Lines in the Sea

How resolution of Israel and Lebanon’s maritime dispute could set a regional precedent

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Lines in the Sea
United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicles are stationed along the main road near Lebanon’s southern town of Naqoura close to the border with Israel on May 4, 2021, protesting against resumption of indirect talks on the demarcation of the maritime border/Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

For a few brief weeks in the autumn of 2020, Israeli and Lebanese officials met in Naqoura, Lebanon, a small border town nestled on the high cliffs overlooking the Eastern Mediterranean. Their goal was to find a solution to their decadelong maritime boundary dispute. Until that point, U.S. mediation efforts had failed to generate a face-to-face meeting between the two sides. But with the collapse of the Lebanese economy and government and the recent normalization agreements between Israel and the Persian Gulf States, there was cautious optimism that this round of negotiations would produce meaningful results.

Instead, talks petered out. Not only were the Israeli and Lebanese teams at odds over where negotiations should start, they couldn’t even look each other in the eye. Though the United States managed to bring the parties back to Naqoura in April 2021, the hiatus did little to soften the two sides.

In order to understand what went wrong, it is important to analyze the context of the meetings that took place and the developments that occurred between October 2020 and the present. The Israeli-Lebanese maritime boundary dispute isn’t simply about territorial claims but also economic and geopolitical interests. Identifying which of these three variables is driving the parties involved is the key to understanding whether negotiations will eventually resume or whether this corner of the Eastern Mediterranean will become more contentious.

Israel and Lebanon’s maritime dispute is a manifestation of deeply rooted territorial disagreements. The 1923 Paulet-Newcombe Agreement that demarcated the boundary between the British and French Mandates in the post-Ottoman era contained multiple inconsistencies that subsequently carried over into relations between Israel and Lebanon. Following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council produced documents intended to provide further clarification on the contentious border. But these efforts made little impact. Hezbollah, the radical Shiite political party and militia that has operated in southern Lebanon for decades and is today the most powerful actor in the country, has never recognized these agreements. As a result, the land border is still actively monitored by the Israel Defense Forces, the Lebanese Armed Forces, the U.N., and Hezbollah militia.

It was only in the mid-2000s, when international energy companies started to explore along the Levantine coast, that policymakers comprehended how an undefined border between two rival states could be problematic.

None of these aforementioned documents addressed the territorial waters and maritime boundary between the two states. It was only in the mid-2000s, when international energy companies started to explore along the Levantine coast, that policymakers comprehended how an undefined border between two rival states could be problematic. But unfortunately, as is the case in many maritime disputes, Israel and Lebanon utilized different demarcation methods to map out their respective Exclusive Economic Zones. Israel marked the border as being at a 90-degree angle from the coastline. Lebanon marked it as a continuation of the land border. To further complicate the situation, the two parties disagreed from which point on land the maritime boundary should be drawn. These differences produced a disputed area of roughly 860 square kilometers (533 square miles).

Recognizing both the risks and rewards of mediating between these bellicose neighbors, the U.S. offered its services with both eyes open. From 2010 to 2012, Ambassador Frederic C. Hof shuttled between the parties and presented a proposal that would divide the disputed territory in a ratio of 55 to 45 in Lebanon’s favor (commonly referred to as the “Hof Line”). According to Hof’s account of the negotiations in Newlines, Israeli and Lebanese negotiators were disappointed with the U.S. proposal but begrudgingly accepted that it may be the best available compromise. Hof asserts that if not for the collapse of the Lebanese government in 2013, the parties would have reached an accord.

It took nearly a decade for Israel and Lebanon to restart negotiations. During that period, multiple offshore hydrocarbon discoveries were made in the waters of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum — an international organization committed to advancing energy development and cooperation opportunities — was established by Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. In 2021, France joined the forum as a full member.

Because of its ongoing dispute with Israel, Lebanon would not participate in these processes and struggled to attract international companies to explore its waters.

