Written by – Elijah J. Magnier:
Israel will postpone reaching any maritime border solution with Lebanon in the short term until a new government is formed. This move will offer the current Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s government a chance to avoid the political consequences of submitting to Hezbollah in the forthcoming Israeli elections.
According to well-informed sources, “Israel is expected to announce it will stop drilling in that part of the Karish field which falls within Lebanon’s maritime territory. Tel Aviv will also suspend any drilling in the maritime area surrounding Karish to avoid provoking Hezbollah, which launched a deadline ending mid-September for declaring war on Israel.”
Last month, Hezbollah aired drone footage of Israeli ships in a disputed gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. The Israeli military shot down three Hezbollah unarmed drones flying over the Karish gas field. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a recent interview, said that the militant group could locate and strike Karish or any other Israeli gas field.
At the beginning of October 2020, Lebanon and Israel agreed to hold talks over disputed maritime borders, even though the two countries theoretically do not maintain diplomatic ties.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. As a result, they each claim about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea, known as Block 9, rich in oil and gas, as being within their exclusive economic zones.
In 2011, Lebanon issued Decree 6433 to the United Nations regarding its claims to maritime territory in the Mediterranean Sea, dubbed Line 23, which does not intersect with the Karish field. Studies conducted by the UK Hydrographic Office and later by the Lebanese Army indicated that Lebanon could claim a further 1,430 square km (889 square miles), which breaks into the Karish field. It is referred to as Line 29, but Lebanon has never amended Decree 6433.
In indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel in 2012, US diplomat Frederick Hoff proposed “a middle line for the maritime borders, whereby Lebanon would get 58 per cent of the disputed area, and Israel would be given the remaining 42 per cent, which translates to 500 square kilometres for Lebanon and 300 square kilometres for Israel.”
Lebanon and Israel called for US mediation in October 2020. Several indirect meetings between the two sides at the UN peacekeeping forces’ headquarters stalled within weeks. A few months ago, Lebanese officials agreed to invite US senior advisor Amos Hochstein to mediate the dispute and avoid further complications. Indeed, Hezbollah warned Israel that “everyone (Lebanon and Israel) should be excavating, or no one will benefit from the oil and gas; otherwise, war will start in September to protect Lebanon’s maritime borders”.
The talks come amid Lebanon’s economic crisis, the worst in its history, following a wave of US sanctions that recently targeted local banks and two influential former cabinet ministers allied with the powerful armed Hezbollah group. Also, although Lebanon began offshore drilling last year, it is hoped to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months following its first contract signature in February 2018 with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI, and Novatek. Lebanon divided its expanse of water into ten blocks, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
However, Israel already has a developed natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and export to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.
“The current US administration does not want Lebanon to regain financial strength and recover its economy as long as Hezbollah is strong and dominant and the Lebanese government and the new parliament cannot weaken it. Consequently, the fate of Lebanon will remain linked to the fate of Syria (under the Caesar Act’s heavy sanctions), and the indirect sanctions will remain effective, contributing to exhausting the economies of the two countries,” said the source.
Since late 2019, Lebanon has suffered financial and economic collapse. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 per cent of its value against the US dollar, and 80 per cent of the country’s population lives in poverty.
“It seems there are no plans to allow the recovery of the Lebanese economy and bring life to it as it was before 2019. The US looks determined to prevent the return of Arab and foreign monetary aid and disrupt the flow of Egyptian gas via Syria, so Lebanon remains without electricity. Moreover, the United Nations and the rest of the international community are preventing the return of Syrian refugees, which keeps the burden of over 1.7 million refugees weighing on the weak Lebanese infrastructure with its lack of job opportunities. Therefore, it is counterproductive to Israel and the US administration to allow Lebanon to start excavation to recover its energy wealth and perhaps borrow money from international institutions on the back of what the country will derive from its gas,” said the well-informed source.
The source concludes, “Israel may ask for the departure of the “Energean Power” drilling Ship to Greece to remove the source of conflict with Hezbollah and respond to the Lebanese demand that Tel Aviv stops extracting gas in or near the disputed area.”
Washington relies on its allies and critically influential politicians and religious authorities in Lebanon to prevent the recovery of the Lebanese economy. Wealthy politicians, like caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, have colossal wealth in American and European banks in US and European accounts. They fear being subjected to sanctions, having their funds confiscated or frozen, or losing their business. These risks are sufficient to prevent them from accepting Iranian oil or fuel donations or Russian and Chinese projects to rebuild the Lebanese infrastructure.
Therefore, it is clear that the US does not have a new positive or constructive policy toward Lebanon- which is supposed to stay “away from the circle of attention and recovery”. Indeed, the US seems committed to maintaining the status quo in Lebanon (and Syria), which fits perfectly well with the interests of its main ally, Israel.
Also, Israel and the US are not expected to bow and submit to the threat launched by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. If Israel and the US agree to resolve the disputed maritime borders, Hezbollah’s popularity will become even more significant in Lebanon and the Middle East. From the US and Israel’s perspectives, this result could be much more damaging than a war, rendering any submission “a terrible idea”. Therefore, freezing the gas exploration seems the best solution for Israel, which will be satisfied with watching Lebanon push back to square one without achieving any advantages.
Hezbollah will not be allowed to score a victory by preventing Israel from drilling and imposing a new equation (there must be “excavation for all or no one can benefit from the gas”). Israel will also come out with less damage because it avoids a war at a time when its domestic front is unprepared. Furthermore, Prime Minister Lapid’s political losses are more limited in the forthcoming Knesset elections by not submitting to Hezbollah, avoiding looking weak, and offering concessions to its enemies across borders. The birth of a new government led by current Defence Minister Benny Gantz in October this year will have more chances of winning rather than returning Benjamin Netanyahu to power if Lapid submits to Hezbollah’s conditions.
Both the Israeli political team in power today and the US administration of President Joe Biden would not want to see the return to power of Netanyahu, a spoiled ally of Donald Trump.
Also, Israel will not find it challenging to obtain financial compensation from the US to cover the lack of gas drilling. Washington has always been generous with Israel, with economic and military support forthcoming. The Washington-Tel Aviv alliance believes freezing gas drilling will produce the least possible damage and, at the same time, achieve strategic goals. For Israel (and the US), preventing the recovery of Lebanon is vital because it avoids increasing Hezbollah’s strength and popularity and creates more chances for the anti-Netanyahu camp to win the elections.
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher