Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

Lebanon at a Tripwire

Lebanon has badly lost its balance and is at risk of new collapse, moving ever closer to explosive Sunni-Shiite polarisation with a divided, debilitated Christian community in between.

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I. Overview

Lebanon has badly lost its balance and is at risk of new collapse, moving ever closer to explosive Sunni-Shiite polarisation with a divided, debilitated Christian community in between. The fragile political and sectarian equilibrium established since the end of its bloody civil war in 1990 was never a panacea and came at heavy cost. It depended on Western and Israeli acquiescence in Syria’s tutelage and a domestic system that hindered urgently needed internal reforms, and change was long overdue. But the upsetting of the old equilibrium, due in no small part to a tug-of-war by outsiders over its future, has been chaotic and deeply divisive, pitting one half of the country against the other. Both Lebanon’s own politicians and outside players need to recognise the enormous risks of a zero-sum struggle and seek compromises before it is too late.

There is domestic responsibility for the crisis. Profound confessional rifts were never fully healed after the civil war; society is hopelessly fragmented along clan, family, regional, social and ideological lines; there are no genuinely sovereign, credible and strong state institutions; and above all, a corrupt patronage system has created vested interests in perpetuating both sectarianism and a weak central state.

But the principal contributors to today’s conflict are foreign. Lebanon is vital to the Bush administration’s regional strategy, Israel’s security, Tehran’s ambitions and the Syrian regime’s core interests. As the July war reminded everyone, it is also a surrogate for regional and international conflicts: Syria against Israel; the U.S. administration against the Syrian regime; pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes led by Saudi Arabia against ascendant Iran and Shiite militancy; and, hovering above it all, Washington against Tehran.

Domestic and foreign roots of the crisis are closely intertwined. Lebanon’s sectarian fabric, feeble state institutions, reliance on patronage and enmeshment in corruption enable and encourage the outside interference on which so many of its leaders depend. At one end of the political spectrum, a coalition of opposition forces relies on Damascus for political and material assistance and, in Hizbollah’s case, military supplies.

But the parliamentary majority – the March 14 alliance that formed in reaction to the 2005 assassination of ex-Prime Minister Hariri – also depends on outsiders, in this case Western countries that provide financial, diplomatic and political support. It is hard even to make out their domestic program. Their agenda essentially boils down to three international initiatives: the forthcoming Paris III conference to increase donor aid; implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to contain Hizbollah; and an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the killing of former Prime Minister Hariri and, implicitly, to deter further Syrian interference.

The confrontation originally centred on Hizbollah’s armed status but has since become sharply focused on the tribunal issue and the related matter of government composition. The tribunal is not critical to Hizbollah but is highly threatening to the Syrian regime, which sees it as a political instrument in enemy hands; Hizbollah is not subordinate to Damascus but is sufficiently dependent on its help not to risk antagonising it on a vital matter. Without Syria, there can be no military re-supply and without such re-supply, there cannot be a sustained resistance against Israel (muqawama). Consequently, Hizbollah insists on gaining veto power in the government to control the tribunal’s fate.

The March 14 alliance banks on its parliamentary majority, cabinet control and – critically – backing from key Western and Arab governments to assert itself and contain Syrian ambitions. Moving swiftly on the tribunal and in effect indicting the Syrian regime is the centrepiece of this strategy.

The political impasse has led both sides to call out their followers. Street politics have replaced institutional politics. Huge demonstrations on one side trigger colossal protests from the other. This is not coup plotters against democrats, or a popular uprising against an illegitimate state. It is one street against the other, one Lebanon against another. Mobilising mass support is how this conflict is being waged: it is not how it will be resolved.