Several factors, including chronic government mismanagement of resources, a growing Syrian refugee population, the U.S. sanctions regime on Iran and its associates in Lebanon, the coronavirus pandemic, and the tragic blast at the Beirut port, created a perfect storm that incentivized talking with Israel. Though optimistic about the prospects of discovering meaningful offshore reserves in Blocks 8, 9, and 10 (designated areas leased to companies for exploration) and then successfully commercializing them in the post-COVID-19 energy market, the logic of the caretaker Lebanese government was that resolving the maritime boundary dispute with Israel was the first step toward bringing foreign investment back to Lebanon.

Israel welcomed the opportunity to settle the matter. The maritime dispute with Lebanon had not adversely affected the development of Israeli offshore hydrocarbons — although Block 72 runs up against these contested waters — neutralizing the threat of a possible Hezbollah attack and delinking the maritime boundary dispute with the enduring land border disputes would create more room for Jerusalem to maneuver in the crowded Eastern Mediterranean.

Israel and Hezbollah are enemies, yet Lebanese stability is crucial to maintaining Israeli security interests. From the Israeli perspective, if the discovery of natural gas buoyed Lebanon’s floundering economy, all the better.

Despite these incentives, the parties were at odds over how to restart talks: Who should facilitate future negotiations, the U.S. or the U.N.? Should negotiations include maritime and land border disputes? Eventually, Washington managed to convince the parties to accept a formula where the two sides would meet face-to-face under the mediation of U.S. Ambassador John Desrocher and with U.N. sponsorship. In an effort to demonstrate their opposition to normalizing relations with Israel, the Lebanese team reportedly spoke indirectly to their Israeli counterparts sitting across the room.

The Israeli negotiation team (and possibly the U.S. mediators) assumed that the starting point for negotiations would be the 2012 Hof Line. But the Lebanese team quickly poured cold water on that notion, presenting instead a maximalist position that claimed an additional 1,430 square kilometers (887 square miles) including the territory where Karish, a natural gas field operated by Energean and containing an estimated 32 billion cubic meters, is located.

From the Lebanese perspective, the negotiations led by Hof should have relied on the legal precedent set by other internationally arbitrated maritime disputes and emphasized the relationship between the land boundary and the maritime boundary. Instead, “to avoid provoking a controversy over who owned what rock,” the U.S. team started drawing the Hof Line three miles offshore. In addition, Lebanese negotiators argued that Hof’s proposed compromise granted undue weight to a rock called “Tekhelet” located less than a mile from the Israeli coastline that shouldn’t have been taken into consideration when assessing the equidistant line between the two sides.

While this position might carry weight among international maritime legal experts, it was a dead end in the negotiations. Israel isn’t a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and therefore didn’t feel committed to a rigid interpretation of international maritime law. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who oversaw the negotiation process, called the Lebanese volte-face a “provocation” and tweeted to President Michel Aoun in Arabic that the two should meet in Europe in order to get things back on track. Steinitz has challenged Lebanon’s argument against the Tekhelet rock, citing that Lebanon has used similar land masses in identifying its maritime boundary with Syria.

Coincidentally, Lebanon’s northern neighbor is also driving a hard bargain. In March 2021, the Assad regime announced that it had signed a four-year contract with Russian energy company Kapital in two blocks that overlap with Lebanon’s maritime claims. The news triggered a flurry of Lebanese reactions. On April 1, 2021, Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party, called on the government to resolve the maritime dispute with Syria and warn Russia against operating in the disputed area. Furthermore, it was reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had a telephone call with Aoun, during which he expressed resentment at the criticism voiced in Lebanon against Syria.

The maritime dispute between Lebanon and Syria is no less complex than that with Israel. However, Lebanon is weighed down by the web of commercial and strategic interests that tie its competing political factions to Syria, Iran, and Russia. These considerations will likely force Beirut to make significant compromises on its northern maritime boundary. In light of the U.S. withdrawal from the region, Russia sees the Eastern Mediterranean — and the Levantine coast in particular — as a base from which it can project greater regional influence.

