Today the global media seems to be focusing more on strategic and political confrontation taking place between Greece and Turkey for control of the Aegina Islands in the Mediterranean Sea while losing sight ofa significantsituation unfolding between Israel and Lebanon- two historical rivals in the Levant region-for control over the huge Karish gas reservoir in the eastern tip of the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike in the past,where both countries remained at loggerheadsfor territorial appropriation, this time the dispute, which has been resolved, between the two is more about the demarcation of maritime border in pursuit ofgaining control over newly found energy reserves in the Mediterranean Sea bed.
The dispute is primarily for the control of Karish and Qana gas fields[i] in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea over whichIsrael always claimed sovereignty as part of itsExclusiveEconomic Zone (EEZ).On the other hand, Lebanon, in general, and Hezbollah, in particular, has warned Israel several times against any such move, claiming that the Karish gas field is an inalienable part of the Lebanese maritime zone.
The maiden effort to resolve the crisis was made in 2012 when the US mediation team headed by Fredrick Hof proposed to give all Karishfields to Israel in exchange for Lebanese control over the Qana field[ii], but was turned down by Lebanon. Later, Lebanon was promised 55% of the Karish gas fields, but even that failed to receive endorsementfrom Lebanon. After a long lull, fresh effort was made to revive the stalled negotiations in October 2020 during the Presidency of Trump amidst severe economic crisis in Lebanon and unprecedented political flux.
This particular deal is an outcome of the shuttle diplomacy of the last two years , particularly after President Biden appointed Amos Hochstein, a Senior Advisor for energy security in the State Department to revive the negotiations that were stalled many times. The negotiation received new momentum amidst reports of Israel sending gas drilling rig in the disputed Karish field in June 2022 and Hezbollah sending its drone to capture these movements. Under the deal, Israel has got the exploration rights over the Karish oil fields that have been claimed by Lebanon for long. If one pursues the whole trajectory of the protracted negotiation process, the current divisive political terrain in both Israel and Lebanon and mix of explicit and implicit opposition to the deal in both countries, it can be claimed that any forecast about the success of the deal would amount to a prophecy.
A Backgrounder to the Present
It all began in 2009 when a consortium headed by US-based Noble Company discovered huge gas reserves, with speculated quantity of 280 billion cubic meters (BCM) near Tamar field off Israel’s coast on the Mediterranean Sea. Again in 2010, the same enterprise claimed to have unearthed another volume of1.7 billion of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas[iii]near Leviathan coast of the Mediterranean. Four years later in 2014, another major discovery was made in Aphrodite gas field in Cyprus’s southern EEZ with total volume of 140 BCM. The oil and gas reserve off the shores of Lebanon and Israel are valued to be worth US $ 600 billion.[iv]
These discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea inspired negotiations for the demarcation of maritime border between Lebanon and Israel. The first rounds of negotiation was held in 2010 under US mediation, which Lebanon soon rejected by accusing the US of partisanship.To make negotiation more comprehensive and provide it permanency, Lebanon, in 2011, claimed right before the UN to a new 860 km2 triangle areas largely constituted by Karishfield[v]delineated by line 23 on its maritime border with Israel. The field contains a speculative amount of around US$ 2.3 billion worth of gas.[vi]Karish oil and natural gas field is located in territorial waters of the Mediterranean basin, 100 kilometers from the Israeli coast and about 75 kilometers from Haifa coast and only 4 kilometers from the Israel-Lebanon border.[vii]When the indirect negotiation started in 2020, Lebanon expanded claim ( bound by what is known as line 29) encompassing an additional 1,430 sq km now delineated by Line 29 which lies in the northern part of Karish oil fields, traditionally claimed by Israel.[viii]The new Lebanese claim over Line 29 brought north half of Karish in Lebanese maritime territory, turning the field into a sort of contention. Further insistence on Line 29 by Lebanon brought previously disputed gas reserve into play setting the stage for resent escalation.
