Does the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border agreement have any gas left in its tank?

drilling rig 444555

Historical Background

Think of someone you disagree with the most — maybe you have even scuffled once or twice — and now you two must sit in a room together and agree on something. Even if you do succeed, how easily could this agreement be broken? That is the story of Israel and Lebanon.

However, the two countries have had cordial relations in the past. In 1949, Lebanon was the first Arab League country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel after the War of Independence. Lebanon did not take part in the Six-Day War in 1967 or the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Furthermore, the Lebanon-Israel border was peaceful until the early 1970s. The initial relations between the two were friendly, with Israeli students studying at the American University in Beirut and Zionists and Maronites working together to build their power against the Arab-Muslim world.

During World War II, Lebanese Zionism weakened due to French and British occupation of the country, which boosted the pro-Arab camp led by Bechara El Khoury. This camp believed peace was preferable to conflict between Arabism and Islam. In 1943, Lebanon gained independence, and El Khoury was elected president, leading to a negative popular attitude towards Israel in the years to follow. After Israel’s declaration of independence, Arab countries declared war and prepared forces to fight, but Lebanon, under El Khoury, only declared itself a belligerent instead of invading. Lebanon helped Arab armies and the Salvation Army in the south, as per the partition plan, which would share most of Lebanon’s southern border with an Arab country.

The armistice agreement between Lebanon and Israel didn’t specify the international border and relied on the border established during the British and French mandates in Syria and Lebanon. Israel conquered 14 villages and occupied Rosh HaNikra in Lebanon, but the Jewish population in Lebanon still grew after the establishment of Israel, unlike in other Arab countries.

In 1970, after the events of Black September, Palestinian terror groups established themselves in southern Lebanon, taking advantage of the weak Lebanese government, and carried out attacks on northern Israel.[1] They also participated in the 1975 Lebanese civil war. To secure access to Beirut’s banks and port, Syria invaded Lebanon to stop the fighting and first targeted Palestinians, but later turned against Christians.[2] In 1978, after a Palestinian attack on Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) forces occupied southern Lebanon in Operation Litani. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was deployed to mediate between the terror groups and Israel, and IDF withdrew. The terror groups then obtained Katyusha rockets and 130 millimeter cannons, which they used to attack Israeli civilians.[3]

1982 Lebanon War (Also known as “The 1st Lebanon War” and/or “The Invasion”)

In the four years since the occupation of southern Lebanon, the terrorist organizations attacked Israeli citizens. These attacks ultimately led to the first Lebanon war in 1982, resulting in the expulsion of the PLO from southern Lebanon to Tunis, destruction of its infrastructure, and seizure of weapons by the IDF. The war also gave rise to the Iranian and Syrian backed Shiite organization, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, with the goal of violent resistance against the Israeli occupation.[4]

On May 17, 1983, Israel and Lebanon signed the May 17 Agreement, which aimed to end hostilities and regulate relations between the countries while respecting each other’s territorial borders. The agreement called for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory and a Lebanese commitment to prevent terror acts on its soil.[5] However, the agreement was violated in February 1984 due to the breakdown of the Lebanese army, Syria’s refusal to withdraw forces, and Arab opposition to recognizing Israel. As a result, the Lebanese government cancelled the agreement on March 5, 1984.[6]

Post-War Period and the 2006 Lebanon War (Also known as ”The 2nd Lebanon War” /“The July War”)

In the 1990s, Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon led to growing dissatisfaction, leading to a complete withdrawal of IDF forces on May 24, 2000. This ended 22 years of occupation.[7] The SLA collapsed, and 6,000 members and their families fled.[8] With the withdrawal of Israeli forces, calls for a review of the presence of Syrian forces, estimated at 25,000, increased.[9]

After the withdrawal, terror attacks against Israeli citizens resumed with the Second Intifada, a violent Palestinian uprising that escalated the conflict to a level not seen in decades, causing thousands of casualties on both sides.[10] On October 7, 2000, Hezbollah kidnapped three soldiers and Elhanan Tannenbaum was lured to Dubai and kidnapped.[11] In 2004, Ariel Sharon released 400 prisoners in exchange for Tannenbaum and the bodies of the soldiers which inspired further attempts to kidnap IDF soldiers as bargaining chips.[12] On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah attacked IDF vehicles, kidnapped two soldiers (Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev), thus sparking the Second Lebanon War.[13] Since then, there have been no major conflicts due to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, siding with Bashar-El-Assad.

