The maritime border between Lebanon and Israel is at the center of new tensions

The arrival of a floating unit to the disputed maritime area with Israel on Sunday to start gas production for the Jewish state angered Lebanese authorities, while indirect negotiations between the two countries over the conflict’s borders have stalled. decoding.

The row between Lebanon and Israel over the demarcation of the maritime border has been deadlocked for more than a decade, and re-emerged on Sunday, June 5. The Lebanese presidency warned the Israeli government against any “aggressive action” in the maritime domain that differs between the two countries. A highly strategic area to exploit the marine hydrocarbon resources it contains.

Beirut saw the red color after the arrival of a floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) unit of the Energean Group, which, at the request of the Israeli government, should start operating the Karish gas field.

The problem: Lebanon and Israel have never formally drawn their borders. Even technically they are still at war, due to no peace treaty being signed and despite an armistice that was initialed in 1949. However, according to Beirut, Karish is located in a disputed area of ​​860 square kilometres, halfway. Eastern Mediterranean, where very large gas reserves have been identified in recent years.

Beirut demands US mediation

Rather, the Lebanese force called, on Monday, to Lebanon, the American envoy Amos Hochstein, who was assigned by President Joe Biden to mediate between the two countries, and “to resume negotiations on the demarcation of the maritime borders.”

A joint statement signed by President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that “all the exploration, drilling and extraction activities carried out by Israel in the disputed areas constitute a provocation and an act of aggression.”

The disputed area between Lebanon and Israel. © France 24

For its part, the Jewish state considers the Karish gas field to be located in its exclusive economic zone, and therefore it is not concerned with the disputed maritime zone between the Cedars State. According to Energean, the platform, which has been specifically designed for the Karish field, is expected to deliver gas to Israel by the third quarter of 2022.

With the arrival of this platform, everything will go very quickly for the Israelis, and the production and sale of gas will be able to start within three or four months, since contracts have already been signed with Israeli companies in particular, as explains to France 24 Laurie Hatien, a Lebanese expert in geography Not to mention that Israel will also have the opportunity to export its gas to Europe where demand is high due to the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.”

According to the expert, the arrival of this platform was expected and announced, and the Lebanese force could not pretend to be surprised because the Israelis were going to start production at the Karish site last year. “Except for that all this time, Lebanon has been in the dark. The country’s ruling class still does not have a unified and clear position on the issue of maritime borders, and talks have not been able to move forward,” says Laurie Hatian. .

A resolution of the dispute is necessary so that Lebanon, mired in an inextricable economic crisis since 2019, can begin exploration and exploitation of its hydrocarbon reserves in the disputed region, where part of the Block 9 Economic Zone (EEZ) is located. Located off the south of Lebanon, this block is considered one of the most promising in terms of gas resources.

One of the most promising is block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), located in the disputed area between Israel and Lebanon.
One of the most promising is block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), located in the disputed area between Israel and Lebanon. © France 24

However, the indirect negotiations between the Lebanese force and the Israeli government have been suspended.

Indirect negotiations stopped working

The talks, under the auspices of the United Nations and US mediation, began in October 2020 and are aimed at settling the more than decade-old dispute between the two countries.

To resolve the dispute, US diplomat and mediator Frederick Hof, who was in charge of the file between 2010 and 2012, divided this area into two unequal parts. The Hof Line allocated 55% of the area to Lebanon, compared to 45% for its Israeli neighbour. Participation that the Lebanese party refused to acknowledge, which considers itself entitled to it on the basis of international standards recognized by the United Nations.

A map provided by the Lebanese army and published by several local media outlets showing the
A map provided by the Lebanese Army and published by several local media outlets showing the “Hof Line” (H) and the entire area claimed by Lebanese negotiators between Line 1 and Line 29. © Lebanese Army

After several years of interruption, discussions will resume in October 2020 at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Naqoura in southern Lebanon, after the announcement of a framework agreement on the negotiation mechanism. But after two months they found themselves in a new impasse due to a bid by the Lebanese delegation, consisting of military and civilian experts, demanding an additional 1,430 square kilometers in the south, and thus the maritime conflict was no longer 860 square kilometers, but out of a total of 2,290 square kilometers.

