Offshore gas: the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel at the heart of new tensions

The arrival on Sunday in the disputed maritime area with Israel of a floating unit intended to start producing gas for the Jewish state has provoked the anger of the Lebanese authorities, while the indirect negotiations between the two countries around the conflict border are at a standstill. Decryption.

Deadlocked for more than a decade, the dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the delimitation of their maritime border resurfaced on Sunday, June 5. The Lebanese presidency warned the Israeli government against any “aggressive action” in the maritime area that the two countries dispute. A highly strategic area for the exploitation of the offshore hydrocarbon resources it contains.

Beirut saw red following the arrival, on Sunday, of a floating production, storage and offloading unit (FPSO) belonging to the Energean group and which, at the request of the Israeli government, must start operating the gas field. of Karish.

Problem: Lebanon and Israel have never officially drawn their borders. They are even still technically at war, for lack of having signed a peace treaty and despite an armistice initialed in 1949. However, according to Beirut, Karish is located in a disputed area with an area of ​​860 km2, in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean, where very large gas reserves have been identified in recent years.

Beirut calls for American mediation

On Monday, the Lebanese power even invited to Lebanon the American emissary Amos Hochstein, charged by President Joe Biden with mediating between the two countries, and “to resume negotiations concerning the delimitation of the maritime borders”.

All “exploration, drilling or extraction work carried out by Israel in the disputed areas constitutes a provocation and an act of aggression”, continues a joint statement signed by President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

The disputed area between Lebanon and Israel.
The disputed area between Lebanon and Israel. © France 24

For its part, the Jewish state considers that the Karish gas field is located in its exclusive economic zone and therefore not concerned by the maritime zone disputed by the Cedar country. According to Energeanthe platform, which was custom-built for the Karish field, is expected to deliver gas to Israel by Q3 2022.

“With the arrival of this platform, everything will go very quickly for the Israelis, the production and sale of gas will be able to start in three or four months, since contracts have already been signed with Israeli companies in particular, explains to France 24 Laury Haytayan, Lebanese expert in geopolitics of hydrocarbons and director of the regional program in the Middle East of the independent organization Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).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 the sanctions against Russia”.

According to the expert, the arrival of this platform was expected and announced, the Lebanese power cannot pretend to be surprised since the Israelis were to start production on the Karish site last year. “Except that during all this time, Lebanon has remained in the dark, says Laury Haytayan. The country’s ruling class still does not have a unified and clear position on the question of maritime borders and the talks have not been able to move forward. “.

The resolution of the dispute is essential so that Lebanon, which has been mired in an inextricable economic crisis since 2019, can begin the exploration and exploitation of its hydrocarbon reserves in the disputed area, where part of Block 9 is located. of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Located off southern Lebanon, this block is considered one of the most promising in terms of gas resources.

Considered one of the most promising, Block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is located in the area disputed by Israel and Lebanon.
Considered one of the most promising, Block 9 of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is located in the area disputed by Israel and Lebanon. © France 24

Except that the indirect negotiations between the Lebanese power and the Israeli government are at a standstill.

Indirect negotiations stopped dead

The talks, placed under the aegis of the UN and an American mediation, had started in October 2020 and aimed to settle the dispute which has lasted for more than a decade between the two countries.

To resolve the dispute, the American diplomat and mediator Frederic Hof, in charge of the case between 2010 and 2012, had divided this area into two unequal parts. The “Hof line” allocated 55% of the area to Lebanon against 45% to its Israeli neighbor. A sharing that the Lebanese party, which considers itself to be in its right based on the international standards recognized by the United Nations, has refrained from validating.

Map provided by the Lebanese army and published by several local media showing the "Hoff line" (H) and the entire area claimed by the Lebanese negotiators, which is located between line 1 and line 29.
Map provided by the Lebanese army and published by several local media showing the “Hof line” (H) and the entire area claimed by the Lebanese negotiators, which is located between line 1 and line 29. © Lebanese Army

After several years of interruption, the discussions are therefore restarting in October 2020 at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Naqoura, in southern Lebanon, after the announcement of a framework agreement on the negotiation mechanism. But they find themselves two months later in a new deadlock due to an overbidding of the Lebanese delegation, composed of military and civilian experts, claiming 1,430 km2 additional in the south, and consequently bringing the maritime conflict no longer to 860 km2, but out of a total of 2,290 km2.

