لبنان: معالجة عاصفة تتجمّع
لبنان: معالجة عاصفة تتجمّع
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Report 48 / Middle East & North Africa

لبنان: معالجة عاصفة تتجمّع

ملخّص تنفيذي

إن الصدمات التي تعرّضت لها لبنان في الأشهر الأخيرة قد تعمل على زعزعة استقرار أيّ بلد حتى ولو كان ثابتاً وقوياً، ناهيك عن بلد مستقطب عبر اتجاهات سياسية وطائفية. وإن سبب تماسكه يعود بدرجة كبيرة إلى ذكريات الحرب الأهلية الأخيرة. ومع ذلك، فإن لبنان يتّسم بتاريخ كان يخدم فيه كساحة للنزاعات نيابة عن أطراف أخرى، كما أن الانقسامات الطائفية آخذة في التعمّق بشكل خطير. لذلك، يتعيّن على المجتمع الدولي الاستمرار في التعامل بحذر مع الشؤون اللبنانية والشؤون السورية المرتبطة بها، والقيام بدعم ومساندة حكومة رئيس الوزراء فؤاد سنيورة والمحافظة على الاستقرار، في الوقت الذي يتم فيه تنحية الأجندات الطموحة لنزع سلاح حزب الله أو تغيير النظام في دمشق.

لقد أظهرت الانتخابات التشريعية التي جرت مباشرة بعد انسحاب سوريا درجة التحدي الداخلي. إن المعارضة التي اتخذت بدافع الرغبة لإجبار السوريين على الخروج، قد تشرذمت عندما تُركت لوحدها دون مساعدة. فقد تشكّلت تحالفات انتهازية جديدة، ممّا يُعرف بالأطراف الموالية والمناوئة لسوريا، حيث أوجدت قضية انتخابية مشتركة للدفاع عن المصالح الراسخة. إن الانتخابات كانت تعني نقطة انطلاق للإصلاح وكانت بمثابة تذكير بسلطة الطائفية والوضع الراهن، في حين حصدت عمليات الاغتيال والسيارات المفخخة المزيد من الأرواح.

لقد تأجلت القرارات بسبب الصراع على السلطة بين التحالف المدعوم من الغرب والمكون من رئيس الوزراء وابن رئيس الوزراء الأسبق، رفيق الحريري، الذي أطلق اغتياله سلسلة الأحداث، وبين رئيس الجمهورية المدعوم من سوريا وحلفائه. إن المسؤولين عن أجهزة الأمن والمسؤولين المدنيين المحتارين في اتباع أوامر أيّ من الطرفين، يقفون على الحياد. كما أن العديد من القادة قد تفرقوا، خشية على حياتهم، وهم ينتظرون في المنفى حتى تستقر سحابة الغبار.

وحتى بعد نشر تقرير ميليس، الذي ترعاه الأمم المتحدة حول اغتيال الحريري، فإن الأمور السياسية لا تزال معلقة فعلياً. لقد قدّم التقرير لمحة عن خطة مفصّلة، يُزعم بأنها تشمل مسؤولين لبنانيين وسوريين، لاغتيال رئيس الوزراء السابق، إلا أنه سيتبعه في منتصف كانون الأول (ديسمبر) تقرير أكثر تفصيلاً والذي من المرجح أن يزيد من استفحال التوترات. وهكذا كله يذكّرنا بأن مآزق لبنان قد تقادمت وساهمت في الاحتلال السوري وسوف تتجاوزه وتستمر بعده.

