Optimistically, the dispute between Lebanon and Israel, extending over a decade, could very well be running its course. Conditional on Lebanese, Israeli, and Hezbollah’s compliance, the current round of U.S.-led negotiations could potentially lead to an agreement on the boundary between the two EEZs. Leading to Lebanese hydrocarbon exploration and potential exploitation, a true windfall for the country’s collapsed economy.
The positioning (June) of the United Kingdom-based Greek company “Energean” of a floating production, storage, and offloading (FPSO) unit at the Karish field has only served to sharpen the necessity of an immediate resolution.
The Karish gas field, an area entirely in Israel’s EEZ that the Lebanese government has not officially claimed , has played into Hezbollah’s hands. The positioning of the rig (and the upcoming hydrocarbon extraction) during the ongoing negotiations gave rise to Hezbollah to up the ante through threats against the Israeli site. Ostensibly, in defense of Lebanon’s economic interests, actually in a bid to bolster the Iranian proxy’s lagging popular support.
The maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel is as much over a line as it is over honor and international recognition of Lebanese rights. The discovery of potential hydrocarbon fields in the disputed area between Lebanon and Israel has only heightened the issue’s complexity. With Lebanese elites vying to maintain their privileges and interests. All in the face of the collapse of the Lebanese state, dire economic straits of the Lebanese, worsening Christian and “moderate” Shiite (Pro AMAL) demographics, and a growing lack of country-wide governance[AC1] .
An unsuccessful outcome at the very least of an EEZ agreement (decoupled from the Blue Line dispute) would more than likely only serve to extend Hezbollah’s “area of friction” with Israel, from land to sea. Including not only Shebaa farms (since 2000) and the Blue Line (mainly since 2019) but the Israeli assets in the Mediterranean.
The tabled issue is one of the contours of the two countries Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and is not a permanent border dispute resolution. During more than a decade of negotiations, it was clear that the differences between Israel and Lebanon were limited and seemly easily solved if Lebanon could take a decision. Something the Beirut political elite has been unable to do since 2012 (with the fall of the Mikati government). Apparently, something they choose to do in 2022, following surveys indicated Gaz resources on the Lebanese side. This is also the background of Nasrallah’s threats. Israel is the tool to bolster its battered reputation (as demonstrated in the May 2022 Lebanese parliamentary elections).
Israeli national interests regarding the maritime negotiations revolve around economic utility (extracting hydrocarbons from the sea) but include a critical security dimension. One even more pronounced today with Hezbollah’s enhanced Blue Line presence (and UNIFIL pushed back). A development necessitating denying the Iranian proxy direct physical access to Haifa Bay. Tactically, this means the continued Israeli presence of the Rosh HaNiqra high ground (established by the Newcombe – Paulet – Newcombe agreement, March 1923). The agreement defined the boundary between the French Mandate of Lebanon – Syria and the British one of Palestine. The document served as a basis for the Lebanon – Israel armistice agreement (1949).
Regarding Lebanon, the interests are governed by the many competing actors who are more interested in maintaining their privileges than improving Lebanese lives. Specifically, Nasrallah is interested in keeping his (and Iran’s) dominance through the stranglehold he has on the Lebanese economy (or at the least ensuring his take) and in sustaining the fallacy of resistance to Israeli occupation[AC2]. A successful negotiation outcome could potentially harm both of these interests. Other political actors are similarly interested in controlling the expected income from hydrocarbon extraction, with the clear understanding that control of these monies means control of Lebanon’s future. The Speaker of the house (the 84-year-old Shite, Nabih Berri) and the outgoing President (the 88-year-old Christian Maronite, Michel Aoun) are good examples of the privileged class that through their cronyism, have delayed an agreement over these last ten years.
The next few days/weeks are critical to the process, facing a triad of challenges that could disrupt, postpone or even terminate what appears to be a “done deal”. These include:
- The logjammed presidential election process in Lebanon could once again (similar to 2012-2014) derail Lebanese decision-making. The current president (Aoun) is supposed to step down on 31 October.
- Parliamentary elections in Israel and a caretaker government could potentially disrupt decision-making over an EEZ agreement.
- Secretary General of Hezbollah Nasrallah, who, not for the first time, has weighed in on the maritime issue. With his linking of the maritime issue to the land boundary dispute, he is extending the “area of friction” with Israel and a growing probability of miscalculation.
The Lebanon – Israel maritime dispute: Basic terms
The maritime dispute between the two countries can be divided into four significant issues: Lines, angles, points, and hydrocarbon fields.
