Lebanon ups ante on maritime border with Israel

Op-eds / Israel and the East Mediterranean

Lebanon’s surprising decision earlier this month to expand its territorial claim by 1,430 square kilometers (552 sq. miles) further complicates the already complex maritime border negotiations with Israel. The negotiations, renewed in October 2020, included direct meetings between the sides but failed to yield a breakthrough, and even resulted in a certain regression. Both countries adopted maximalist stands, contrary to their previous positions, perhaps in order to improve their bargaining power.

Lebanon, as we know, is mired in an unprecedented economic and political crisis. The political actors are unable to form a new government, given a complex web of interests and arm-twisting involving external actors, as is always the case in Lebanon. What, then, prompted the Lebanese decision to further complicate matters?

Several factors are involved. Complex interests, including (or especially) those of Hezbollah, compel Lebanon to present a tough, hawkish position vis-à-vis Israel, even one that contradicts its previous stand. Hezbollah pressure is reflected, for example, in the move by former minister of energy and foreign affairs, Gebran Bassil (President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law) blocking a compromise on formation of a government.

In the energy context, Bassil is unlikely to allow other actors to reap the fruit of an agreement with Israel, which could open up Lebanon’s energy market and send a positive message to the ailing economy (even if it takes years for economic dividends to materialize). Presumably, Iran is also reluctant to back progress in Lebanon’s negotiations with Israel in light of its attempts to renew the nuclear agreement with world powers and impending June presidential elections.

What is more, a somewhat noisy dispute has erupted in recent weeks between Lebanon and Syria over their maritime border. While the dispute is not new and has included appeals to the UN by both sides laying out conflicting interpretations of their rights, the issue has escalated recently over Syria’s contract with a Russian firm on oil and gas survey activities in an area Lebanon claims as part of its economic waters. The dispute has generated criticism of Syria in Lebanon and the foreign minister has insisted on negotiations with Damascus on the matter.

Some two weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly called President Aoun to complain about the Lebanese criticism of his country. Given current circumstances, Lebanon prefers a “tough patriotic” stand vis-à-vis Israel than against Syria, especially since Russia has taken de facto control in recent years of energy rights in Syrian economic waters (and on land, too).

What does this all mean for Lebanese-Israeli negotiations? Is agreement between the sides still possible? Perhaps. An agreement remains of vital interest, especially for Lebanon. After all, Israel is already enjoying the economic and diplomatic fruit of the natural gas discovered in its waters, while Lebanon is facing a disastrous economic crisis. The latest confrontational move complicates things, but Lebanon might also see it as enhancing its room for maneuver in the no-holds-barred poker game with Israel.

Now, more than ever, US mediation must be restored in order to bring both sides into a more constructive framework. The Biden administration has already adopted an entirely different approach to foreign policy, prompted by its inward domestic focus. Renewing the shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Beirut is vitally important in order to avoid severing all contact and exacerbating tensions and, of course, in order to renew discussions albeit under less convenient and more challenging circumstances. But is this not the secret magic of negotiations?

This article was published in The Jerusalem Post, April 28th 2021.

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