إن الخصومات الطائفية تتحمّل جزءاً كبيراً من اللوم، إلا أن اللاعبين الدوليّين يجب أن يدركوا بأن سياساتهم كفيلة بأن تجعل الوضع يصبح أكثر سوءاً. كما أن الانقسامات المجتمعية توفّر فرصة قوية للتدخل الذي يعمل بدوره على إيقاظ أسوأ المخاوف والغرائز للجماعات المتنافسة. ربما يكون هنالك مزيج سريع الانفجار للقلق الطائفي المتجدّد والذي نشأ عن انهيار النظام الذي كانت ترعاه سوريا، والمنافسة الإقليمية الشديدة والتورط الأجنبي غير المسبوق تقريباً – قرار مجلس الأمن رقم 1559 الذي يأمر بالانسحاب السوري ونزع سلاح الميليشيات؛ والتحقيق الذي يجريه ميليس برعاية الأمم المتحدة؛ والمساعدة الغربية؛ والدعم الإيراني والسوري لحزب الله والمنظمات الفلسطينية. إن الجماعات المختلفة تقف خلف الرؤى المتنافسة للبنان ولمستقبل المنطقة العقائدي والأيديولوجي. ويتم حالياً جرّ السياسات المحلية نحو صراعات أوسع، بينما يتم جرّ اللاعبين الأجانب نحو النزاعات المحلية في لبنان.

للنجاة من العاصفة المقبلة، تحتاج البلاد إلى هدوء مستديم لتصميم وتنفيذ الإصلاحات المتعلقة بالاقتصاد والقضاء والإدارة العامة وأجهزة الأمن وكذلك قانون الانتخابات. لذلك، فإنها في حاجة ماسّة وشديدة إلى مساندة اقتصادية ومؤسّسية من العالم الخارجي وإلى حماية من النزاعات التي يشترك فيها العالم المذكور. وهذه ليست مهمة سهلة، حيث أن الصراع الطائفي في العراق ما زال يتدفق، وأن الأمم المتحدة ما زالت تسعى لتطبيق أحكام القرار 1559 حول نزع سلاح حزب الله والميليشيات الفلسطينية، كما أن تقرير ميليس القادم يهدّد بالكشف عن المزيد من المشاركة اللبنانية والسورية في المؤامرة.

لقد أظهرت كل من الولايات المتحدة وفرنسا انسجاماً مذهلاً، وقد عملتا ضمن إطار متعدّد الأطراف يرتكز بشكل متعمّد على إطار الأمم المتحدة. إنها صيغة ومعادلة جيدة للاحتفاظ بها، وهذا يعني التركيز على دعم الإصلاحات والسماح للتحقيق الذي يجريه ميليس بالسير في مساره المستقل وترك لبنان يتعامل مع وضع حزب الله دون ضغط لا لزوم له.

ومع انسحاب سوريا، فقد قلبت لبنان صفحة هامة، إلا أن العديد من المعطيات الأساسية التي حثّت في المقام الأول على تدخل دمشق لا تزال باقية: الانقسامات الطائفية العميقة والفساد الواسع الانتشار والاكتظاظ السياسي الخانق بالإضافة إلى الوضع الإقليمي المتوتّر. لقد غادرت القوات السورية، إلا أن الانتقال الديمقراطي المستقر ما زال لم يبدأ.

عمان/بروكسل 5 كانون الأول (ديسمبر) 2005

Executive Summary

The shocks Lebanon has experienced in recent months might destabilise even a sturdy country, let alone one polarised along political and sectarian lines. That it has held together is in large part due to memories of the recent civil war. But Lebanon has a history of serving as an arena for proxy struggles, and communal divisions are deepening dangerously. The international community should continue to deal cautiously with Lebanese and related Syrian affairs, bolstering the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and preserving stability, while putting aside more ambitious agendas for Hizbollah’s disarmament or regime change in Damascus.

The legislative elections held immediately after Syria’s withdrawal showed the scale of the domestic challenge. The opposition, united in desire to force the Syrians out, fragmented once left on its own. Opportunistic new alliances were formed, with so-called pro- and anti-Syrians making common electoral cause to defend entrenched interests. Elections meant as a starting point for reform were a reminder of the power of sectarianism and the status quo, while assassinations and car bombs took more lives.