Maritime Border Dispute Background

The Israel-Lebanon maritime border negotiations began on Oct 14, 2020, and led to the first agreement negotiated between the two countries since 1983.[14] The agreement defined the demarcation of the exclusive economic zone and territorial waters, preserving the eastern five kilometers (the “buoyed line”) status until the land border is settled. The prior dispute between Lebanon and Israel centered around the maritime border location, both claiming exclusive economic rights to a 330 square kilometer triangular buffer zone and claiming natural gas reserves.[15]

The 1982 Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as 22 kilometers from the coastline.[16] The maritime area north of Rosh HaNikra, Israel’s northernmost coastal town, is Lebanese territory, while the same area south of it is Israeli territory. An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) allows a state to use natural resources such as gas, oil, and energy production up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline.[17] The dispute between Israel and Lebanon concerned the size of the angle along which the border line would extend from the edge of their temporary land border into the sea, mainly impacting the area of economic waters.

In 2007, Lebanon and Cyprus signed a maritime agreement that had six provisions, but it wasn’t submitted to the UN or made official. The southernmost point in the agreement was stated to be subject to change. In 2010, Israel signed a similar agreement with Cyprus that marked the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon starting at the aforementioned point. However, Lebanon disagreed and submitted a proposal to the UN, which included an 860 square kilometer strip more than what Israel proposed.[18] This difference in opinion arose as Lebanon believed the border should be determined according to the Law of the Sea, not Israel’s agreement with Cyprus. Both Israel and Lebanon submitted their versions to the UN in 2011 but could not reach a compromise from 2011 to 2021.

The dispute over the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel has been reignited due to the discovery of natural gas reserves in Israel, as well as Lebanon’s energy crisis. The negotiations were conducted indirectly and took place at the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura, following three years of preparation and amidst various crises in Lebanon, including the explosion in Beirut’s port, the economic crisis, and ongoing protests.

Determining Maritime Borders

The determination of a maritime boundary involves considering several factors, and there are three recognized methods for doing so. The first method involves projecting a perpendicular line (90 degrees) from the coastline.[19] In 2000, Israel adopted this method unilaterally and established a 5 kilometer-long line of yellow buoys protected by the Navy.

The second method, adopted by the UN to represent the Lebanese position, involves continuing the land border line into the sea. However, this created a triangle of disagreement because the westernmost section of the land line turned west at 270 degrees.[20]

The third method, known as the “median method,” was proposed by the United States during its mediation efforts between Israel and Lebanon. This method is based on drawing a median line between the two countries, where each point has an equivalent value from the nearest points on the lines of origin. This method is preferred according to international law but can result in slight differences in measurement.[21] The dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the location of this line resulted in a much smaller triangle of disagreement compared to the first method, as both parties agreed to adopt the median method years before reaching an agreement in 2022.

The Negotiation

In the maritime border negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, General Joseph Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese army, initially demanded an additional 1,430 square kilometers of the economic waters of Israel.[22] This demand was based on the continuation of the border marked between Great Britain and France in the Paulet-Newcombe Agreement of 1923.[23] This claim of ownership would include the Karish gas field, which is owned by Energean. Israel refused to negotiate over areas south of the disputed area.

After three rounds of negotiations in November 2020, the talks were halted. After a period of inactivity, the Lebanese government announced in April 2021 that they were annexing all of the disputed territories, despite Israel’s opposition.[24] Two weeks later, negotiations resumed, but they were stopped again in May 2021 due to a conflict between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip.

After several months, the negotiations resumed in January 2022 with the appointment of a new American mediator, Amos Hochstein. Hochstein believed that there was a window of opportunity until the elections in Lebanon in May 2022, and he worked towards finding a solution. However, the emergence of the Karish rig, a natural gas platform located off the coast of Israel, and Hezbollah’s launch of drones towards the rig which were intercepted by the IDF, reignited the tension.[25] Nonetheless, Israel maintained its stance that gas production from Karish would commence regardless of the negotiations.

The American mediator’s proposal in September 2022, which attempted to resolve the dispute over the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon, sparked renewed hope for a resolution. After several rounds of discussions, both parties agreed to several key points in principle. During the UN General Assembly meeting, American mediators held separate discussions with both sides and presented an outline for marking the maritime border. The outline was eventually presented in a final version, which determined the “buoyed line” as the beginning of the border and its continuation based on line 23 proposed in 2010 at the UN. This agreement was deemed permanent and marked the end of the conflict over the disputed maritime area. The agreement also regulated the development of cross-border gas reservoirs in the area and ensured that any future disputes would be resolved with US assistance. An international corporation was designated to be responsible for paying Israel for its share of the reservoir, with strict requirements to ensure that the corporation would not be subject to international sanctions, harm US aid, or be an Israeli or Lebanese corporation.

