Gas reserves bring Lebanese-Israeli maritime border issue into focus, alternative option proposed
Beirut - Border disputes between Lebanon and Israel, on both land and sea, have bedevilled international mediators since the creation of the Jewish state 70 years ago.
A failure in early 2000 to agree on the sovereignty of the Shebaa Farms region, a mountainside of some 28 sq.km on Lebanon’s south-eastern border, led to a 6-year campaign of periodic attacks by Hezbollah against Israeli troops occupying ridge-top outposts. Hezbollah called those attacks “reminder operations,” warning that the Lebanese group remains a threat and that the Shebaa Farms is unfinished business.
More recently, the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel has come into focus because of the anticipated existence of substantial gas reserves, potentially worth tens of billions of dollars, which span the undemarcated jurisdictions of both countries.
Competing interpretations of where Lebanon and Israel believe their Exclusive Economic Zones lie have resulted in an overlap of 854 sq.km. In January, the Lebanese government moved forward after a 3-year delay on the licensing bid for five of the ten exploration blocks in Lebanese territorial waters. However, large portions of three of the five blocks — blocks eight, nine and ten — lie within the disputed triangle of water.
Israel reacted by lobbying Washington to pressure Lebanon into reversing its decision and announced in late March that it was submitting a bill to the Knesset to formally annex the disputed zone. In turn, Nabih Berri, the Lebanese speaker of parliament and a vocal proponent of pushing forward with gas exploration bids, warned the decision was “tantamount to a war by Israel.”
Experts on the borders of the Middle East at the US State Department have for years been attempting to mediate a solution to the maritime crisis but have been unable to persuade Lebanon and Israel to reach a compromise.
However, Reed Clark, an American expert on energy engineering who lives in Beirut, has proposed what on paper could be a win-win solution to the dispute that takes advantage of a future pipeline that would ferry Israeli gas to Turkey.
Israel and Turkey are said to be close to reaching an agreement on the export of Israeli gas to Turkey with much focus on the route an underwater pipeline would take. The current mooted route would pass through Cypriot waters, which poses a political quandary as Nicosia is at odds with Ankara over the existence since 1983 of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the northern half of the island.
Furthermore, a pipeline running to Turkey via Cyprus would pass through the ultra deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean, depths of 1,500-2,000 metres. The engineering logistics and high cost of laying a deep-water pipeline are formidable given the water pressure at such depths and the risks of accidents or sabotage.
Clark proposed switching the path of the pipeline from Cyprus to shallow Lebanese coastal waters, where the depths range 80-100 metres, saving Israel a considerable sum. In exchange, Lebanon would acquire sovereignty over the disputed 854 sq.km, benefit from Israel-Turkey pipeline transfer fees and have the ability to tap into the pipeline for its own future gas exports.
“In the end, Lebanon will have gained immensely, sacrificed nothing and can sheath one of the rattling sabres,” Clark wrote in his proposal.
Security for the pipeline could be provided by the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, which includes a maritime component of naval vessels patrolling Lebanese waters. The Maritime Task Force’s mandate is to prevent the smuggling of arms to Lebanon but it could be adjusted to include overseeing pipeline protection.
While the proposal appears to be an elegant mutually beneficial agreement, the devil may lie in the details. The pipeline would have to swing north-east from Lebanon’s northern border into deeper reaches of the Mediterranean to avoid passing through Syrian waters. Given the war in Syria and sanctions against the Syrian regime, running the pipeline in Syrian coastal territory could be an unwanted complication.
Furthermore, Israel may well conclude that the cost of laying a deep-water pipeline via Cyprus is preferable to giving Lebanon the 854 sq.km zone that is believed to contain some of the largest gas deposits of Lebanon’s ten exploration blocks.
Then there are the sensitivities in Lebanon of being seen conducting any kind of agreement with the Jewish state. The Lebanese government has banned the movie “Wonder Woman” from being shown in Lebanon because the lead actress is an Israeli citizen. It is therefore difficult to see the Lebanese government happily hosting an Israeli gas pipeline in its territorial waters, one that brings additional revenue to the Israeli treasury, even if Lebanon also benefits financially from the deal.
“Can you really see an Israeli pipeline running from Ashdod [in Israel] to Tyre [in Lebanon]?” asked one Lebanese MP familiar with the proposal.
On the other hand, in the absence of alternative ideas to resolve the maritime dispute, it might be worth a shot.