No More War? Israel, Lebanon Agree to Negotiate Maritime Border 

If Both Countries Cooperate, the Negotiations Could Move the Two Historical Enemies Toward Peace

As Lebanon quickly sinks ever deeper into its most severe economic crisis in its modern history, the announcement that it had agreed to a framework for negotiations with Israel over its disputed maritime border — their first direct talks in 30 years — came as something of a surprise. The talks are expected to be held after the Jewish Sukkot holiday, which ends on October 9, and will be held in Naqoura in southern Lebanon under the United Nations flag.
 
Israel and Lebanon are still in a formal state of war and therefore have no diplomatic relations, and the two nations have never demarcated a maritime border. This became truly important when natural gas was discovered offshore in the Mediterranean Sea in 2009. Each claim about 330 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea on the edge of three Lebanese offshore energy blocks as within their own exclusive economic zones and both countries hope to explore and develop new gas fields in the area. Now, development of that resource could either spark new conflicts between the two countries or create new foundations of prosperity for both, and may be the catalyst that moves the two historical enemies toward peace. But this depends on their willingness to be cooperative. 
 
In 2009, American company Noble Energy discovered the Tamar field off the coast of Israel, with proven and potential natural gas reserves of 320 billion cubic meters (bcm). Shortly after, the Leviathan field was discovered and found to hold about 600 bcm of reserves
The Leviathan natural falls in 860 square kilometers of disputed oceanic territory between Israel and Lebanon, where there may well be additional reserves yet to be discovered. Already Israel, Cyprus, and Greece have reached an agreement to develop the gas and lay a pipeline to transport it to Europe. However, Israel’s Block 72 of the gas field lies very close to Lebanon’s Block 9. 
 
A year after the gas discovery, Lebanon submitted its unilateral border to the UN. The southernmost point of its unilateral submission to the United Nations, was 17km south of the line included in the unratified Cypriot-Lebanese agreement.
 
Shortly after Lebanon’s unilateral border submission, in 2011, Israel and Cyprus reached an agreement for their maritime border, also conflicting with the unratified bilateral agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon. Also, in July 2011, Israel submitted to the UN its own unilateral maritime coordinates, bordering Lebanon. Since then, developments toward negotiating have been minimal at best until this past year, when rumours spread of talks taking place.
 
Israel’s energy picture changed after the discovery of Tamar field. With the finding, Israel had enough of a surplus to ensure domestic energy needs, allowing it to utilise its own natural gas rather than depend on imports from Egypt. The opportunity for self-sufficiency and for a better position vis-à-vis regional and international actors became increasingly attractive. The Leviathan field falls partially within the area contested with Lebanon, and, until an agreement is reached, Israel will face security threats by Hezbollah as well as commercial complications arising from the risk involved for customers in purchasing gas from contested sources.
 
Beirut is hoping that oil and natural gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help improve its economic prospects – and the reduction in political risks – which would lower the cost of credit and make it cheaper to repay its massive debt. Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, said the gas discoveries on the Israeli side of the Mediterranean “prove that there are reserves and God willing this will help us pay our debt.” Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world standing at about 170% of its GDP. 
 
A natural gas deal would perhaps alleviate some of the pressure from the population to address economic concerns of the private and public sector, and could provide the necessary boost to the government to ease tensions. Eventually, some of the gas produced could even be exported, providing the Lebanese government with new revenues which, if properly managed and invested, could help fight poverty, improve education, infrastructure, and spark a historic socioeconomic rebirth.
 
Venturing into the natural gas industry will could also provide the Lebanese with a number of additional benefits: partnering with other international companies, strengthening bilateral relations, deepening participation in the global market, and increasing governmental legitimacy. 
 
International border disputes are very common, and in the normal course of events rarely draw any attention, when the two countries are sworn enemies, this complicates things.
 
There have been two wars between Israel and Lebanon since Israel was established in 1948 following the Second World War. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the latter’s 1975-1990 civil war to fight Palestinian militants who launched attacks across the border. It occupied a strip of territory in southern Lebanon until 2000. In 2006, Israel waged a month-long war with Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group and Iran’s most powerful regional proxy.  
 
And when one of the countries in dispute doesn’t acknowledge the other’s existence, this complicates things further as the two countries then cannot negotiate directly.  
 
Years of failed initiatives by the United States and United Nations to mediate a peaceful resolution to the maritime dispute. While the initiatives were unsuccessful in yielding the desired result of splitting the territory between both countries, they were successful in stalling Israel’s unilateral annexation of the area.
 
Realistically, only the U.S. is capable of making Lebanon and Israel reach a deal on the border dispute, and it would come as a blow to Iran and Hezbollah to not be able to stop it.
While the agreed framework for talks strictly concerns maritime issues and not the disputed land border — according to the top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker — any step toward resolving borders makes Hezbollah less relevant, Khashan said. "If a political settlement is reached, then Hezbollah would no longer be able to talk about resisting Israeli occupation," Khashan said. "I think that's the ultimate American objective — to disarm Hezbollah."
 
This also presents an opportunity for Israel, as well as the Lebanese people. 
 
“Having just made peace with the United Arab Emirates, in which Israel agreed (at least temporarily) not to annex parts of the West Bank and the UAE agreed to formally recognize Israel as a sovereign country, Israel now has a carrot to offer Lebanon in return for real peace and a dismantling of Hezbollah’s military machine,” Daniel Markind wrote in Forbes. “Joint development of the natural gas fields – or at the very least, recognizing each other’s right to do so – can help both countries and bring tangible benefit to the average Lebanese civilian,” he added.
 
Iran-backed Hezbollah, via its Shia ally, the Amal Movement, has long determined Lebanon’s position and remained steadfast in their demands. But after the Beirut explosions and nationwide rage against the ruling elite, Lebanon’s president and parliament speaker were quick to publicize their willingness to reach an agreement on the maritime border. By agreeing to indirect negotiations, Hezbollah implicitly acknowledged that a compromise could be reached when it had argued that Lebanon’s rights to its offshore gas were inviolable.