On October 27, 2022, the then President of Lebanon Michel Aoun, and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, signed an agreement on the disputed maritime border between their countries. The agreement, presented by American mediator Amos Hochstein, was signed at a ceremony at the UN base in Naqoura and officially submitted to the United Nations.[26]

Winter is coming!

The demand for natural gas worldwide has risen, particularly in Europe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a global supply shortage, as Russia is a major natural gas exporter and accounts for almost 45% of the natural gas imported to Europe.[27] The shortage of natural gas in Europe has become severe, with only 74% of working gas in storage, compared to 94% the previous year.[28] Europeans need to heat their homes during cold winters, but as they phase out coal, there is a higher demand for natural gas, which combined with a shortage has caused a surge in prices. If Israel and Lebanon start extracting and producing energy from Lebanese the Qana and Karish gas fields, they have the potential to resolve the energy shortage in Europe and make significant financial gains.

For Israel, the agreement and safe development of the Karish field could reinforce its position as a clean energy leader, as it already has an estimated 1,000 BCM of natural gas.[29]

In Lebanon, the financial aspect of the agreement is crucial. The country is in the fourth year of an economic crisis with no end in sight. GDP has dropped to $20.5 billion in 2021 from $55 billion in 2018; the Lebanese pound has lost 95% of its value, causing prices to soar and destroying purchasing power; 80% of the population is now considered poor; and banks have frozen depositors out of dollar accounts. The government estimates financial losses at $70 billion, expected to increase if the crisis goes unaddressed. Many Lebanese people, including doctors, have emigrated in what has become the largest exodus since the civil war. Hospitals are operating at 50% capacity and 40% of doctors and 30% of nurses have emigrated or are working part-time abroad. Shortages in power and fuel, along with soaring prices, have made daily life difficult.[30] The Sidon-Qana gas field, which belongs to Lebanon, could contain up to 100 BCM, making this agreement to develop clean energy and export natural gas potentially transformative for the economy. [31]

Political Instability

Both Israel and Lebanon face political instability which may hinder the implementation of the natural gas exploration agreement. Israel has had recent political turmoil with five elections, three different prime ministers, and an indictment against a former prime minister. Despite being politically powerful, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to form a government, leading to a coalition of smaller parties opposing him. The then elected Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, served a two-year term rotating with another six-month term served by Yair Lapid. Since then, the situation in Israel, with the newly proposed judicial reform, has deteriorated and reached an extreme point as demonstrations are held on a biweekly basis and disrupt the peaceful day-to-day of Israeli citizens.[32]

The situation in Israel regarding the Maritime Border Agreement signed by former Prime Minister Lapid has become uncertain with the election of Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Upon the signing of the agreement, Netanyahu expressed his concern by calling it a “historic surrender.” And claimed it will be “neutralized.” This raises concerns about the future of the agreement and its implementation under Netanyahu’s leadership.[33]

In Lebanon, the political climate is more uncertain and could pose a risk to the implementation of the Maritime Border Agreement signed by Israel and Lebanon. The former President, Michel Aoun, resigned and the country has yet to elect a new President after multiple rounds of elections.[34] Members of the parliament have expressed concerns and criticism about the agreement, and the identity of the elected officials could also pose a threat to its implementation. The political instability in Lebanon adds to the uncertainty about the future of the agreement and its successful implementation.

Lebanese journalist Mohamad Barakat claims that this is a normalization agreement for Hezbollah:

“If any of us dare express criticism that is deemed out of place by someone, we would be immediately blamed for cooperation with the enemy, but that does not stop them [Hezbollah] from making a deal with the Israelis. This is the height of audacity; one side is making an agreement with Israel while accusing other people of cooperation.”[35]

Paula Yacoubian, former journalist and TV host and a current member of the Lebanese parliament, is a main critic of the deal. Yacoubian claims that it is her country’s defeat, and that the agreement must be submitted to parliament for approval, as follows:

