Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Gas Wealth: A Political Bargaining Chip

Lebanon's Gas Wealth
A picture taken from the southernmost area of the Lebanese town of Naqura, shows an Israeli navy vessel patrolling the waters. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic.

The deployment of a Greek Energean Power commercial vessel to the disputed “Karish” gas field brought Israel’s maritime boundary issue with Lebanon back into the spotlight. The ship was escorted by two logistical support vessels for the delivery of work personnel, equipment, and firefighting teams to the disputed field so that work could commence at arrival.

The ship, which is under contract with Israel, is designed to produce and store liquefied natural gas once it is extracted from the Karish field, before exporting or utilizing it in Israel. Despite continuing discussions between Israel and Lebanon over the disputed maritime zone, it was evident that the Greek firm wanted to speed up the commencement of the production process from the area where it had acquired the operating license and invest in 2017.

Official protests

The significance of the issue was rapidly realized by Lebanon’s officials, particularly since the offshore gas sources are often interconnected underground. Because of these linkages, Israel’s action will have an impact on possible Lebanese gas reserves, regardless of how the disputed area’s maritime borders are eventually defined. As a result, rather than waiting for talks and a final agreement with Lebanese parties on how to define the borders and agree on how to split output in the connected subsurface areas, Israel will have imposed the start of extraction unilaterally. This would result in a fresh fait accompli in Lebanon, irking all parties in the nation.

Any action or activity in the disputed territory, according to Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, is a provocation and an act of aggression. Israeli encroachment on Lebanon’s marine resources and the imposition of a fait accompli in a disputed zone, according to caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, is extremely dangerous, as Israel is attempting to “fabricate a new crisis.” Meanwhile, Lebanese officials are banking on Amos Hochstein, the US energy envoy who previously mediated between Lebanon and Israel, to assist the two parties in resolving the present border conflict.

Grave mistakes and compromises

Despite official condemnations, Lebanese were clearly dissatisfied with how the government handled the situation. Furthermore, Lebanese were concerned that their leaders had lately made critical blunders, if not outright catastrophic bargains, that had enabled Israel to make this new move. The inability of the Lebanese government to adopt a decree establishing Lebanon’s rights to the disputed maritime territories, which stretch to what is now known as Line 29, remains at the forefront of these perilous transactions.

As a result of the Lebanese government’s failure to sign this decree, the country now lacks the legal foundation to oppose Israel’s actions in the disputed territory on an international level, or to request that the Greek business cease operations awaiting a resolution of the boundary dispute.

To be clear, Lebanon cannot take international legal action against Israel until it issues a decree claiming control of certain sea territories. Survey and legal experts validate Lebanon’s eligibility for these contested maritime regions, but the Lebanese state must make a political choice to add these areas to its legally claimed borders in order to negotiate with Israel and prohibit any action in the disputed area.

Despite its importance, the inability to issue the decree is not the most critical concern in this scenario. Since 2007, when Lebanon began to discuss the issue of maritime borders, successive governments have acted with haste and ineptitude, putting the state’s maritime rights in jeopardy. This approach led to a string of gaffes, which Lebanon is now paying the price for. Observers note that in a number of circumstances, concessions and compromises were made for personal gain at the expense of the country.

Error of 2007

Lebanon and Cyprus began discussing the boundary that divides their respective exclusive marine economic zones in 2007. Cyprus entered the discussions with a large team of technical specialists at the time, who meticulously prepared their papers based on their vast and varied experience in this sector. Lebanon, on the other hand, has neither an official policy nor any specialized and qualified technical teams to carry out the work of demarcating its maritime borders. As a result, the Lebanese delegation went into the talks without any protections in place to preserve the country’s natural resources from any errors that may cost Lebanon significant maritime territory.

As a result, Lebanese officials committed grave errors during the discussions by establishing the Lebanese boundary from the south at Line No. 1, depriving Lebanon of significant expanses of marine seas to Israel’s benefit. The latter then accelerated discussions with Cyprus to demarcate its boundary on this basis, perpetuating Lebanon’s unjust delineation as a fait accompli and an agreed-upon border between the three countries. Lebanon later attempted to amend its officials’ error through abstentions in Parliament during a vote to ratify the Cyprus deal, as well as letters to the United Nations, but the ink had already dried.