Decisions have been stalled by a power struggle between the Western-backed alliance of the prime minister and the son of the ex-prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, whose assassination started the chain of events, and the Syrian-backed president and his allies. Unsure whose orders to follow, security and civil officials sit on the fence. Fearful for their lives, many leaders have scattered, waiting in exile for the dust to settle.

Even after publication of the UN-sponsored Mehlis report on the Hariri assassination, politics remains in virtual suspension. The report offered a glimpse of an elaborate plan, allegedly involving senior Lebanese and Syrian officials, to murder the former prime minister, but in mid-December it will be followed by a more detailed account that is likely to exacerbate tensions further. All this reminds us that Lebanon’s predicaments predated, contributed to, and will outlive Syria’s occupation.

Sectarian rivalries bear much of the blame but international actors should recognise that their policies are liable to worsen the situation. Communal divisions offer rich opportunity for intervention, which in turn awakens the worst fears and instincts of rival groups. There is a potentially explosive combination of renewed sectarian anxiety born of the collapse of the Syrian-sponsored system, intense regional competition, and almost unprecedented foreign involvement – Security Council Resolution 1559 mandating Syrian withdrawal and disarmament of militias; the UN-sponsored Mehlis investigation; Western aid; and Iranian and Syrian support for Hizbollah and Palestinian organisations. Groups are lining up behind competing visions for Lebanon and the region’s confessional and ideological future. Domestic politics is being dragged into wider contests while foreign actors are pulled into Lebanon’s domestic struggles.

To weather the coming storms, the country needs sustained calm to design and implement reforms of the economy, judiciary, public administration, and security agencies as well as electoral law. For that, it desperately needs both economic and institutional support from the outside world and protection from the struggles in which that world is engaged. This is no easy task, as Iraq’s sectarian conflict spills over, the UN turns to Resolution 1559’s provisions on disarming Hizbollah and Palestinian militias, and Mehlis’s next report threatens to expose more Lebanese and Syrian complicity.

The U.S. and France have shown surprising unity, and have worked within a deliberately multilateral, UN-centred framework. It is a good formula to retain, which means focusing on supporting reforms, allowing the Mehlis investigation to run its independent course, and letting Lebanon deal with Hizbollah’s status without undue pressure.

With Syria’s withdrawal, Lebanon has turned an important page. But so many of the fundamentals that promoted Damascus’s intervention in the first place remain: deep sectarian divisions, widespread corruption, political gridlock, and a tense regional situation. Syria’s troops have left, but a stable, democratic transition has yet to begin.

Amman/Brussels, 5 December 2005

Demonstrators carry a banner and flags during a protest against Israeli gas extraction that Lebanon says falls in disputed waters near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, June 11, 2022. The banner reads " The Line 29 is a red line". REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

Domestic politics in Israel and Lebanon could scuttle talks about their claims in the Mediterranean – and to the gas riches underneath. With the U.S. mediator’s help, the two countries should refocus on achieving an accord that serves their mutual interest and spares them a confrontation.

U.S.-mediated maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel have entered a perilous new phase. The parties have been engaged for over a decade in indirect negotiations over the ownership of natural gas fields discovered, or presumed to exist, in disputed offshore territory. Israel is reportedly on schedule to start extracting gas from the area as early as September. These plans have prompted Hizbollah – the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia and party – to threaten attacks if Israel proceeds without first resolving the territorial dispute. While the two neighbours are reportedly closer than ever to an accord, political crises in both may delay the agreement or make reaching it impossible. Washington has invested significant political capital in fostering a compromise, and it should intensify its efforts to help the two negotiating teams clear the remaining hurdles. Israeli and Lebanese leaders, for their part, should keep their sights trained on concluding an agreement that carries clear mutual benefit, while avoiding a conflict with dangerous consequences for both countries.