“The Israelis received the treasury, and we were left with a lottery ticket… Today, instead of Lebanon examining how to receive compensation from the Karish gas field, we are those who must provide compensation from the Qana field…. This is due to this weak deal. We do not know for certain what there is in Qana, compared to Karish in which there is definitely gas. What we will receive according to the agreement, is unknown and unsure… This agreement is a deal made by someone who has been defeated, the reality of fixing the maritime border is a bitter one.”[36]

Samy Gemayel, a Christian parliament member in Lebanon and a known critic of Hezbollah, expressed agreement with the need to establish a clear border between Lebanon and Israel through the Maritime Border Agreement. However, he mentioned that the timing of the agreement was convenient for Hezbollah and expressed his intention to help the government not fulfill its obligations derived from the agreement.[37]

Conclusion

The Maritime Border Agreement between Israel and Lebanon, signed on October 27, 2022, is a significant diplomatic and economic achievement, but its implementation is facing numerous obstacles. Political instability and uncertainty in both countries, as well as opposition from some parliament members, could pose threats to its success. It may live up to its potential, surpassing previous agreements in its success. However, given the historically financial irrationality that which characterizes the tense and emotional relationship between the two nations, and the unstable political leadership on both sides, you can count me among the sceptics.


[1] Black September (also known as the Jordanian Civil War) is a nickname for the struggle that took place between the Jordanian army and Palestinian organizations (which were organized in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO), from September 1970 to July 1971.; Fisk, Robert. 2002. Pity the Nation : The Abduction of Lebanon. New York Thunder Mouth Press. p. 74.

[2] Carter, Terry, Lara Dunston, and Andrew Humphreys. 2004. Syria & Lebanon. Footscray, Victoria ; Oakland, Ca: Lonely Planet Publications. p. 31.

[3] Cooley, John K. 1984. “The War over Water.” Foreign Policy, no. 54:3.

[4] Robinson, Kali. 2022. “What Is Hezbollah?” Council on Foreign Relations. May 25, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-hezbollah

[5] Kelly, James. 1983. “A House Divided.” Time. August 8, 1983. https://web.archive.org/web/20070930093214/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,955173-1,00.html

[6] Database, E. C. F. n.d. “Israel-Lebanon Treaty (1983).” https://ecf.org.il/issues/issue/183

[7]Eisenberg, Laura Zittrain. 2000. “Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?: Israel and Lebanon after the Withdrawal.” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 3. September 2000, p. 17. https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/olj/meria/meria00_eil01.html

[8] Id. P. 24.

[9] Id. P. 26.

[10] Pressman, Jeremy “The Second Intifada: Background and Causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”. Journal of Conflict Studies 23, no. 2 (2003) : 114–141. https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/jcs/2003-v23-n2-jcs23_2/jcs23_2art07/

[11] The International Coalition of Missing Israeli Soldiers. http://www.mia.org.il/tannenbaum.html

[12] “Mid-East Prisoners Welcomed Home,” News.bbc.co.uk. January 29, 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3442719.stm

[13] “Israel/Lebanon: Hizbullah’s Attacks on Northern Israel.” 2006. Amnesty International. September 13, 2006. https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/mde020252006en.pdf

[14] Stocker, James P. 2020. “Putting out to Sea: What the History of Lebanese-Israeli Negotiations Can Tell Us about Current Negotiations over a Maritime Boundary.” War on the Rocks. November 13, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/11/putting-out-to-sea-what-the-history-of-lebanese-israeli-negotiations-can-tell-us-about-current-negotiations-over-a-maritime-boundary/

[15] Henderson, Simon. 2021. “Lines in the Sea: The Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Dispute.” The Washington Institute. May 3, 2021. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/lines-sea-israel-lebanon-maritime-border-dispute

[16]  Churchill, R. R.. “Law of the Sea.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 11, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Law-of-the-Sea

[17] Metych, M.. “exclusive economic zone.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 25, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/exclusive-economic-zone

[18] “Cyprus-Lebanon, Cyprus-Israel Offshore Delimitation.” 2012. MEES. September 28, 2012. https://www.mees.com/2012/9/28/op-ed-documents/cyprus-lebanon-cyprus-israel-offshore-delimitation/f994d750-6d1a-11e7-9675-d5a0b0510107

[19] United Nations. Division For Ocean Affairs And The Law Of The Sea. 2000. Handbook on the Delimitation of Maritime Boundaries. P.56. New York: United Nations. https://www.un.org/depts/los/doalos_publications/publicationstexts/Handbook%20on%20the%20delimitation%20of%20maritime%20boundaries_Eng.pdf

[20] Id, p. 57.