If decision makers in Beirut were mentally preparing to acquiesce to Syrian demands, then it helps explain why they adopted a hard line toward Israel, where there is no love lost and no strings attached. Just weeks before the resumption of talks, the Lebanese government discussed the possibility of changing resolution no. 6433 (which delineates Lebanon’s maritime borders) in order to include the maximalist positions recently brought forward by the negotiation team. U.S. Undersecretary of State David Hale met with Aoun reiterating the need for dialogue and reaffirming U.S. commitment to mediate “on the basis on which we initiated these discussions,” confirming the suspicion that Lebanon’s new position ran counter to the framework agreement arranged by Desrocher that enabled the recent round of talks. However, these efforts proved fruitless. When the negotiation teams met in April, the divide was still unbridgeable. It is difficult to predict if and when negotiations will continue.

There are several lessons to be gleaned from this episode. It was faulty to assume that the incentives that brought Israel and Lebanon together in 2020 were sufficient to deliver a comprehensive resolution to their maritime dispute. Compared to the past decade, conditions for direct negotiations were optimal, but too much time had passed since the Hof-led negotiations of 2012, and the positions of the actors reflected some of the changes that had occurred in the interim. Negotiating with Lebanon is particularly thorny due to the fragmented nature of Lebanese politics and the number of internal and external actors who can veto any progress. Lebanese stability may be an Israeli interest, but no maritime boundary agreement was going to guarantee something so indeterminate. After a long hiatus, it may have been wiser to ease into discussions gradually and set expectations for conduct within the negotiating room.

Relations between Israel and Lebanon will always be influenced by regional developments. While there is no evidence to suggest a causal link between the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on Nov. 27, 2020, and the postponement of direct talks, there has been a steady uptick in hostilities between Israel and Iran over the last few months in the maritime space and surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. Hezbollah may give the Lebanese government a green light to resume negotiations, but it is unlikely that an Iranian proxy will permit the sides to come to an agreement so long as regional tensions run high. Following the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas in May, it is fair to assume that Hezbollah will veto efforts to restart negotiations in the near future.

The recent news of a maritime dispute between Lebanon and Syria is also a reminder that the Eastern Mediterranean is an evolving geopolitical space, and once-dormant actors may soon return to the regional picture. The last decade of offshore exploration focused on Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus’ waters. But as the Syrian civil war reaches a relative degree of stability, international energy companies are likely to turn their attention to the northernmost corner of the Eastern Mediterranean. This means that Russia — the Assad regime’s protector — will begin to flex its muscles more assertively in regional affairs. Future negotiations between Israel and Lebanon should give serious consideration to Russian interests when trying to assess how to best reach an agreement.

The construction of a regional framework for cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean could further incentivize Lebanon to seek a compromise. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum is a nascent organization, yet membership within the gas forum could yield commercial dividends for Lebanon so long as a creative solution can be found around its opposition to Israel. That may seem far-fetched, but in an increasingly digitized world it would behoove the forum’s member states — France in particular — to find a creative solution. The maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon has implications upon the maritime claims of other states — such as Cyprus — and the energy industry’s perception of the region as a viable space for exploration and development. If Israel and Lebanon manage to work out their differences, others may follow suit.

The U.S. has done an admirable job trying to get the parties to the table. No one else in the international community has the combination of gravitas and leverage on both Israel and Lebanon. But U.S. interest in resolving this dispute shouldn’t be taken for granted. The U.S. is withdrawing from the region, and it is easy to imagine a scenario where Israel and Lebanon return to their respective corners empty-handed. Lebanon would struggle to attract foreign investment, and Israel would continue to look over its shoulder with concerns about the safety of its offshore investments. The path forward requires a political compromise that accepts a technical solution in exchange for economic benefits. The onus is now on both Israel and Lebanon, in their own ways, to demonstrate to Washington what compromises they are prepared to make in order to put this issue to rest and why the U.S. should remain invested both in this process and the region at large.

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