Attempts to resolve the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel are in constant flux. In the latest development, Lebanon’s President Aoun has rejected the unilateral Lebanese expansion of its economic waters and instead expressed a clear interest in renewed US mediation. Along with a bid to renew US mediation it is therefore worth exploring other avenues that could incentivize a more constructive Lebanese approach.
The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) established in 2019 could be one such alternative. Its founding members were Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Jordan, Greece, Cyprus and Italy. France joined subsequently as a full-fledged member while the US and European Union remain observers. Lebanon was invited to join at the outset, but it rejected the invitation in light of Israel’s membership in the forum – despite the natural gas potential in its economic waters that has attracted the interest of some of the world’s biggest energy companies.
At the same time, negotiations between Israel and Lebanon have had their ups and downs, with Lebanon seeming to undermine prospects for progress. Is there a creative, practical measure that could appeal to Beirut and at the same time serve Israel’s interest? Its purpose would be to integrate Lebanon into the regional architecture taking shape in recent years in a manner conducive to stability. Could observer status for Lebanon in the EMGF be a feasible and desirable option?
The easiest and most immediate answer would seem to be “no”. How could Lebanon make such a decision given the complex political situation it faces? The multiplicity of actors, domestic and external, most of them driven by contradictory interests, cannot enable the (many) decision makers to take that path. On the other hand, observer status would allow Lebanon to keep a safe distance from membership in a forum of which Israel is a member but at the same time provide it with influence and benefits given the growing importance and relevance of this grouping.
Would this benefit Israel?
On the plus side, it would serve to connect Lebanon to a relevant and worthy regional framework, thereby drawing it into constructive activity vital for the region, in general, and for Israel. After all, Lebanese gas (and oil) reserves, if discovered, would contribute to the regional potential and aid in Lebanon’s rehabilitation. It would also constitute an addition, albeit indirect and partial, to the “wave of normalization” between Israel and Arab states created by the Abraham Accords, although this would have to be downplayed given the opposition of many elements in Lebanon to such an idea.
On the negative side, granting Lebanon observer status could introduce potential obstacles into a forum that has operated successfully over the past two years with almost no political landmines, except for the Palestinian veto of observer status for the UAE (and presumably this obstacle will soon be overcome through Egyptian pressure).
The key question pertains to the feasibility of such a move, and just as important to its potential effect on US mediation efforts between Israel and Lebanon. Given that Lebanon has not closed the door completely to renewed negotiations with Israel, and its interest in exploiting its economic waters, an invitation to join the forum as an observer could be perceived as serving the Lebanese interest. Some of the actors will try to thwart the move, presumably, but others could view it as beneficial, especially given the current circumstances.
Either way, sensitive and complex diplomacy is required, mostly behind the scenes. Washington could raise this alternative discretely. It could be tied to a desirable compromise over the maritime border, not necessarily as a stick or carrot, but as a complementary move serving the Lebanese interest. At the same time, Egypt and France, which holds significant sway in Lebanon, and perhaps even Cyprus, could contribute, each from its own perspective to this complex diplomatic undertaking.
As far as Israel goes, the potential advantages of such a move far outweigh the drawbacks. Israel should support the move – albeit quietly and discretely, as mentioned. The Lebanese will presumably have a hard time picking up the gauntlet, but who knows, they may surprise us all.