[21] Id, p. 47.

[22] Haboush, Joseph. 2022. “Lebanon, Israel ‘Narrowing Gaps’ towards Deal on Maritime Border: US Diplomat.” Al Arabiya English. February 9, 2022. https://english.alarabiya.net/News/middle-east/2022/02/10/Lebanon-Israel-narrowing-gaps-towards-deal-on-maritime-border-US-diplomat

[23] League of Nations Treaty Series, Vol. 22, N°565, pp. 363-373. https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/LON/Volume%2022/v22.pdf

[24] Zaken, Danny. 2021. “Israel and Lebanon to Resume Maritime Border Talks – Report.” Globes, April 29, 2021, sec. News. https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-israel-lebanon-to-resume-maritime-border-talks-report-1001369332#!

[25] Orna Mizrahi, Yoram Schwietzer, David Siman-Tov, Launching Drones at the Karish Gas Field: Hezbollah’s Message to Israel and to the Lebanese”, The Institute for National Security Studies, July 3, 2022. https://www.inss.org.il/social_media/launching-drones-at-the-karish-gas-field-hezbollahs-message-to-israel-and-to-the-lebanese/

[26] Staff, ToI, and AFP. 2022. “‘A New Era’: At Border Ceremony without Handshakes, Israel-Lebanon Deal Takes Effect.” Times of Israel, October 27, 2022. https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-border-ceremony-without-handshakes-israel-lebanon-agreement-goes-into-effect/#:~:text=Israel%20and%20Lebanon’s%20landmark%20maritime,by%20the%20Hezbollah%20terror%20group.

[27] Yuksel, Firdevs, “All Eyes Turn to Russia’s Share of EU’s Gas Imports.” Anadolu Agency, July 29, 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/economy/all-eyes-turn-to-russias-share-of-eus-gas-imports/2647905

[28] “Why Is There an Energy Crisis in Europe?” Euronews. February 3, 2022. https://www.euronews.com/2022/02/03/europe-s-energy-crisis-why-are-natural-gas-prices-soaring-and-how-will-it-affect-europeans#:~:text=A%20record%2Dhigh%20increase%20in,841)%20a%20year%20from%20April.

[29] Karish, Energean Official Website. https://www.energean.com/operations/israel/karish/?__cf_chl_tk=qsppgPwOROw3BhGs3EYs_QxtM9718UrhpJs9Z6N_pao-1680894974-0-gaNycGzNClA

[30] “Factbox: Just How Bad Is Lebanon’s Economic Crisis?” Reuters, September 14, 2022, sec. Middle East. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/just-how-bad-is-lebanons-economic-crisis-2022-09-14/#:~:text=*%20Gross%20domestic%20product%20plunged%20to,in%20the%20import%2Ddependent%20country.

[31] According to the agreement, Israel is entitled to 17% of profits from the Sidon-Qana gas field; Danny Zaken, “”Sidon-Qana gas field could contain 100BCM”, Globes, October 28, 2022. https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-sidon-qana-gas-field-could-contain-100-bcm-1001428180#:~:text=If%20the%20Sidon%2DQana%20field,(at%20least%20470%20BCM).

[32] “Israel’s political instability is putting the nation in danger – editorial”, The Jerusalem Post, September 13, 2022 – https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-716983; Natasha Turak, ”Huge Uncertainty’ for investors and economy as Israel’s government pushes for controversial reforms”, CNBC, March 1, 2023. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/01/israel-judicial-reforms-protests-against-netanyahu-risks-to-economy.html

[33] “Netanyahu wants to neutralize maritime border agreement with Lebanon”, The Cradle, October 31, 2022. https://thecradle.co/article-view/17614

[34] Mustafa Fahs, “Lebanon, Filling the Vacuum to Suit the Clique”, Asharq Al-Awsat March 10, 2023 – https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/4204226/mustafa-fahs/lebanon-filling-vacuum-suit-clique; Patricia Karam, “A New Model for Presidential Elections in Lebanon”, Arab Center Washington DC, March 9th, 2023. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/a-new-model-for-presidential-elections-in-lebanon/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Lebanese%20Constitution,simple%20majority%20in%20subsequent%20rounds.

[35] Daniel Salami, “Critics in Lebanon Say Hezbollah recognizes Israel by acknowledging maritime deal”, Ynet News October  13, 2022. https://www.ynetnews.com/magazine/article/rkmj11qsqj

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

Author

roikantor@mail.tau.ac.il