One half of the country cannot rule without, let alone against, the other. The clash over Lebanon’s future will have tragic human consequences. A sectarian split in a context of heavy outside interference will have inevitable and dangerous regional implications. An acceptable compromise will be extraordinarily difficult – at least a half dozen creative proposals, principally by the Arab League, have failed – but it must be found. Any sustainable peace will need to be built upon the following foundations:

Resolution by consensus of the current hair-trigger issues: the tribunal and government composition. With a political and ideological conflict dovetailing with an international and sectarian one, neither side can afford to lose, and neither can govern alone: outside actors must take this into account. The Hizbollah-led opposition demands veto power in a new government that would then consider the tribunal but the March 14 group is certain such a government would never defy Syria. The opposition also calls for early parliamentary elections, claiming the current chamber distorts the real political balance of power. With public opinion strongly supporting both a unity government and the tribunal, there is pressure on both sides. The nub of the problem, and key to its solution, is sequencing. Based on many ideas already mooted, Crisis Group proposes:

  • establishment of a commission based on the Arab League proposal (two representatives of the majority, two of the opposition and two independent judges) to agree on rules for the tribunal;
     
  • adoption of a draft acceptable to all parties that guarantees the tribunal’s independence and non-politicisation, including in particular a revision of Article 3.2 of the tribunal’s statutes to clarify – and narrow – the presently very broadly defined circumstances under which a superior can be held responsible for crimes committed by a subordinate;
     
  • in parallel, consistent with Arab League proposals, agreement by the parties to the composition of a new national unity government (nineteen from the majority; ten from the opposition, and one without the right to vote on sensitive matters: a compromise formula that avoids both a two thirds majority able to impose a decision and a one third plus one minority able to bring down the government);
     
  • simultaneous approval by the parliament of the tribunal, formation of a new unity government, and a new electoral law based on the recommendations of the Boutros commission;
     
  • agreement by the parliament on the name of a new president, to take office at the conclusion of President Lahoud’s mandate (September 2007);
     
  • conduct of early parliamentary elections on the basis of the new electoral law; and
     
  • establishment of a new government based on the electoral results.

Settling the question of Syria. Washington’s strategy of pressure, isolation and implicit threats of regime change has backfired. Damascus has proved it may destabilise Lebanon if what it considers its vital interests are ignored or if it feels cornered. There can be no stable solution for Lebanon without a viable solution for Syria. Washington and Damascus need to discuss each other’s concerns regarding, in particular:

  • Lebanon: the accommodation here would include normal diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut, with Syria forsaking direct political or military interference and relying on legitimate tools – its historic Lebanese allies and Lebanon’s dependence on Syria for trade – to seek to maintain its influence.
     
  • The Hariri investigation: this should continue so as to ascertain responsibility, but with an understanding (assisted by amendments to the tribunal rules of the kind mentioned above) that the objective is not to destabilise the current regime but rather  – assuming evidence implicating Syria is produced – to deter it from future malfeasance in Lebanon.
     
  • Hizbollah: Syria will not loosen its ties with one of its few remaining strategic assets, as long as the Golan Heights remain occupied. However, in the context of renewed engagement with the U.S., it should exercise its influence to ensure Hizbollah maintains calm on the border with Israel.
     
  • Israel: The U.S. should cease opposing the unconditional resumption of negotiations between Syria and Israel that President Bashar al-Asad repeatedly has stated he accepts. To condition this on cessation of Syrian support for Hamas or Hizbollah is to ensure negotiations do not take place. An agreement entailing return of the Golan, security arrangements and normal relations between Syria and Israel would represent a strategic shift of enormous consequence for the region as a whole.
     
  • Iraq: The exploration here, as explained in detail in Crisis Group’s 19 December report, After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq, should be whether the U.S. and Syria can agree on an end state that is neither side’s preference but violates neither side’s redlines.

Addressing the structural roots of its predicament. While necessarily a longer run objective, this means taking up forgotten elements of the Taif agreement that ended the civil war, notably de-confessionalisation:

  • A merit-based appointment system is needed in the public sector, beginning gradually in the executive branch and moving to increasingly senior positions in it, and then similar reforms in the legislative branch, with clear benchmarks all along the way.
     
  • The judiciary and security agencies require reform to strengthen the rule of law and reduce the military’s political role. The Supreme Judicial Council should become independent, oversee all courts and make judicial appointments (not the Council of Ministers). The judicial inspection unit on corruption should be empowered to discipline offenders and publicise findings.
     
  • The education system must be de-confessionalised, including by reviewing and unifying the curriculum.

 

Beirut/Brussels, 21 December 2006

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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