Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems
Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Lebanese protesters are sprayed with water during a protest against corruption and against the government’s failure to resolve a crisis over rubbish disposal, near the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon on 23 August 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems

Crisis Group’s Lebanon Senior Analyst Sahar Atrache examines the underlying causes of the crisis and the possible scenarios that Lebanon faces.

Protests over corruption and political dysfunction are growing in Lebanon. Clashes between protesters and security forces have left dozens wounded over the last few days, increasing instability in a country highly polarised along politico-sectarian fault lines, threatened not long ago by sectarian clashes and violence, and already overwhelmed by nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, ongoing border tensions as well as kidnappings by Sunni Islamist militants.

Given the political paralysis, was it just a matter of time before these protests broke out?

Popular resentment and anger toward the political class’s abysmal performance have been building up for a long time. The sight and smell of trash submerging neighbourhoods in Beirut and elsewhere constituted a tipping point; thousands took to the streets to give public expression to mounting discontent.

The crisis started when the government, yielding to pressure from residents and activists, closed the capital’s main landfill on 17 July, without a ready alternative. Opened on a temporary basis in 1998, the Naameh landfill was supposed to be closed in 2004, but government inaction kept it in use; eleven years later it was filled far beyond capacity, contributing to heavy air and seawater pollution in the area. Criticism of the cabinet’s waste management malpractices first started on social media and was followed by symbolic actions by a handful of activists who, for example, tossed garbage bags in front of the environment minister’s residence. There were a number of small demonstrations before protests started gathering momentum on the weekend of 22-23 August.

To see all types of rubbish (from food and beverages to medical waste, plastic, paper, glass, broken and old furniture…) piling up in city streets over the past few weeks brought home the point that the country is in deep crisis. Lebanon has been without a president for over a year, its government is inactive, its parliament has unconstitutionally renewed its own mandate. State institutions have become increasingly unproductive, unable to perform their most basic responsibilities. Many Lebanese have adapted to the state’s malfunctioning and its fading service-delivery over the years by resorting to privatised alternatives. Yet a state-initiated resolution to the garbage crisis, with its unbearably repelling daily effect, is imperative if stability is to be restored.

As we argued in a report published in late July, “Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies”, the Lebanese political class has tried to contain an unfolding governance crisis through temporary and imperfect stopgaps, invoking regional turmoil as an excuse, while only compounding the problems. And now we have seen, in the garbage crisis, that political divisions and disagreements are so deep-rooted that even flawed stopgap measures are difficult for the government to implement.

Are the protests likely to grow? Where do you see this going?

The high turnout – around 10,000 protesters on 22 August and at least twice that number the next day – surprised most Lebanese, including the organisers themselves.

But these protests are tapping into a deeper seam and offer a rare opportunity for Lebanese disaffected with partisan politics and opposed to both the 8 March and 14 March alliances (the two major coalitions led, respectively, by Hizbollah and the Future Movement). They have been cross-regional and cross-sectarian, breaking the apathy of many who, for some time, had become indifferent to public causes, and renewing belief that mass mobilisation outside of a political-sectarian framework is still possible.

Yet, their future remains uncertain. The organisers, an array of activists and non-governmental organisations, including an ad-hoc group called “You Stink” that initiated the campaign, lack the logistical requirements to translate the protests into concrete change, hobbled as they have been by problems in coordination, communication and organisation. Some of the participants raised divisive or unrealistic slogans, such as “regime change” or the downfall of the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, which provoked Salam’s supporters to block roads in some parts of the country. The organisers eventually withdrew these demands in a press conference, but they were unable to formulate clear alternatives. If they fail to do so, protests will start to taper off.

The use of force revealed a state of panic inside the establishment.

More significantly, a number of protesters – accused of being infiltrators intent on sabotaging largely peaceful demonstrations – destroyed private and public properties in downtown Beirut on 23 August. The actions of a few might dissuade many others from participating in the protest scheduled for 29 August, after one set for 24 August was cancelled (in order to make better preparations, according to organisers).