Source: The National News, August 10, 2022
Lebanon has always insisted that the Karish gas field, delineated by Line 23, belongs to them along with Qana oil fields, while Israel claims full sovereignty over Karish.[ix] The dispute between the two for control over offshore field is primarily rooted in the overlap between two countries’ self-claimed EEZ.
After early round of negotiations in 2012, there was almost a lull for a decade owing to the Arab uprising and its subsequent impact on regional politics and hence nothing substantial happened on the negotiation front. There were not many convergences between the two sides even during the first round of negotiationsas Lebanon was always keen to couple the maritime negotiation with the negotiations over the territorial dispute along the international border, known as Blue Linethat has thirteen dispute points as mapped by the UN.[x]Further Lebanon was keen to have the UN as a mediator while for Israel, US was the best broker.[xi]A fresh round of negotiations started in October 2020 and till May 2021, five rounds of talks were held in the presence of United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubiš and American diplomat John Durocherbut it too led nowhere. Israel had repeatedly refused to enter into any negotiation on the Karish field which Lebanon had claimed as its own sovereign zone in its coordinate submitted to the UN. What further complicated the demarcation issue were the views put forward by both the US and Israel that Lebanon had sought no claim over areas except Karish and adjoining blocks and Line 23 is the only recognised maritime border between two. While Lebanese PresidentAoun on his part refused to accept the US claim that talksshould cover only disputed 860 km2areas of Karish.
The divide was not only between two principal parties, but the October 2020 talk had witnessed the political divide within the country. Parties like the Free Patriarchic Party and the Lebanese Army wanted negotiation to preserve Line 29, while the Shiite Aml Partywanted negotiations to be held under Line 23.Thedifferences were not only confined to political class but people were disinclined towards any political or diplomatic initiative owing to their disenchantment on account of theeconomic plight and political chaos in the country. But the government of the day had harboured some optimism thatthe resolution of maritime dispute with Israel would ease the economic burden on the country as Lebanon would be able to strengthen its economy by selling the newly discovered gas in the global market.
One can also recall that it was the time when the US had successfully brought many Arab countries through the Abraham Accord within Israel’s diplomatic fold and the US was making similar efforts with the hope that it would reduce the hostility between the two sides.The effort was also aimed to deterHezbollah from entering into another war with Israel in near future.
Why these negotiations now?
As mentioned earlier, Lebanon’s arbitrary decision to expand the orbit of its claim or expand its EEZ was largely responsible for cessation in the negotiation process but suddenly what prompted Lebanon to revisit its past stance and join the negotiation.These signs of flexibility on the part of Lebanon can be owed to deepening energy crisis in Lebanese market. One can recall here how Hezbollah was pressing the government of the day for importing gas from Iran. Also in importing gas from other neighboringcountries, Lebanon had signed an agreement with Egypt and Jordan to import gas but due to its geography, the import would have only come through Syria or Israel wherein Israel would never permit and Syria, being a sanctioned country, could not be a conduit for the transaction.Though Jordan and Egypt both waited for US’ endorsement to use Syria as a conduit for this deal,but nothing has been heard so far. One can also judge the severity of the Lebanese economic crisis by an open press briefing given by former Lebanese Interior Minister that he was unable to pay to his female servant because he would have to part away with his whole one-month pension if he paid the amount.[xii]In July 2022, after fresh negotiations started, President Aoun of Lebanon reportedly toldinterlocutor that he would hand over some parts of Qana fields, but he refrained from giving a public commitment in anticipation of backlash from the Hezbollah.[xiii]
Similarly, GebranBassil, leader of Christian Free Patriarchic Movement and Advisor of President Aoun called for a retreat from its maximalist Line 29 demands. When a fresh round of talk started in July 2022, Lebanon expressed its willingness to abandon any claim on Karish if Israel gave up its claim over Qana oil fields, but the US envoy told Lebanon that only the disputed zone is Karish and Qana cannot be part of the negotiation. Further, thestatement of Lebanese President Aoun specifying that Line 23 was the official maritime border between the two and Line 29 had no foundation[xiv]speaks volume about the economic desperation of Lebanon. Moreover, Israel has been exploiting the gas in the Mediterranean since 2004 and the current Ukraine crisis has enhanced the significance of energy in the global market, over which Israel has been eying. According to an estimate, Israel wants to expand production by 40 billion to meet the demands of Europe in absence of Russian gas.