Except that this new requirement, rejected outright by the Israelis and based on a technical report from the Hydrographic Institute of the United Kingdom dating from 2011 and on data from the Lebanese Hydrographic Office, has not been formalized by Beirut to the Nations. – yet the only way for Lebanon to officially update the rights claimed.

To do this, it would have been necessary to amend decree 6433/2011 defining the exclusive economic zone over 22,700 km2 and send it to the UN, to update the Lebanese claim. Which has never been done by Beirut. President Michel Aoun, who had initially supported the Lebanese overbidding, considered that his amendment could “put an end to negotiations” with Israel, which affirmed, in October 2021, to be ready to resolve its dispute with Lebanon any by refusing that Beirut “dictate” the terms of the talks.

Since then, the chief negotiator of the Lebanese delegation, General Bassam Yassine, who was behind the last one-upmanship, has been retired.

Negotiations nearly resumed this year, after Israelis and Lebanese declared their readiness to resume indirect talks, while the American envoy Amos Hochstein had traveled to the region. In vain.

At the end of a two-day visit to Beirut in February, the latter had called on the Lebanese authorities to adopt a unified position in order to be able to “move forward”. In particular, he brushed aside the option of line 29, and thus implicitly gave the Israelis a green light to exploit Karish.

“Everyone knows (…) that the dispute that has lasted for a decade concerns line 1 and line 23, and that we must reach a solution that ensures strategic and national security,” he told the channel. Lebanese LBCI.

In February 2022, the Lebanese president ended up affirming that line 23 was indeed the Lebanese maritime border, seeming to backtrack when he was one of those who supported the maximalist position of line 29, specifies Laury Haytayan. “The presidential reversal is actually a signal, a gesture of goodwill, which was expected by the American mediator to allow him to resume negotiations, she adds. Except that the negotiations remained blocked”.

“It’s time to slice it!”

Political calculations, political friction, the desire to show the Americans a white paw? The delay in signing the decree, then the presidential reversal remained unexplained. And if at the time the controversies had multiplied, they quickly deflated to leave aside the hydrocarbon file. And this, the time of the long legislative election campaign, organized on May 15, during which the political class was totally focused on its own future.

“The Lebanese political class does not think of the interests of the population and the prosperity of the country, it only thinks of ensuring its own survival, laments Laury Haytayan. That is why it did not consider it important to settle the question of the maritime border, while the Israelis, them, pressed on the accelerator”.

“We have to see if the American emissary will be interested in coming to negotiate with them, ironically Laury Haytayan. Do the Lebanese leaders want to negotiate from line 23, then official position of 2011 or from line 29, a position claimed since 2020 but which has never been formalized?

The question is crucial. “And it’s time to cut it! If Lebanon wants to negotiate from line 23, then the Karish field is not in the disputed area, as the Israelis indicate. But if it is from line 29, then there is a problem, since Karish finds himself, in part, in the disputed area”, sums up Laury Haytayan.

“The Israelis are more than ever in a position of strength”

“Lebanon has no more time to lose, it needs to resume negotiations and end it by reaching an agreement that is not unfavorable to it, she continues. For this, Beirut must push all the parties to return to the negotiating table, knowing that if today the Karish field continues to produce, the Israelis, who are more than ever in a position of strength and have never changed their position in the disputed area, will have no interest in discussing with the Lebanese”.

For the expert, only an amendment to decree 6433 could put pressure on Energean and the Israeli government, to force them to stop work in this field.

“Thus, the Americans and the Israelis will be in a way forced to come back to negotiate in order to sign an agreement as soon as possible, believes Laury Haytayan. This is how the Lebanese will be able to save their gas, because the whole sector is currently in danger”.

The border conflict and the permanent tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, the Shiite politico-military movement which proclaims itself defender of Lebanese hydrocarbons, raise fears of a risk of escalation in the region with the arrival of the unit floating from Energean.

The secretary general of the pro-Iranian party, Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly threatened Israel with bombing its facilities in the event of unilateral prospecting in the disputed blocs, and warned against any attempt to normalize with the Jewish state in exchange for a possible agreement on the maritime border.

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Offshore gas: the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel at the heart of new tensions

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