The lines relate to the drawing of the national baselines, which serve as the reference for defining territorial waters (12 nautical miles) and the EEZ (up to an additional 200 nautical miles[AC3] ). The baseline, practically the low-water line of the coast, is a critical technical element in defining maritime boundaries, and there is “no one size, fits all”. Disagreement over baselines is usually the source of maritime disputes.
The baseline also usually serves as the guideline for the angle of maritime boundary, waters, and EEZ, from the coast into the sea. Specifically, Lebanon wishes to prove that the angle is due south. Conversely, Israel is interested in a due north angle. Both countries have enlisted technical and historical precedents (based on international law) to prove their case. Specifically, the leveraging of coastal islands to extend baselines and improve angles is used by both countries. Israel presented the Techelet island (west of Achziv), which Lebanon accepted in 2012 but currently rejects. Lebanon presents a similar case regarding her maritime boundary with Syria.
Both countries employ additional techniques to improve their claim. The Lebanese staking their claim on the March 1923 Paulet – Newcombe agreement while attempting to leverage the angle of the land boundary between countries. Precisely, the use of the land terminus point (known as B1), as a reference for drawing the maritime angle. A disputed point whose position is unknown. Moreso, this approach creates a linkage between the national land dispute (Blue Line) and the EEZ dialogue. One expanding the complexity of the discussions (impacting Israeli national defense interests) and necessitating, at the very least, the securing of both countries’ parliamentary support – currently unlikely. Similarly, a comprehensive (land and sea) solution recognizing the state of Israel is currently rejected by Nasrallah. A dramatic strategic adjustment could potentially undercut Hezbollah’s raison detre’.
Regarding the maritime fields of potential hydrocarbon extraction, the two prominent in the current discussions are Karish (shark in Hebrew) and Qana, originally named Sidon but renamed “in defiance of Israel” . Karish, an Israeli field, is situated well south of point 23 and is being prepped by “Energean” for gas extraction. Israel and the Lebanese authorities (led by president Aoun) agree that the field is in Israel’s EEZ. Conversely (recognizing an opportunity for one-upmanship), Nasrallah targeted the site, sending (July) unarmed drones that the IDF downed. Followed by threatening personal and media messages warning Israel that Hezbollah would prevent Israeli gas extraction unless Lebanon receives her maritime rights. Threats were made concerning QANA, a prospective gas field that at least 20% of it is inside Israel.
The result is that the maritime dispute resolves around four lines that Lebanon has continuously extended southward since 2010:
Point 1: Israel’s EEZ claim since 2010. Officially deposited with the U.N. Was Lebanon’s southern terminus claim (until 2010).
Point 23: Lebanon’s EEZ since 2011. Officially deposited with the U.N. (decree 6433) and supported by the current Lebanese leadership.
Point 29: Lebanon’s southernmost point was raised during the Naqoura negotiations[AC4] in late 2020. Encompasses a total of 1480 sqkm (including KARISH field and QANA prospect). Considered an initial Lebanese bargaining ploy chip and is currently not the official Lebanese claim after being rejected by President Aoun (June 2022), who continues to maintain Point 23 as Lebanon’s official negotiation point of departure. Apparently, the president’s decision resulted from him wishing to maintain U.S. support for various interests. These include International Monetary Fund relief to the Lebanese economy, supporting electricity supply from Egypt through Jordan and Syria, and dropping the boycott of his son-in-law and presidential candidate, Bassil Gebran.
Hof Line (2012): Compromise line between Israel’s and Lebanon’s claim. Awarding 55% of the area between points 1 and 23 to Lebanon (490 sqkm out of 860 sqkm). Initiates offshore. Agreed to by Israel in 2012.
The road to a potential Lebanon – Israel EEZ agreement
In the case of the Israel – Lebanon maritime dispute, Cyprus, as a neighboring state, plays an important role. Firstly, limiting the extent of the EEZ (the distance between the Levant coast to Cyrus is approximately 150 – 250 nautical miles) and secondly, serving as a practical reference point for both coastal countries.
The EEZ agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon (January 2007) included six points judged to be equidistant between the two countries but left open the southern and northern points for further negotiations with Israel (“Point one”) and Syria (“Point six”). Cyprus ratified the agreement (2009), but Lebanon decided not to due to her diplomatic relations with Turkey. Still, Lebanon chose to stake its claim to the Mediterranean based on its agreement with Cyrus. Depositing (20 October 2010) with the U.N. a document marking “the Southern part of the western median line of its EEZ – that is the point bordering Cyprus”  known as “Point one”. This deposition, which came in addition to the Southern coordinates that it had deposited earlier with the U.N. (15 July 2010), meant that at the end of 2010, Lebanon officially recognized the Lebanon – Cyprus maritime demarcation. Including point 1 as Lebanon’s southernmost EEZ border with Cyprus.
