Lebanon’s contested gas fields with Israel under discussion

Regardless of any parties’ intention, efforts to resolve the gas dispute greatly benefits Lebanon economically and politically.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Opening backchannels. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield (L) speaks during his meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut, May 14. (AP)
Opening backchannels. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield (L) speaks during his meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut, May 14. (AP)

The Lebanese, who largely hold the view that their past and future are dictated from abroad, tend to remember many of the foreign diplomats who pass through the country. One such dignitary is David Satterfield, the former US ambassador to Lebanon and acting US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

Satterfield’s frequent recent Beirut visits, aimed at establishing backchannels with Israel to help resolve a land and maritime border dispute, underscore the United States’ efforts to stabilise the region and exert crippling economic pressure on Iran and its subsidiaries, primarily Hezbollah.

The border dispute, which centres on 850 sq.km of oil-rich territory between the two countries, should, in theory, be easy to solve through the same mechanism through which Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon was negotiated in 2000. However, fears of a confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel have complicated the process and made direct talks between the two states difficult.

Satterfield’s shuttle diplomacy has been effective. He has convinced both sides to agree to a US mediation role and indirectly engage in talks to work through areas of contention. Once the issue is resolved, both Lebanon and Israel will be able to drill peacefully in blocks 8 and 9 of their newly discovered oil and gas fields.

Satterfield’s good offices give insight into the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with Lebanon, which failed to reclaim full sovereignty of its land or address the thorny problem of Hezbollah’s ever-growing arsenal.

However, over the issue of the border and gas field demarcation, the Lebanese state at least has agreed to play by the international community’s rules with respect to the border dispute, publicly calling out Israel rather than merely employing fiery rhetoric.

Satterfield’s diplomatic efforts, however, also come at a price for Lebanon, which the US administration has repeatedly warned of the consequences for not fully abiding by its sanctions against Hezbollah.

One of the United States’ top priorities in Lebanon is to ensure that Hezbollah does not receive funds from future oil revenue, which could help Iran weather the economic storm the United States has unleashed upon it.

This clear red line was drawn by Satterfield’s boss, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Beirut in March. Lebanon’s stability, Pompeo said during the trip, directly hinges on it complying with the sanctions.

Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri took those threats seriously. Knowing that Lebanon has more to gain by doing this demarcation dance, Berri convinced his allies in Hezbollah to play along.

Hezbollah’s outlook on the gas dispute with Israel, however, is very sinister. Having committed to defend all of Lebanon’s precious oil fields, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah would like to see the dispute resolved and block 9 drilled so he can assume quasi guardianship over the functioning oil rigs. This would allow Nasrallah to bolster his shattered image as the protector of Lebanon’s sovereignty and bearer of economic prosperity while holding the country’s people and future hostage.

Regardless of any parties’ intention, efforts to resolve the gas dispute greatly benefits Lebanon economically and politically. Not only does it send a clear message to the international community that Lebanon is functional as a state, it, more importantly, reminds the Lebanese that their country’s security cannot be outsourced to a militia whose armament and directives come from Iran.

While diplomacy might fail, especially as it involves Israel, by coming to the negotiating table, Lebanon is giving itself an important safety net. This could prove more powerful than Hezbollah and its ballistic missiles, which sooner rather than later need to be properly addressed.

12