebanon is wasting its time while Israel positions itself by fiat, further strengthening its international contacts that will automatically side with it.
Consequently, the time has come for Beirut to hire the world’s top lawyers to argue its case at United Nations fora, for the looming battle is beyond the writ of Oriental machinations that may work in underground bunkers but need to be argued in the open.
Either that or Lebanon should stop everything and prepare for the next war with its nuclear neighbour, a war that it cannot possibly win, and one that it need not contemplate.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.