Israel (after careful study) concluded her EEZ agreement (December 2010) with Cyprus, which included 12 geographical points defining the edges of the EEZ. Like the Cyprus – Lebanon EEZ agreement, “the Israel-Cyprus agreement contained the same clause regarding amending the first and last markers depending on future border agreements with other states” . The agreement entered into force (on 25 February 2011).
Following Israel’s deposit based on point one, Lebanon (with the assistance of European consultants), responded (November 2011) with an adjusted deposition to the U.N. . One that requested “clarifying that Lebanon’s EEZ boundary begins at Ras Naqoura marks the land border between Lebanon and Israel, as per the 1949 Israeli-Lebanese General Armistice Agreement table of coordinates and terminates at Point 23, which lies 133 kilometers from the coast at an average angle of 291 degrees. The letter ascertained that Point 1 does not represent the southern end of the median line that separates the EEZ of each country, and thus it should not be taken as a starting point between Cyprus and Israel. It also requested the U.N. take the necessary measures to resolve the problem and ensure Lebanon’s rights” .
Conversely’ “Israel claimed that the EEZ boundary begins from Ra’s Naqoura (albeit 35 meters north of Lebanon’s starting point) and stretches 127 kilometers at 298 degrees to terminate at Point 1, which lies 17 kilometers northeast of Lebanon’s Point 23” . The Lebanese claimed that the Israeli claim (as deposited with the U.N.) infringed on at least 854 square kilometers of Lebanon’s EEZ (between Lebanon’s Point 23 and Point 1).
Fredrick Hof, the first U.S. maritime mediator, offered (December 2012) a compromise to Lebanon and Israel that proposed creating a provisional maritime Blue Line (named Maritime Separation Line – MSL). Focused on the immediate extraction of maritime resources for both countries and based on the land deconfliction concept, it envisaged the creation of “a buffer zone adjacent to the MSL where no petroleum activities would be allowed without the consent of the other party” .
Hof’s proposal was unique in suggesting overcoming the Gordian knot between Israel’s security issue (denying Hezbollah presence at Ras Naqoura, which created a direct threat to Haifa Bay) and the Lebanese insistence on solving the maritime dispute based on leveraging the controversial land terminus, B1 at Ras Naqoura. His proposal was practical and interim. As he explained how he drew what is known as the “Hof line”,
“Ray (U.S. boundary expert Raymond Milefsky) ran the calculations and drew a line. To avoid provoking controversy over who owned what rock at the base of Ras an Naqoura/Rosh Ha Nikra cliff – an area never surveyed for boundary, armistice demarcation line, or Blue Line purposes – he started his line three miles offshore. And yes, it ran in-between the Lebanese and Israeli lines, which of course, had swung south and north, respectively. The Ray Line intersected the Cypriot line 60 percent of the way down from the Israel-Cyprus intersection to the Lebanon-Cyprus intersection, leaving slightly more than 55 percent of the disputed area on the Lebanese side of the ledger. I must say that 55:45 – irrespective of who got what – struck me as more respectable, more attractive than 50:50” .
The proposal, accepted by Israel (May 2012), was torpedoed by the Lebanese due to Lebanese internal politics. Then Minister of energy and water Gebran Bassil (President Aoun’s son-in-law) pressured prime minister Najib Mikati on the proposed compromise. Following the collapse of the Mikati government, the maritime issue was basically shelved until 2018.
Based on the successful management of the Blue Line (2017-2019), U.S. ambassador David Satterfield (then acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs) toiled to restart EEZ negotiations. Efforts that led to the current round (initiated in October 2020); initially led by David Schenker and ambassador John Desrocher and now (once again) by Mr. Hochstein (U.S. State Department, Senior Advisor for Energy Security).
The talks, facilitated by UNIFIL at Naqura, began in 2020 and peaked with the shuttle mediation efforts of Hochstein (2021 – 2022), including consultations with relevant energy companies in Europe. Including Total, a French company, preparing to explore the QANA prospect in the Lebanese Block 9, which is currently in the disputed area. As of last week, it appears that the U.S. mediator presented a draft proposal to both countries with what seems to be a forward-leaning solution to Lebanon. One accepts that the QANA prospect is in Lebanon’s EEZ (potentially including financial compensation to Israel).
