Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A new 'flashpoint'? The Israel-Lebanon maritime border dispute


At first glance, a new flashpoint in the Middle East appears to be emerging in the form of the disputed maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. The states have not successfully formalised their maritime borders, and this has become problematic with the discovery of natural gas reserves in the Levantine Basin. The discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan fields has prompted speculation that other, similar discoveries stand to be made along the coastline of the eastern Mediterranean. This suggests the increasing criticality of precisely delimited maritime boundaries between the states' exclusive economic zones (EEZs), within which they exclusive rights over natural resource exploitation.

Four hundred and thirty square miles are contested in the present dispute which is made further problematic by the diplomatic relations between the state parties: Lebanon, for example, does not recognise Israel and has left the matter open for resolution by the UN. The UN has said that it cannot take any such action on the basis that the delineation of the maritime boundary between the states is no part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mandate. For its part, Israel includes the maritime boundary as but one aspect of the generalised political crisis that it says characterises the entire maritime and land border that separates it from Lebanon. The other major player, the US, has appeared to support the Lebanese position for instrumental reasons, and its representative has sought to depoliticise the current crisis, and frame it in technical and legal terms.

It would seem that the US is on its own, at least in this respect. Media reports have speculated on the potential for a repeat of the war fought between Israel and Lebanon five years ago, with the maritime border as the new, critical factor. But while the dispute may be overtly political it seems that risks of a new confrontation are being exaggerated. Moreover, it may also be that the position adopted by the US with respect to its ally, Israel, is not as unusual as it may first appear; rather, it is the continuation of policy through more nuanced means.

The nature of the dispute

In August 2010 the Lebanese government submitted a map to the UN which, through the use of a border line, defined the extent of its EEZ. This line is to the south of the equivalent line proposed by Israel on 10 July 2011, but its position has been endorsed by the US government. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has argued that the Lebanese line contradicts both the lines that both Lebanon and Israel have agreed with Cyprus in, respectively, 2007 and 2010, on the western extents of their EEZs.

In international law, the principle of acquiescence suggests that a right to a claim may be lost if a party remains silent when a unilateral move, i.e. the claim to territory articulated by the Lebanese submission of a map, is made. It was for this reason that the Israeli cabinet approved its own border delimitation during the last week. Lebanon's response has been to signal its commitment to protecting the 2010 borders. The hydrocarbon reserves enclosed by the limits of these overlapping claims are those at the centre of the present dispute. Energy analysts have discussed how Israeli control of them would make Israel a gas-exporting state whereas, at present, its supply is under threat of disruption, the pipeline from Egypt having been repeatedly bombed in recent months.

Elements within the Israeli government have argued that protestations to the Israeli line are made by elements within Lebanon, principally Hezbollah, intent on provoking a conflict. This, to Israeli officials, may represent a maritime Shebaa Farms—the area of territory that Hezbollah has long accused Israel of occupying illegally, but claimed, by Israel, as a part of the Golan Heights—and, thereby, offer the pretext to a conflict. As in the case of the Shebaa Farms, their policy view is that the territory is legitimately held, and that the existence of the dispute and the competing claims presents little more than a rationale for a confrontation provoked by the hostile powers that surround Israel. Indeed, a position used by Israeli politicians is that the present dispute is symptomatic of a relationship with Lebanon, in which elements within the country will seek to thwart everything that Israel seeks to do.

The Lebanese government's position has been that Israel has violated international law, and Lebanese sovereignty, in coming to the 2010 agreement with Cyprus. In January 2011 the Lebanese Foreign Minister wrote to the UN Secretary-General to ask that the UN work to prevent Israeli exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves in within the EEZ determined in the maps submitted by his ministry in August 2010. The Energy Minister, Gebran Bassil, has said that the government plans to auction off concessions in 2012; before then he has said that Lebanon will seek to counter Israel's continuing aggression and retaliate through political and diplomatic means.

The position of the US, and of the senior US diplomat in charge of the Israel-Lebanon brief, Frederic Hof, has been to ensure that the dispute cannot become the pretext for conflict that the Israeli government anticipates. Hof has sought to ameliorate tension through the appearance of appeasement, if not appeasement outright. The US, after all, has a number of private commercial interests within this context; companies are involved in exploratory and research activities in the Levantine Basin. Hof has appeared to back, at least in part, the Lebanese line, and has suggested that Israel submit the dispute to the UN, and indirectly negotiate with Lebanon through this channel, given the non-recognition problem. (Israel has, of course, refused this option and called upon Lebanon to negotiate all of the current border issues, both on land and at sea.) Its commercial interests considered—and its future access to the reserves in question—it is in US interests to adopt a policy that does not automatically privilege its longstanding regional ally in the Middle East. The US has recognised the danger of the pretext in the specific setting and played its hand accordingly; it will back the Lebanese claim to avoid a Shebaa Farms situation at sea and protect the interests of American firms and investors.

The way ahead

Perhaps this apparent marginalisation of Israel by the US makes more sense than at first it might appear. Granted, the commercial interests are important, but two other concerns should also be considered: Israel's energy security (and recognition of the potential disruption of the gas supply to Israel, and the increase in prices that this would dictate); and the actual scale of the natural resource reserves in the disputed area. A third factor, the likelihood of a new conflict, five years on from the border war, is also debatable despite the line peddled by news sources.

The disruption inflicted by recent attacks upon the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel have shown that attacks on Israeli gas facilities will not be borne lightly. In this sense the US and Israel can work together: Israel can perform a display of jealously guarding its sovereignty, while its more powerful ally can adopt a pragmatic, conciliatory line, and support the Lebanese claim. This may reduce the potential for gas supply disruption to Israel given that the justification for Hezbollah sabotage could evaporate; the US conciliates so that Israel does not have to appear to stoop so low.

With respect to the scale of the deposits in the disputed area, it may be that the problem is being inflated quite falsely. According to one source, the border route that follows the Lebanese course affects only the northern parts of the Alon and Ruth licences which, although they may contain smaller oil and gas deposits, are not the prime concerns of Noble Energy and Delek, the firms that own the licences. Their primary interests are situated further south. If this view is correct then the major consequence of adopting the Lebanese maritime line would only be to delay—and by no means permanently forestall—the development of the less consequential Alon and Ruth licences.

Hof has attempted to frame the dispute in technical and economic terms and to ensure that it does not become a political matter. Perhaps this is in line with an overall US strategy, concerned with protecting Israel but, moreover, with appeasing Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Put simply, perhaps the stakes are not as high, and maybe Israel is not conceding as much, as the US and Israel might like it to appear at first sight.

In any case, as Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University has argued, a conflict between Israel and Lebanon is unlikely. Both sides have a great deal to lose. Rocket attacks on Israel, and the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure would be the consequences, and the 2006 war is still a memory fresh enough to provide a measure of deterrence. Supporting the Lebanese interpretation of the maritime boundary therefore provides the US with a route to protect the Israeli energy supply, articulate a show of its own strength (and independence from Israel), at cost (in resource terms) that is lower than it seems.

Sources: Al Arabiya, Bloomberg, The Financial Times, Haaretz, The Independent, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Week, New Zealand Herald

For more information, please see the Menas Borders website, here.

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