The New Lebanese Equation: The Christians’ Central Role
The New Lebanese Equation: The Christians’ Central Role
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

The New Lebanese Equation: The Christians’ Central Role

After decades during which they saw their influence consistently decline, Lebanon’s Christians are in a position to once again play a decisive political role.

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Executive Summary

After decades during which they saw their influence consistently decline, Lebanon’s Christians are in a position to once again play a decisive political role. The May 2008 Doha agreement, coming in the wake of Hizbollah’s takeover of West Beirut, provides the Christian community with the opportunity to regain an important place on the political map and to advance demands that have long been ignored. Already, Christians have obtained key positions in the new government, which was formed on 12 July. But the Doha agreement goes well beyond.

The Doha accords have ushered in three significant changes. First, they led to the election as president of Michel Suleiman, the former army commander. As a result, the Christians recovered the institution to which they are constitutionally entitled but whose effective powers had considerably diminished since the crisis began in 2004. The new president is likely to be courted by political actors of all stripes, each seeking to shape decisions he will face at his term’s outset. These include initiation of a dialogue on a national defence strategy (which, ultimately, will have to include the question of Hizbollah’s weapons), preparation of the 2009 parliamentary elections and the definition of new relations between Syria and Lebanon founded on mutual respect for sovereignty.

Secondly, the Doha agreement paves the way for a more Christian-friendly electoral law. Up until now, the electoral map was such that the vast majority of Christian candidates had to enter into alliances with the main Muslim parties. Most Christian politicians, it follows, were elected thanks to Muslim votes. Not any more. Post-Doha, Christian parliamentarians for the most part will be elected in predominantly Christian disticts. That means they will have real leverage and be able to adjudicate between the two principal Muslim poles, the one dominated by the Sunni Future Movement, the other by the Shiite Hizbollah. Because Lebanon’s political system broadly allocates ministerial seats in accordance with various parties’ parliamentary weight, the Christian vote will be decisive in the establishment of a novel balance of power – unless, of course, violence or massive irregularities prevent the holding of elections or undermine their credibility.

Thirdly and lastly, Christians will be in a position to revitalise old demands which the rest of the political class generally has disregarded. President Suleiman mentioned these in his inaugural address and Michel Aoun, the community’s self-proclaimed leader, also made them the focus of his effort to build a large Christian coalition. Among these demands are long overdue and ever deferred administrative reforms (eg, decentralisation), empowering the presidency, ensuring better Christian representation in senior civil service positions, rejecting the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees and facilitating the return of displaced and exiled co-religionists. Never before have these claims – which have long obsessed members of the Christian community – been as central a part of the political debate as they are today. Because powerful Muslim actors will need to ensure the loyalty of Christian poli­t­icians, and because such politicians’ leverage thereby will be strengthened, some of these longstanding demands could well be realised in the end.

For Lebanon’s Christians, these represent potentially momentous changes. The formula devised in 1989 to end the fifteen-year civil war shifted the balance of power in a way that clearly disfavoured them: the president was stripped of several prerogatives while the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians was brought down from 60 to 50 per cent. The ensuing period was characterised by Syria’s military occupation and the systematic repression of pro-independence Christian movements. Already weakened by a substantial wartime exodus, the Christian community was both leaderless and adrift, contributing to a sense of dispossession that, to this day, shapes its outlook in profound ways.

Syria’s 2005 withdrawal enabled the return and release of key Christian leaders together with the reassertion of core demands. But the Christian political scene split into two camps. On one side, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amine Gemayel’s Phalanges banked on the end of all residual Syrian influence, joined forces with former pro-Syrian actors (a majority of Sunnis and Druze) and called upon the international community to help restore a sovereign Lebanese state. This latter goal would be achieved, in particular, by setting up an international tribunal charged with investigating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder, imputed to Damascus, and by pressing for Hizbollah’s disarmament. On the other side, General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement challenged the political system as a whole, breaking its isolation by forging a controversial understanding with Hizbollah, Syria’s main Lebanese ally.

The first camp defined the priority as genuine sovereignty through which would emerge a strong state capable of carrying out Christian demands. Aoun’s camp, by contrast, argued that its ties to a powerful actor, flexible on all issues other than its armed status, was the optimal way to address the community’s immediate and vital concerns. It also claimed that the emergence of an unchallenged Christian leader (read: Aoun as president) would allow a complete overhaul of the political system.

The tug of war between the two principal Christian camps is hardly over. Much will depend on the 2009 parliamentary elections which will be a test of their respective power and determine the country’s next government. In that sense, the Christian electorate – whose political preferences are by far the least predictable of all – will play a decisive role. Assuming it can play its role deftly, it will be in a position to promote policies it has long advocated. More importantly, it will be in a position to ensure that the country’s political conflicts are resolved within and not in spite of its institutions – through ballots rather than bullets. After one full-blown civil war and another near-miss, that would be no small achievement.

Beirut/Brussels, 15 July 2008

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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