Given the enormous regions that this line gives away Lebanese marine zones to Israel, Israelis have claimed Line No. 1 as the boundary dividing it from Lebanon. Since then, the Lebanese maritime boundary file has become a hostage of that historical error, and everything Lebanon has done since then has been an attempt to repair the damage. The more serious issue is that, in attempting to correct the error, Lebanon committed others.

Error of 2010

A special committee was formed to re-examine the issue of maritime boundaries and submit a report on the basis of which the Lebanese government might approve new maritime lines, as part of efforts to repair the error made in 2007. The outcomes of the committee’s study were accepted by the Lebanese government on July 14, 2010, and the United Nations lodged new maritime boundary coordinates, establishing Line 23 as Lebanon’s southern border point. To the south of Line 1, the new line offered Lebanon an additional 860 square kilometers of marine area. As a result of Israel’s insistence on demarcating the boundary at Line 1, the 860 square kilometers became a contested territory between Lebanon and Israel.

Lebanon's Gas Wealth

Lebanon eventually found out that adopting Line 23 was also a mistake. After the Lebanese government commissioned the British Hydrographic Office UKHO to compile a study on the demarcation of the country’s boundaries, it was discovered that international law grants Lebanon an additional 1,430 square kilometers of marine territory beyond Line 23. To put it another way, Line 23 – which Lebanon recognizes – adds around 860 square kilometers of marine space south of Israel’s claimed line, but it denies Lebanon more than 1,430 square kilometers of extra territory to which it is entitled. This report introduces a new line known as Line 29, which, if implemented, would encompass all marine regions from which Lebanon is entitled to profit from according to international law.

Line 29 would also allow Lebanon to fight for rights in the Karish field, which would become Lebanon’s entitlement if its southern borders were delineated there. It might divert any Israeli demands away from the possible Qana field, because if Lebanon’s southern boundaries were fixed at this line, the whole prospective field would fall on the Lebanese side. As a result, the Lebanese Army Command, which had been closely following the progress of this case, asked that the Lebanese government issue a decree designating Line 29 as Lebanon’s southern sea border point. It should be highlighted that if Israel’s government adopts Line 29, it will be required to halt all petroleum projects north of the line pending discussions with Lebanon.

Cost of failing to issue the decree

Despite all studies confirming Lebanon’s claim to the maritime territories up to this point, and despite Lebanese authorities’ contention that Israel’s operations north of this line constitute an attack on a disputed territory, the Lebanese government has not issued any decree adopting Line 29. Failure to release the directive will result in Israel’s decision to begin hydrocarbon exploration in the Karish field, which is mostly north of Line 29, without Lebanon being able to take legal action in international venues. As a result, Lebanese civil society began organizing protests and sit-ins to protest the government’s inability to defend the Lebanese people’s wealth, which is represented by the gas reserves in the disputed marine zones.

The reaction of the Change MPs, who represent the opposition forces that emerged from the October 17 revolution, is noteworthy. These lawmakers requested a road map that also included the passing of the decree adopting Line 29, as well as launching a strategy to compel Israel in international forums to cease oil activity north of this line. However, authorities have yet to react to any of these petitions or offer an explanation for their refusal to take the legal proceedings that Lebanon requires to stop Israel’s onslaught on its gas resources.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain why the decree was not approved by the government. Several argue that the lack of action is due to US sanctions imposed on some leaders, including the president’s son-in-law, and head of the Free Patriotic Movement MP Gibran Bassil. Proponents of this notion claim Bassil is looking for a deal in which the US relaxes his sanctions in exchange for Lebanon surrendering Line 29 and overlooking Israel’s activity in the disputed territory – It should be highlighted that these sanctions were placed on Bassil as a result of his role in local corruption as well as his association with Hezbollah, which the US has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

Analysts also link the authorities’ failure to recognize Line 29 to the international financial interests of others, such as caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who fears international sanctions on his foreign investments if the decree recognizing Line 29 is issued. Suspicions swirl around Mikati’s involvement in local corruption cases, making him fear punitive measures similar to those imposed on Bassil. To sum it up, it seems clear the gas file in the Eastern Mediterranean is of great interest to the United States, and explains why it tries to curb the Lebanese-Israeli border dispute by any means possible.

On the other hand, it appears that the vast majority of Lebanese politicians have entrenched interests that encourage them to trade Lebanon’s oil resources for personal profit. These benefits range from the easing of sanctions to the protection of others from future penalties to the benefit of potential international agreements. In every scenario, the Lebanese people would be the ones to pay the price in the long run.

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