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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon-Israel Border Dispute: Solution or Escalation in September

Lebanon-Israel Border Dispute
Lebanese protesters take part in a rally by sailing in boats with slogans in French affirming Lebanon’s right to its offshore gas wealth. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic.

There is no indication that the Israelis intend to alter their plans for the Karish field, which falls along the disputed border area between Lebanon and Israel. Israel’s timetable stipulates that gas extraction from this field will begin by mid-September, despite the fact that the border dispute with Lebanon has yet to be resolved.

What prevents Israel from holding off on starting gas extraction from the Karish field is the approaching Knesset elections at the beginning of November. The ruling coalition is unwilling to appear weak before public opinion, which it fears would be the case in the event it postpones gas extraction.

In short, Israeli political balances are pushing the Israeli government to harden its stance and adhere to this date to begin extraction before resolving the border dispute with Lebanon.

Enter Hezbollah

In contrast to Israel’s insistence on beginning extraction operations in mid-September, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has raised the stakes with clear military insinuations, saying that “Lebanon’s eye should be on Karish and the Lebanese borders.” In the same speech, Nasrallah stressed more clearly that the region would see an escalation “in the event Lebanon does not obtain the rights demanded by the Lebanese state.”

With this particular speech, Nasrallah entered the border conflict with Israel, introducing a new equation that links stability along the Lebanon-Israel borders to the outcome of negotiations on the maritime border dispute. To put it more clearly, any gas extraction from Karish in September, before the border dispute is resolved, could lead to war.

However, Nasrallah’s speech was not the first time Hezbollah has ventured into the security aspect of the border dispute. Following initial limited diplomatic negotiations between the two governments, Hezbollah’s first step to enter the fray was the deployment of three drones to the disputed maritime areas at the beginning of last August.

At the time, the Israeli army confirmed that Hezbollah had managed to penetrate the border in this manner before Israeli planes intercepted and downed the drones, which fell into the sea. It has since been clear that Hezbollah’s actions were intended to send a strong message to the Israelis, namely that the extraction platforms would be within the reach of its military capabilities should Israel proceed to extract gas before the border dispute with Lebanon is resolved.

Thorny negotiations

Hezbollah’s foray into the border dispute in this manner disrupted the calculations of all concerned parties to a certain extent. For Israel, it was no longer certain that the Greek company “Energean,” which owns extraction rights in the Karish field, would continue to operate without resolving the border dispute.

Despite the company’s good relations with Israel, it does not appear that a foreign firm would be willing to risk platforms and investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars given the tensions. Although the capabilities of the Israeli Air Force are at the ready to protect the extraction platforms, the Hezbollah drones’ mere arrival at the Karish field was a message that the platforms could be targeted in the future. Thus, Israel is stuck between the internal circumstances that prevent it from delaying extraction from the field, and the security risks that threaten extraction operations unless the border dispute is resolved by mid-September.

At the same time, these developments are putting pressure on American envoy Amos Hochstein, who is working to mediate between the two governments in order to resolve the border dispute. Over the past months, Hochstein has worked to shuttle messages between the two governments, pitching proposals and possible concessions, but he has a limited amount of time to complete his mission. If, by September, Israel still insists on proceeding with the extraction work in the Karish field, and if Hezbollah insists on preventing gas extraction before the border dispute is resolved, the entire region could face grave military repercussions.

Thus, the Americans are under increased pressure to find a mutually satisfactory solution swiftly, perhaps within a matter of a few weeks. This urgency was recently reflected in the flurry of activity by the American mediator in his bid to avert possible rising tensions in September.

The United States and global economy concerns

The Americans have their own reasons to resolve the border dispute as quickly as possible before it reaches the point of security or military confrontation. These calculations are not only related to the U.S. attempts to maintain regional stability, but also to international economic and political balances.

The conflict in Ukraine has created a major crisis in terms of energy supplies due to the decline in the quantities of gas imported from Russia to Europe, in addition to the repercussions of sanctions on Russian oil.

The U.S. is thus banking on expanding investments in the oil and gas sector in the eastern Mediterranean in a bid to secure alternative sources to compensate for the shortage of Russian gas with Europe on the increased demand for energy as winter looms.

Therefore, with the United States counting on increasing gas production in Israel in order to provide Europe with alternative energy sources, any possible escalation could prevent the start of gas extraction from the Karish field.

Such tensions are also likely to spill over elsewhere, hindering operations in currently active gas fields, which would increase pressure on energy markets globally. In addition, regional stability is essential to attracting investments in regional plans, of which Israel is a part, to build gas pipelines capable of transporting eastern Mediterranean gas to European markets.

Lebanese internal divisions

These developments also caused some Lebanese officials a degree of embarrassment because of Hezbollah’s action and its entry into the dispute in such a manner. While Hezbollah’s allies and supporters consider its actions as a step that would strengthen Lebanon’s negotiating position, the view is not universal.

Other segments of Lebanese society see the party as once again proceeding with its unilateral security and military strategies, which are not subject to the official defense strategy adopted by the Lebanese state. In fact, quite a few reactions suggest that Hezbollah’s actions might have nothing to do with Lebanon’s interests, but are rather linked to regional calculations such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. Many people note that the Lebanese today fear the outbreak of an armed conflict, which the Lebanese society, already in the grips of an economic crisis, would not be able to endure.

Decisive weeks ahead

The latest developments on the border dispute issue are the discussions that Hochstein is currently holding in Israel in a bid to confirm the latest offers Israel will make to Lebanon regarding the maritime borders. Lebanon will subsequently have to respond, accept or propose alternative solutions to the Israeli offer.

The greatest fear is that extraction operations from Karish commence before a final solution is reached, which could give rise to security tensions. Nonetheless, even if the border dispute is resolved in the coming weeks, there are other problems that have yet to be addressed, especially those related to the possible discovery of joint gas fields.

This would raise questions about how revenues would be shared, given Lebanon’s refusal to normalize relations with Israel. Therefore, it is expected that the gas and maritime border will remain a burning issue over the coming years, even if demarcation occurs today.

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