Lebanon and Israel have conducted indirect negotiations over demarcating their maritime border since the two sides became aware more than a decade ago that lucrative gas deposits may lie off their shores. Originally in dispute were 860 sq km of waters between the southern boundary of the Lebanese claim (known as “line 23”), which it formally asserted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the boundary Israel sought to draw to the north (known as “line 1”). In 2012, U.S. mediator Frederic Hof proposed a compromise that would have split up the area at a ratio of 55 per cent for Lebanon and 45 per cent for Israel. But – without offering clear reasons – the Lebanese government failed to approve the proposal and the negotiations lapsed. When indirect talks resumed in late 2020, the Lebanese delegation presented new legal and hydrographical studies to support an expanded claim (bounded by what is known as “line 29”) encompassing an additional 1,430 sq km south of line 23; it did not, however, formalise the expanded claim by amending its prior UNCLOS filing, which remains pegged to line 23.

Lebanon’s subsequent insistence on staking its claim based on line 29 has brought previously undisputed gas reserves into play, setting the stage for the recent escalation of tensions. Under Lebanon’s original line 23 claim, the Karish field – the one from which Israel is preparing to extract gas as soon as September – lay far to the south in Israeli waters. By contrast, the new Lebanese claim would put the northern half of Karish in Lebanese maritime territory, turning the field into a source of contention. Predictably, Israel has rejected the new Lebanese position, and the parties have struggled unsuccessfully to narrow the gap between them – engaging first through five rounds of indirect talks at the UN base in Naqoura, a small city in southern Lebanon, and then via shuttle diplomacy conducted by U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, preparations have continued for Karish’s development, which is expected to add around 1.41 trillion cubic feet of gas to Israel’s proven reserves. The expected quantity of gas available at Karish falls well below the estimated size of the Leviathan and Tamar fields, which Israel is already exploiting, suggesting that Karish is not integral to Israeli energy security at present.

In June, Israel signalled that it could begin extraction at Karish in a matter of months. On 5 June, the London-listed company Energean – which Israel has enlisted to develop Karish on its behalf – deployed a floating production, storage and offloading facility to the field. Israeli officials point out that the company began its work at a spot clearly south of line 29, and also note that Lebanon has never amended its UNCLOS filing to bring its claim to that line. Thus, Israel argues, Lebanon has not formally claimed the area where Energean is working.

Hizbollah ... has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims.

These arguments have triggered a harsh response in Lebanon – particularly on the part of Hizbollah, which has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims. In several speeches, the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, maintained that the Karish field is disputed. He threatened to attack the offshore gas infrastructure if Israel began extracting gas before the two countries agreed on a border. On 2 July, Hizbollah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, deployed unarmed reconnaissance drones toward Karish, which the Israeli air force intercepted. Two days later, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati publicly denounced interference in the negotiations by non-state actors, saying it exposed Lebanon to “unnecessary risks”. Undeterred, Nasrallah spoke of military action if the dispute was not settled by September. On 31 July, Hizbollah released a video displaying its capacity to attack gas infrastructure. The same day, the group published footage of black-clad fighters patrolling unarmed near the Israeli-Lebanese border.

With Hizbollah putting its credibility on the line, and Israel doubtless reluctant to back down in the face of threats from a group that it characterises as a terrorist organisation, the risk of some form of escalation is significant. While Nasrallah expressed hope that the dispute can be resolved without a fight, Hizbollah’s brinkmanship – in marked contrast to the more cautious approach to Israel the group has taken in recent years – suggests that the organisation is prepared to take greater risks this time. Even a limited military confrontation could spin out of control, due either to miscalculation about the other side’s red lines or to operational error – such as a missile or drone attack aiming to inflict only material damage but causing casualties instead.

That said, there are grounds for hope that a confrontation can be averted. Despite the threat of conflict, or perhaps because of it, the two sides now appear closer to a deal than ever. During U.S. mediator Hochstein’s last visit to Beirut on 31 July, Lebanon reportedly proposed a compromise that moves its claim back from line 29 to line 23, on the condition that Israel cedes an additional 80 sq km south of line 23. This extra pocket of maritime territory would put the Qana prospect – a gas deposit of unproven potential to the north east of Karish – entirely within Lebanese waters. In practical terms, the suggested compromise treats Lebanon’s claim to line 29 as a bargaining gambit to secure its claim up to line 23, along with the entire Qana prospect.