Content of the Deal and Reactions
Given the growing desire on part of both Israel and Lebanon to resolve the maritime border dispute, the US appointed Mr. Amos in October 2021 and he was assigned the task of finalising a comprehensive maritime deal with the help of both Israel and Lebanon. What triggered the fresh round of talkswas departure of the ship belonging to the US-based Greek company Energen[xv] in June 2022 from Singapore for the Karish field with the intention of exploration in Block 72located within the disputed area between Line 1 and 23at the behest of Israel.This move compelled US envoy to return to region on June 13 to restart the mediation.
The details of the agreement over Karish and the thorny issue of inclusion of line 23 and 29 for negotiation have not been released and it is yet to be officially made public. But according to some leaked reports and on the basis of preliminary press briefing from both sides, it has come out that this agreement is primarily based on Line 23 ignoring various border line proposed in the past and after this agreement, the future maritime border will be based on Line 23 and there would be no buoy line any more. Under this new agreement, Israel will have full control over 860-square kilometer established gasfield, Karish, lying in Israeli water but became disputed after Lebanon had laid its claims over it for the first time in 2020 under its claim over line 29. Amidst these negotiations alone, Lebanon had refused even to have any negotiation over it. After this agreement, Karish oils fields would be part of Israel’s EEZ and Israel will be compensated for any exploration on its side of maritime border and Israel will have all rights to protect its maritime border with its security and all other available means. The deal specifically stipulates that any future disagreement regarding maritime border issue between the two would be resolved through the mediation of the US.[xvi]
In addition, unexplored Qana field further north will go to Lebanon but with a caveat. As specified in the agreement, Israel will be entitled to claim 17% of the revenues incurred through the exploration of prospective Qana field in accordance with its negotiation with French company Total.[xvii] It is worth mentioning here that earlier, the US envoy had suggested a joint Israel-Lebanon drilling of Qana but was turned down by Lebanon. Perhaps none had believed that Lebanon would agree to abandon its claim over line 29 and confine its negotiation to Line 23 alone as it would have meant for Lebanon parting way with the energy-rich Karnish field and accepting partial claim of Israel over prospective Qana oil fields but this is what Lebanese sides have agreed for in this negotiation. Further the deal is the permanent recognition of maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon and there will be no demand for any change unless another future agreement is reached between the two.[xviii] The deal has ensured the commitment of US to protect economic right of Israel in the agreed zone and more over the deal also talks of preventing the reservoir’s revenues from reaching Hezbollah in accordance with the sanction regime in the US.
Both sides claimed victory for themselves after final endorsement of the deal.Soon after the endorsement of the deal in the presence of the US envoy, caretaker Prime Minster of Israel, Yair Lapidsaid that the deal would not only bring security to the northern tips of its border (a zone of constant conflict with Hezbollah), but also bring billion of dollars to its national exchequer.[xix]He said that it would improve the lot of millions in Lebanon and the path to the deal was no doubt, very tedious. He also remarked that the deal will eliminate the possibility of escalation with Hezbollah, while his Defense Minister BennyGantzsaid that deal would usher in a new security equation in the region and Israel was capable enough to contain Iran’s influences.[xx]In a joint press conferencewith Prime Minister Lapid, he said that Israel is not scared of Hezbollah and Israel is stronger than any terrorism organisation.[xxi]
On his part, Lebanese President Aoun said that the deal is a major victory for Lebanon and it has accommodated all the demands of the government of the day while similar claimswere made by Lapid.The deal will be effective only after both parties send their letter of consent to the State Department, which in turn would issue a notice announcing the implementation of the deal.[xxii]There are many who are of the view that final approval of the bill in Israel would be a great challenge because it involves the sovereign territory and hence it requires the endorsement of two-thirds of the parliament (Knesset)[xxiii], unlike in Lebanon where the approval by the President would be enough for its execution; however,hiscurrent term as President is drawing to close by the end of the month.