Except that this new requirement, which was flatly rejected by the Israelis and based on a technical report from the UK Hydrographic Institute dating from 2011 and on data from the Lebanese Hydrographic Office, was not formalized by Beirut to the UN. The only way for Lebanon to update the officially claimed rights.

To do this, it was necessary to amend Decree 6433/2011 defining the exclusive economic zone of more than 22,700 square kilometers and send it to the United Nations to update the Lebanese claim. Which Beirut never did. President Michel Aoun, who initially supported the Lebanese bidding, considered that his amendment could “put an end to the negotiations” with Israel, which confirmed, in October 2021, that it was ready to resolve its dispute with Lebanon, i.e. by refusing to dictate Beirut.” Terms of talks.

Since then, the chief negotiator of the Lebanese delegation, Major General Bassam Yassin, who was behind the last one command, has retired.

Negotiations almost resumed this year, after the Israelis and the Lebanese announced their readiness to resume indirect talks, while the American envoy Amos Hochstein had traveled to the region. without result.

At the end of a two-day visit to Beirut last February, the latter called on the Lebanese authorities to adopt a unified position in order to “move forward”. In particular, he ignored the option of line 29, thus tacitly giving the Israelis the green light to exploit Karish.

He told the Lebanese channel LBCI, “Everyone knows (…) that the decade-long dispute is related to the first line and the 23rd line, and we must reach a solution that guarantees strategic and national security.”

In February 2022, the Lebanese president ended up asserting that Line 23 was indeed the Lebanese maritime border, and appears to be regressing when he was one of those who supported the extremist position on Line 29, Laurie Hayatian identifies. She adds that “the presidential reversal is in fact a sign and goodwill gesture expected by the American mediator to allow him to resume negotiations. However, the negotiations remained stalled.”

“Time to chop it up!”

Political calculations, political frictions, a desire to show Americans a white paw? The delay in signing the decree and then the presidential coup remained unexplained. And if the disputes multiplied at that time, they quickly faded away leaving aside the hydrocarbons file. And this is the time of the long legislative election campaign, organized on May 15, during which the entire political class focused on its future.

“The Lebanese political class does not think about the interests of the people and the prosperity of the country, but only thinks about ensuring its survival, laments Laurie Hatian. That is why it did not consider the settlement of the issue of maritime transport an important matter. On the border, while the Israelis, they, pressed the accelerator ” .

“We have to see if the American envoy will be interested in coming to negotiate with them, ironically, Laurie Haitian. Do the Lebanese leaders want to negotiate from line 23, then the official position of 2011 or from line 29, which is the alleged position since 2020 but which has not been given It was formalized by?

The question is crucial. “It’s time to cut it! If Lebanon wants to negotiate from the 23rd line, the Karish field is not in the disputed area, as the Israelis point out. But if it’s from the 29th line, then there is a problem, as Karish found himself, in part, in the disputed area”, he sums up Laurie Haytayan.

“The Israelis are more powerful than ever”

And she continued, “Lebanon does not have more time to waste, it needs to resume negotiations and end them by reaching an agreement that does not harm it, and for this reason Beirut must push all parties to return to the negotiating table, knowing that if and today the Karish field is still producing, the Israelis, who They are in a position of strength more than ever and have never changed their position in the disputed area, debating with the Lebanese.”

The expert believes that only the amendment of Decree No. 6433 can put pressure on Energean and the Israeli government to force them to stop working in this field.

“Thus, the Americans and the Israelis will have to go back to negotiating in order to sign an agreement as soon as possible, Laurie Hatian believes. This is how the Lebanese will be able to save their gas, because the whole sector is currently in danger.”

The border conflict and enduring tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, the Shiite political-military movement that proclaims itself as a defender of Lebanese hydrocarbons, raise fears of the danger of escalation in the region with the arrival of the floating unit from Energean.

Secretary-General of the pro-Iranian party Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened Israel to bomb its facilities in the event of unilateral drilling in the disputed blocs, and warned against any attempt to normalize with the Jewish state in exchange for a possible agreement on the maritime borders.

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