Cautious Optimism: the Lebanese-Israeli Maritime Dispute

Before the end of 2022, a settlement to the Lebanese-Israeli maritime dispute is expected to occur. For the first time in eleven years, a U.S. mediator has been able to express his optimism towards the negotiation process. However, one must express “cautious optimism” to the possibility of reaching a settlement. Lebanon and Israel have benefits to reap from a solution, yet the factors that are likely to impede the agreement must be accounted for. 

Overview of Lebanese-Israeli relations 

Since the mid-20th century, Lebanon and Israel have had a rocky relationship. During Lebanon’s brutish civil war that lasted 25 years (1975-1990), the country’s Southern region was invaded by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in 1978, and again in 1982 where they progressed into the capital city Beirut. In the meantime, Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group, emerged to resist the IDF and defend the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that was based in Lebanon. The Taif Agreement (1990) that ended the war, declared the disarmament of all militant groups except Hezbollah, allowing it to continuously grow militarily and politically. Furthermore, the July War broke out between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. 

What is the maritime dispute about and how has it escalated over the years? 

Lebanon and Israel disagree with where their maritime border begins. Israel depicts the demarcation to be a line that stretches out of the last land border at a 90-degree angle. On the other hand, Lebanon depicts it to be a line that stretches beyond the 90-degree angle (Line 23), making the disputed area a triangle that covers approximately 850 square kilometers of water. 

The border dispute is significant to both countries due to concerns over territorial sovereignty and the right to explore the zones for economic profits. However, the negotiations that have been taking place on and off since 2011. For example, in 2020, Lebanon stated that the border stretches further south than Line 23, asserting their right to ownership of the Qana field (Line 29) and halting talks that began earlier in the year. Moreover, in May 2021 a UK based hydrocarbon exploration and production company, Energean, established a drilling platform in the Karish field lying in the disputed zone. In response, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah threatened to strike the rig and called Israel’s actions “extremely dangerous.” 

Tensions between Lebanon and Israel were further heightened earlier this summer when Energean dispatched an exploration rig in the Karish field. The company stated that the new rig was expected to begin gas exploration and production in the weeks to follow. In response, Hezbollah sent four unarmed drones over the platform to send a warning by displaying its hard power capabilities and send the message that Israel should reach an agreement with Lebanon first. However, Israel has stated that the platform’s location does not lie within the disputed area. With new threats from Hezbollah in August, Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened a war on Lebanon if Hezbollah attacks of any of its gas assets. 

Promising prospects for an agreed settlement?

Despite the heightened tension within the past few months, U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein has stated that he is “more optimistic than ever” and that “we’re making very good progress.”  Lebanon has dropped its claim to Line 29 whilst accepting line 23, however it is demanding authority over the Qana field (which overpasses Line 23) and acknowledges that it will financially compensate Israel for this. Moreover, Lebanon has recognised Israel’s authority over the Karish field. Hochstien is currently maintaining daily communication with Israeli and Lebanese politicians. 

Israel and Lebanon have their reasons for making concessions at this particular time. Encountering an exacerbating financial crisis, political instability, and the population’s inability to access basic necessities, Lebanon can use the settlement as an opportunity for gas exploration and production to alleviate these issues. Moreover, French energy company Total has gas exploration rights in Lebanon and would be unwilling to take the risk of exploring in disputed waters, which would further diminish Lebanon’s ability to tap into the gas reserves. Furthermore, Hezbollah has demonstrated the will to reach a settlement, since it wants to increase its popular support by introducing the idea that their power is used towards national interest, and not for the benefit of Iran’s aims in the region. 

As for Israel, it wants Energean to start drilling before the end of the year. Given the current gas crisis that Europe finds itself in after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel has the opportunity to export gas as well as bolster its local economy and international image. It has already signed a gas deal with the European Union, which is finding methods to decrease its dependency on Russia for gas imports.

Nevertheless, one must remain aware of the reasons that the negotiation efforts can still fail. As Hochstein mentioned, “cautious optimism” must be expressed when discussing the solution to the maritime dispute. Lebanon’s presidential elections took place on the 29th of September, and Parliament failed to choose a head of state. A presidential vacuum is likely to delay the negotiation process further. Similarly, Israel also has legislative elections taking place on the 1st of November, and it has been reported that the maritime border dispute settlement could be scrapped if Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party wins a majority of seats. 

As demonstrated above, reaching a settlement would benefit Israel and Lebanon greatly. Alongside Hochstein, Lebanese and Israeli politicians, as well as heads of state have demonstrated enthusiasm to settling the conflict once and for all. However, just like any conflict, dispute or war that is being studied in the field of International Relations, one must always recognise that events can take the most unexpected turns. As Hochstein expressed, one must proceed with cautious optimism given the issue of presidential elections in Lebanon, legislative elections in Israel, and the shaky relations that Lebanon and Israel have endured for approximately 50 years. 

Image credit:

This article was written on the 29th of September 2022, before the recent developments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s