Israel is reportedly ready to accommodate this proposal, which would entail giving up on the nearly 400 sq km north of line 23 it was supposed to receive under the 2012 Hof proposal, as well as Qana. It is possible that Israel may ask for a share of future proceeds from Qana should gas exploitation prove viable, or for territorial compensation north of line 23, which would mean an S-shaped rather than a straight demarcation line. While Israel’s official response to the Lebanese proposal remains unknown at this stage, a territorial swap would appear to be a more straightforward solution than a profit-sharing arrangement, given the antagonism between the two countries.

Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome ... resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

Israel has good reason to make such substantial concessions. The energy crisis in Europe, triggered by the war in Ukraine, provides a window of opportunity to expand gas exports. But if that is the goal, securing stable access to the offshore reserves is imperative – and that will require an accommodation with Hizbollah and Beirut. While Israel may be confident that it can defeat Hizbollah in a military confrontation, private corporations are unlikely to undertake investments and expose staff and multi-million-dollar equipment if they risk being caught in the crossfire. Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome the precedent a deal would set for the two countries resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

For Lebanon, wrapping up the negotiations swiftly would also be a win, not least because it would receive a far larger share of the disputed maritime area than appeared possible even a few months ago. A comprehensive solution to the demarcation issue would also clear the way for exploration in Lebanon’s promising southern waters. Until now, the international consortium commissioned to explore the area, led by French energy giant Total, has made clear that operations cannot proceed before the parties resolve their dispute. As for Hizbollah, despite its bellicose posture, it has never committed to defending any specific line, and has repeatedly stressed that the Lebanese government alone is responsible for reaching a settlement; that said, Hizbollah would likely take credit for helping Lebanon achieve a favourable outcome if a deal is struck.

Yet despite an accord being within reach and to clear mutual benefit, the process may still falter in the final stages because of dysfunctional domestic politics on both sides. Lebanon’s politicians have been unable to form a new government since the country’s elections on 15 May. Leaders are increasingly preoccupied with the debate over the succession of President Michel Aoun, whose term expires on 31 October, and the spectre of an open-ended constitutional crisis if no compromise on his replacement can be found. This matter has reduced Beirut’s bandwidth for the border negotiations, and indeed for major political decisions of any kind. There is also a risk of last-minute sabotage by leading Lebanese politicians, who have long competed with one another to claim personal credit for a successful outcome in the maritime talks. In Israel, the ruling coalition’s collapse has left a caretaker cabinet in charge that likewise finds it difficult to make big decisions. With elections approaching in November, hardliners may exploit any border compromise for political attacks.

It would be a missed opportunity for both sides, and a blow to regional stability, if an otherwise achievable agreement were to fall through for any of these reasons. After more than a decade and many false starts, the maritime border negotiations are tantalisingly close to a viable solution. As the parties move toward a deal, outside actors that have influence with key players in each system should urge them forward over the finish line. The U.S., whose shuttle diplomacy has contributed significantly to the process, should in particular redouble its efforts to get the deal done. It may need to hold more regular meetings with, and lean on, the two countries’ negotiators to get them to recognise the matter’s urgency. Washington should also encourage Lebanese interlocutors to dissuade Hizbollah from hardening its confrontational stance and Israel to hold off on gas extraction while the deal is hammered out – even as it works to maintain the talks’ momentum and keep them from being held hostage to political developments in either country.

Ultimately, it will fall to Israeli and Lebanese political leaders to make the deal happen. Their task may be difficult amid jockeying for electoral and partisan advantage. The prize, however, is well worth the trouble. The parties have the chance to make an agreement that is good for both countries, sets an important precedent for greater bilateral comity and averts the prospect of dangerous escalation. They should seize it.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.