Offshore gas field dispute ratchets up tensions between Israel and Lebanon

For Lebanon, a major find of oil or gas off its coast would hold great significance for the country’s embattled economy.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Lebanon’s Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil points to a map as he speaks about the offshore Block 9 during an interview in Beirut, on February 1. (AP)
Defending a right. Lebanon’s Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil points to a map as he speaks about the offshore Block 9 during an interview in Beirut, on February 1. (AP)

BEIRUT - Israel seems to have decided to bring tensions with Lebanon down a notch by indicating it is open to foreign mediation in its dispute over the ownership of a gas field on the countries’ border.

Rhetoric has been escalating for several months between the two countries, especially regarding Israel’s concern over heightened assertiveness of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on its border and increased levels of Iranian influence in its neighbour’s internal politics.

“We hope for, and are prepared to move forward on, a diplomatic resolution to this matter,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of national infrastructure, energy and water resources, told the Ynet news site when asked about the Block 9 field, for which Lebanon issued oil and gas exploration licences in December.

The flashpoint was provided by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who, speaking at an international security conference at Tel Aviv University on January 31, said: “When they (Lebanese officials) issue a tender on a gas field, including Block 9, which by any standard is ours… this is very, very challenging and provocative conduct here.”

“Respectable firms” bidding on the tender “are, to my mind, making a grave error because this is contrary to all of the rules and all protocol in cases like this,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

The Lebanese cabinet originally approved licences for three international companies to carry out exploratory drilling off the country’s coast. Under the terms of that agreement, Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek, which bid for two of Lebanon’s ten offshore blocks, would be granted the rights to determine whether oil and gas exist within the disputed area.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Lieberman’s comments a “blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects,” saying his claims were “invalid in form and substance.” Hariri also indicated Beirut’s readiness to follow up “with the competent international parties to assert its legitimate right to act in its territorial waters.”

Lebanon is on the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean where several major gas discoveries, including Israel’s Leviathan and Tamar fields, have been made since 2009. For Lebanon, beset by chronic infrastructure challenges and host to more than 1 million refugees, a major find of oil or gas off its coast would hold great significance for the country’s embattled economy. However, it raises the possibility of fuelling tension with Israel during a period of increased hostility.

Beirut officials said no legal ambiguity existed over the location of its maritime frontier. Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil told the Associated Press that the United Nations had been informed of the location of its border after it was originally demarcated. Irrespective of any Israeli claims, he said exploration would begin as planned in 2019 and, depending upon what is discovered, more blocks would be put forward for tender.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We’re encouraging everybody to use diplomatic means to address these issues… We support the right of both Lebanon and Israel to exploit their maritime resources in accordance with the international law of the sea.”

He added: “We encourage both countries to continue efforts to address the delimitation of their respective maritime exclusion zones and the exploration of their natural resources in a manner that does not give rise to tensions” but instead “builds confidence through dividends of cooperation.”

Exacerbating tensions between the two countries have been Israel’s plans to construct a wall along its Lebanese frontier.

“This wall, if it is built, will be considered an assault on Lebanese land,” the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council said in a statement after a meeting with the country’s senior government and military officials.

“The Higher Defence Council has given its instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building (the wall) on Lebanese territory,” the statement said.

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