How do you judge the security forces’ harsh response to the protesters? What could government and security forces do to keep protests as peaceful as possible?

Images of water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets fired at protesters on 22 and 23 August shocked broad segments of the population. The use of violence against peaceful protesters has become a rare exception in Lebanon since the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops. Unsurprisingly, it served as a catalyst, pushing many to take to the street to express their outrage and their solidarity with the protesters.

Moreover, the use of force revealed a state of panic inside the establishment, which seemed deeply threatened by events, even though the protesters were unarmed. Authorities even erected a concrete blast wall the next day near the prime ministry in downtown Beirut, but under public pressure were forced to dismantle it within 24 hours. Excessive force and the building of the wall have widened the gulf between the government and large segments of society, and have further discredited the political class.

While aiming to protect the government and parliament buildings, and preserving Lebanon’s stability amid regional turmoil in volatile times, the security forces’ resort to brute force threatens the country’s fragile peace. To prevent things from slipping out of control, the government, political leaders and security commanders should agree to ban the use of force other than standard riot-control techniques, issue clear and public instructions against it, and hold security personnel accountable. Moreover, the government should immediately release dozens of activists arbitrarily arrested in the past few days.

How might these protests affect the current government? What are the likely scenarios?

Regardless of the protests’ outcome, the government is barely functioning, paralysed by deep divisions among its members. The demonstrations may have raised a red flag for politicians, reminding them of the urgent need to better manage the garbage crisis and avoid total breakdown. Indeed, the government has accelerated steps to resolve the issue, selecting winning bidders for new waste collection contracts in the country’s six governorates. However, many parties, including the protesters, are suspicious of these deals, given a long history of corrupt agreements and zero outcome. A day after their announcement, the cabinet cancelled the controversial contracts, invoking the bidders’ excessively high rates.

Lebanon is likely to continue to face a deepening crisis.

On several occasions, the prime minister has expressed frustration at the government he heads, accusing his political rivals of undermining its functioning. He has even mooted the possibility of resigning. Regardless of whether he follows through, Lebanon is likely to continue to face a deepening crisis. It is unrealistic to expect major improvements in the government’s performance when its constituent parts are political rivals whose allies in Syria are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with each other. If the Salam government were to collapse, it would only extend the political crisis. The formation of a new government could take months, if not longer.

Amid these tensions, there are also risks of renewed violence and/or sectarian clashes, although the two main parties, Hizbollah and the Future Movement, have an interest in avoiding open conflict. They are both motivated by a common interest in containing Sunni extremists and preventing intra-Lebanese disputes from spinning out of control. Neither wants to exacerbate the current crisis or to see the back of the Salam government.

What about Lebanon’s main backers Saudi Arabia and Iran? Where do they stand with regard to the protests? Could/would one of them try to tip Lebanon’s “flimsy political equilibrium” as part of their regional sparring?

For now, Riyadh and Tehran have not spoken out publicly about the protests. There appears to be a tacit convergence of interest between these two rivals in preserving the country’s status quo and in not jeopardising its fragile calm while the region is a mess.

What can be done to address the root causes of the garbage crisis and get past the current episode?

In the immediate future, the political class urgently needs to strengthen the country’s immune system, first and foremost by providing a sustainable and transparent solution to the garbage crisis in particular, but also by holding long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections to put the democratic process back on track. In the longer term, if Lebanon is to avoid teetering on the edge of endless crisis, radical changes will have to be implemented.

As we argued in July, these include: reinforcing state institutions, improving the quality and delivery of essential services, addressing social and geographic disparities, ending widespread impunity by promoting a culture of accountability, refraining from interfering in the judicial process, and fighting endemic corruption within both the political system and society at large. As the protests have shown, time may be running out for a political class incapacitated by incompetence and inertia.

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.

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