An agreement in the offing?
With the full backing of POTUS Joe Biden, it appears that Israel and Lebanon are ready to sign the deal. A successful deal resulting in “mutual apparatus deterrence” (with both countries having gas rigs) and a precedent for future Lebanese – Israel engagement. Potentially creating an alternative to Nasrallah’s battered resistance narrative and threats to regional stability.
At the international level, with the upcoming midterm elections, a significant international achievement brokered by the Biden administration would benefit the president. Especially one enabling regional stabilizing efforts in the Levant, enabling energy extraction potentially benefiting Europe (scrambling for alternatives to Russian gas).
Regarding Nasrallah, his threats are part of his efforts to maintain his hold on Lebanese politics, including influencing the identity of the next president. Recognizing the potential successful outcome of the American efforts to improve his position as a Lebanese actor, the Shiite secretary general has stepped up to the plate to “defend” Lebanese rights in what he frames as Israeli aggression. Not only laying a claim to Karish (something rejected by Israel, Lebanon, and the U.S. mediator) but also using it as a bargaining chip to reinforce Lebanese claims to the QANA field. One that all involved understand needs to be addressed – even without Nasrallah, whose threats are more likely due to looking out for his interests. Maintaining an economic stranglehold on Lebanon and sustaining his battered resistance narrative. Which both have only assisting in driving the country’s economy into the ground. For whoever holds the purse strings of the energy extraction process in the country will call the shots.
Moreover, it is essential to emphasize that this agreement is not a peace agreement, is not a normalization agreement, and does not resolve the land and maritime border disputes.
The question remains how will Nasrallah choose to interpret the potential signing of an agreement? Will it embolden him to create further friction on the Blue Line (or extend it to the area surrounding Rosh HaNiqra). Or will he call it a day, harvesting his popular achievement in what he claims, so-called coercing Israel to back down. Something hawkish Israeli discourse will only serve to embellish reinforcing his confidence in driving discord in the Israeli public – especially with the upcoming parliamentary election.
*Brigadier Erez D. Maisel (IDF reserves) has vast experience in strategic planning, defense engagement, and defense intelligence. A hands-on practitioner in international conflict prevention and boundary management. A native of northern Israel and a research fellow in the IDF’s history department (Lebanon-focused) and the Alma Research and Education Center.
The U.S. mediator is Amos Hochstein, Senior Advisor for Energy Security. Israeli born he served (1992-1995) in the IDF. This is his second bout of mediation between Lebanon and Israel following. The first (2014-2017) as Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources
Based on deposited Lebanese documents with the U.N. in 2011
The Qana event occurred (in April 1996) during an Israeli operation (“Grapes of Wrath”) against Hezbollah. It resulted from a mistaken IDF strike on a U.N. compound, leading to the death of over a hundred Lebanese civilians. https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-lebanon-reportedly-drops-claims-on-karish-gas-field-1001415699.
https://lebanongasnews.com/wp/the-maritime-delimitation-between-lebanon-and-israel/. Assistance in developing the Lebanese maximal claim by the U.K. hydrographic Office (2009). See, https://nowlebanon.com/wasted-opportunities/.
https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/explained-israel-lebanon-maritime-border-dispute-renewed; https://nowlebanon.com/wasted-opportunities/; https://theowp.org/lebanon-proposes-a-pushback-on-maritime-border-claims-with-israel/.
https://www.undp.org/lebanon/publications/maritime-boundaries-and-natural-resources-republic-lebanon. Lebanon’s adjusted claim was:
“The EEZ northern boundary begins at from point 7 that falls north of Al-Arida river and extends southwards to include point 23 which lies 133 kilometers from the southern coastal area of Ras Naqoura, which marks the land border between Lebanon and Israel, at an average angle of 291 degrees”.
“We had accorded each full weight in creating an equidistant line; something the Lebanese had not done with respect to Israel’s selection of an island off the coast of Haifa as a reference point”.
https://www.arabnews.com/node/1245286/middle-east. Amos Hochstein who tried to mediate until April 2014, suggested a unitized zone approach where one company would extract for both countries. A proposal rejected.
Possibly a “S” shaped boundary that leaves QANA in Lebanon’s EEZ without dealing with the sensitive land terminus point (B1). Such a proposal was leaked (May 2022).
https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/east-mediterranean-mena/lebanon/time-resolve-lebanon-israel-maritime-border-dispute. Nasrallah’s threats don’t include a specific line only a general threat. Wishing to threaten in order to gain credit and to be recognized as the leading Lebanese power broker.