Though both sides have claimed major political victory through this deal,what cast doubts over the future of the deal is that both the signatories are representing a caretaker government. There are apprehensions as well about the success of the deal as Bennett Neftali, former Prime Minister and partner in the current government, might ask the deal to be put for voting and might also use his veto to prevent Lapid from securing political benefits. Lebanon will have to ratify the deal first, followed by Israel, which is likely to be put only after the ensuing elections in November. This delay in ratification of the agreement might harm the prospects of the success of the deal because there is ample time for the opponents of Lapid to highlight the negative aspects of the deal, particularly during the election campaign.
One member of theRight party in Israel, Itama Bin Gvir, has already challenged the deal saying that Lipid is not authorised to sign suchdeal because he represents a caretaker government and has threatened to take the issue to the highest court of the land and called the whole exercise illegal. On his part, former Prime Minister Netanyahu who is struggling for his political survival at home said that deal is nothing but complete surrender to Hezbollah’s demand to allow Iran to drill for gas off the shores of Israeli coast.[xxiv]
He said that through this agreement, Israel gave water, territory, sovereign land and gas to Hezbollah[xxv] and added that his government would get rid of the deal and especially whenthe deal with Lebanon, according to him, is not binding.[xxvi] Commenting on the endorsement of the deal, President Biden said that the deal represents a golden opportunity for Lebanon to attract foreign investment and conduct international trades.[xxvii] President Aoun of Lebanon thanked Biden and saidthatit was the culmination of a decade of efforts and it all had begun when Biden was deputy of President Obama. It is also reported that President Biden pressed Israel for an early conclusion of the deal because the US was not keen to see another war front between Israel and Hezbollah, while the US along with Europe is already preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine war.
Hezbollah, Israel and the Current Deal
Perhaps one would agree that no political decision within Lebanon, involving regional and global actors, could be taken without, if not direct involvement but for sure, the endorsement of Hezbollah and same holds true in case of this maritime deal. The role of Hezbollah becomes more significant when the other side in the deal is Israel which has remained the primary target of entire gamut of Hezbollah’s political ideology and their military resources. Though Hezbollah was not the part of negotiating team, it always acted as a pressure group. Hezbollah, throughout the negotiation in last two years, continued to issue occasional statements whenever it thought that Israel was exerting pressure on Lebanon or when the government in Lebanon appeared to be succumbing to the mounting Israel-US pressure. As mentioned earlier that when President Aoun in his private conversation with Amos hinted at parting away with some parts of Qanafields but he refused to commit in writing due to the fear of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah repeatedly warned against any drilling of Karish and said that Karish was the red line while Israel’s Defence Minister Gantz had said that if Hezbollah had any intention of harming Israel’s interest, the whole of Lebanon would bear the brunt.[xxviii]In July 2022 itself, Israel shot down three of Hezbollah’s drones sent by itto monitor the Israeli activities in the disputed Karish fields. Very soon, the Hezbollah leader Nasrullah issued a warning to Israel saying that any hand reaching to steal Lebanese wealth would be chopped.[xxix]
One should not harbour any doubt that the success of the deal lies in how Hezbollah treats the agreement in future. Hezbollah was not opposed to the deal because it was more to do with improving the national economy and Hezbollah perhaps knows that the era of resistance for the sake of resistance or unnecessary ideological stretch would not serve its politics.Economic plight is something that should be treated by transcending the confines of the ideological or political divide. Perhaps Hezbollah expressed no resistance to the deal because it would showcase Hezbollah too, as a responsible national political actor, of the constant pressure of the people to put the economy in place.Through the endorsement of the deal, it was strong political message by Hezbollah to its political opponents and the people in Lebanon that Hezbollah is as patriotic in its approach to national cause as others and it also preserves its autonomy and it cannot be always construed as tutelage of Iran.Haytan, head of Natural Resource Governance Institute in MENA directorate, said that by endorsing this deal, Hezbollah is trying to reshape the national discourse about itself and prove that it is responsible political actor.[xxx]
But there are other sides of the story that claim that Hezbollah has its own exclusive economic interest in this deal because Hezbollah would be an equal claimant to funds reaching to Lebanon in course of exploration and its transaction in the global market and this apprehension has been expressed by many. It is something similar to what is being talked about Iran Nuclear Deal where many have expressedfears that the huge frozen amount Iran would get back as a result of the Deal might be used to unleash violence across the region by radical and the state militias.
