Interesting developments have occurred recently in the Mediterranean Basin. On April 11, the foreign and energy ministers of Cyprus and Lebanon met in Beirut and agreed to accelerate their contacts on energy issues. Specifically, they agreed on intense negotiations to conclude a unitization deal between their two countries. Such an agreement would set out terms for the development of joint resources and the running of joint gas and oil fields, located on both sides of the two states’ economic maritime border.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, formerly his country’s energy minister, noted that negotiations would be launched on May 7, at which point both sides will try to map out their points of agreement and disagreement in order to complete the talks by September. At the same time, a tripartite Lebanese-Cypriot-Greek summit is scheduled to take place in June. The Cypriot foreign minister added that a unitization agreement would send an important and calming message to international energy companies seeking to invest in the region.
The Lebanese side is clearly interested in speedy progress on the issue, realizing that their country is lagging behind in developing its energy potential, compared to Israel and Cyprus. Moreover, according to the Lebanese minister, Lebanon is planning to carry out an exploratory drill next year along or adjacent to its maritime border with Cyprus.
This significant development is the latest element in the diplomatic and energy-related shifts taking place in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years, and several points should be pointed out in this regard.
A. Lebanon, it appears, understands the need to accelerate progress in the energy context if it wants to fulfill its economic potential, and the various actors in Lebanon that are involved in this are willing to overcome their differences to that end.
B. Cyprus is once again proving its vitality and centrality in the region. A CypriotLebanese agreement, as mentioned, would reassure energy companies and promote discussion of possible regional cooperation, which could enhance Cyprus’ position as a regional export center. After all, Lebanese-Cypriot cooperation is devoid of complex diplomatic issues for Lebanon.
C. If the trilateral summit does, in fact, take place in June, it would once again underscore the attractiveness of the tripartite alliance model taking root in the region in recent years (as attested to by the Israel-Cypriot-Greek alliance and the Egyptian-Cypriot-Greek one). In certain regards, we are witnessing a type of competition among additional elements in the region (such as Jordan and the Palestinians) seeking to join this accelerating “triangular game”, which is generating growing interest.
This is good news for Israel. A constructive Lebanese approach designed to achieve progress on the energy front is healthy. The more Lebanon moves forward with plans and agreements with neighboring states in the region, including joining the “triangular game”, the more it will have to adopt a pragmatic line toward Israel.
The regional gas forum launched in January 2019 in Cairo, which Lebanon has been invited to join but has yet to do so, could provide a framework to encourage regional cooperation, albeit not necessarily direct and bilateral. This may not lead to a speedy, formal resolution of the disagreements between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border, but presumably, it would result in indirect and discreet understandings, for which such a framework would be particularly suited. Possible mediation by Greece and Cyprus between Israel and Lebanon, together with the UN and US, was recently reported.
Finally, the intention to achieve agreement on joint development of Lebanese and Cypriot gas reserves should encourage Israel to accelerate and complete its slow negotiations with Cyprus over a similar agreement. The first (and so far only) Cypriot gas field – Aphrodite – straddles Israel’s maritime border with Cyprus and is thus a joint field. Lack of a unitization agreement, the likes of which are common and routine in other parts of the world, conveys a negative message to the relevant international energy giants and Israeli energy firms.
The plans to export gas from this field to Egypt also require a speedy agreement. After all, it will be very difficult and unacceptable in the international business arena to promote such an export agreement without properly anchoring the issue between the two relevant states (Israel and Cyprus). This can be achieved through a specific agreement on the Aphrodite gas field or an acceptable framework agreement paving the way for relevant firms on both sides of the maritime border to calculate the percentage of each side’s ownership of the gas reservoir. Either way, Israel’s next government must act quickly to regulate this issue and fulfill the new opportunities and regional dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Amb. (Ret.) Michael Harari is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute, and the former Israeli Ambassador to Cyprus (2010-2015). He has held senior positions in the Foreign Ministry’s planning and research departments, and is currently a lecturer of political science at the Yezreel Valley College.