Though the deal has been signed, it is likely to suffer the fate of the Iran Nuclear deal because former Prime Minister Netanyahu has said more than once that the deal is not binding and if he comes back to power, his government will not implement the deal. Further, the deal seems to be devoid of legitimacy as both the signatoriesrepresent a caretaker government. Both countries harbour deep apprehensionsabout the future of the deal. Given the past history of Israel-Lebanon relationship, which is marked by trust deficit, it is difficult to say that the deal would last long. Further the deal has been made in hasteand if Israel was keen to secure political benefit through the deal, Lebanon aimed to achieve economic benefit and there was no convergence between the two as far as the intent and objectives of the deal is concerned.
On the economic front, it is too early to make any forecast about it because it is not in a month’s time that gas will be explored and would be available for the market. No doubt the deal would make a step forward,but it does not mean that Lebanon has become a gas or oil producing countrymerely with the conclusion of this deal alone.One also needs to see how the future government in Lebanon utilises these oil and gas revenue to improve thelot of the common Lebanese people. There arealso apprehensions that the prospect of a new additional source of revenue will trigger a newpolitical war to control the state exchequer because it is the political class in the country which has been blamed for economic mess and political oligarchs are very often accused of plundering the national resource for the benefit of their cohorts and kin.
The success of the deal also depends how the party like Hezbollah in Lebanon and otherfar right groups within Israelcater to the different provisions of the deal and how the US- the main mediator- is committed to the successful implementation of the deal. The role of regional Gulf States, including Iran would also be very meaningful in preserving the deal and any interventionist politics on part of regional government would defeat the purpose of the deal. One needs to see if this deal, in any way, would bring Hezbollah out of the anti-Israel axis of resistance, like seen in case of Egypt and Jordan and recent signatories of the Abraham Accord.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i]In 2010, Lebanon submitted to the UN the new coordinates for its EEZ following new demarcation between Lebanon and Cyprus in 2007 and introduced Line 23 stretching Ras Naqoura 131 km into Mediterranean at an average angle of 291 degrees. In 2011, Israel adopted re-delineated its own EEZ, placing its border 17 km inside the newly proposed Lebanese zone, creating an overlapping area of 860 square km known as Karish gas fields
7 Crisis of Border Dispute with Isabel: Good News from Beirut, Al Jazeera (Arabic) October 1, 2022,Acccessedhttps://bit.ly/3T0ZzET October 10, 2022
17 Sahi Jaffal, No Winner NO Looser: Historical Demarcation Between Israel and Lebanon, Al-Majallah( Arabic journal) October 14, 20200, Accessed https://bit.ly/3yTK6yq October 19, 2022
[xviii] Sahi Jaffal, No Winner NO Looser: Historical Demarcation Between Israel and Lebanon, Al-Majallah( Arabic journal) October 14, 20200, Accessed https://bit.ly/3yTK6yq October 19, 2022
Netanyahu, Deal a Shameful to Surrender to Hezbollah, Rail Youm,(An Arabic Daily ) October 11, 2022 https://bit.ly/3StxEXs October 14, 2022 Footnote number?