Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 September 2020

Signs of progress on maritime border between Lebanon and Israel

The US has been actively mediating, and ideas for UN supervision are being considered

Nabih Berri expressed support for a larger UN role in the border dispute. AP
Nabih Berri expressed support for a larger UN role in the border dispute. AP

Lebanon says it is ready to set its maritime boundaries with Israel under UN supervision, after US mediation and attempts backed by Cyprus and Greece to broker a deal.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the country was prepared to define its maritime borders with the same mechanism used to draw the Blue Line, a UN-demarcated separation line between the two.

Mr Berri was speaking in a meeting with Maj Gen Stefano Del Col, head of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), the Lebanese state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported.

Gen Del Col agreed that a UN role in the talks could strengthen maritime security and stability.

With no formal land boundary between Lebanon and Israel, the UN drew the Blue Line to ascertain a complete Isreali military withdrawal from Lebanon and it has since become the unofficial border monitored by peacekeepers.

The maritime border is an important issue for Lebanon's economy with its sluggish growth rate, lack of reform and growing deficit.

The sea border area covers a disputed zone with potential oil and gas reserves.

Lebanon and Israel have divided their territorial waters into numbered blocks to license exploration permits for oil companies, but several of these remain contested. Last year, Lebanon licensed block 9 that falls in the disputed area but the consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek say they only plan to explore elsewhere in the zone.

The issue goes back to around 2007 when Lebanon and Cyprus drew their maritime borders to create special economic zones for offshore oil and gas exploration.

Such zones, within a specified distance of a country's coastline, are the area of water and seabed in which the country has exclusive rights for fishing and oil exploration.

Israel then used the points agreed to by Lebanon and Cyprus to define its maritime border. In 2011, Lebanon clarified it's EEZ proposal in a letter submitted to the UN, but Israel disputed the findings. Between the two lines submitted by Israel and Lebanon to the UN was an overlapping 860 square kilometer area in the Mediterranean that both sides claim. Without diplomatic ties, Lebanon and Israel have not negotiated directly over the matter.

Mr Berri’s announcement suggests that the UN force could expand its role to define the maritime border as well as the land boundaries.

But a UN force spokesman told The National that maritime borders was beyond its mandate.

The UN adopted a resolution after the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel to maintain the ceasefire along the land border, meaning the Security Council may need to expand the force's mandate.

Despite Mr Berri’s optimism, a deal may not be struck soon because of divisions in the Lebanese government.

Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab struck a defiant tone on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel on Wednesday.

“We will continue to demand every inch of Lebanese territory," Mr Bou Saab told the state news agency.

Other contested areas on land include the Shebaa Farms area and the northern side of Ghajar village.

In Washington, the Trump administration has been keen to reach a deal that would settle the border issue and allow oil and gas exploration.

In February 2018, acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs David Satterfield shuttled between Beirut and Tel Aviv to hash out a deal. Among other proposals, he offered Lebanese authorities 60 per cent of the disputed area, a package that he had also negotiated with Israel, Al Hayat newspaper reported. Beirut declined the offer.

During his last visit to the region in March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made stops in Lebanon and Israel.

One source told The National that the maritime border was the first item on his talks with Mr Berri. Those discussions continued in Washington during a visit by a Lebanese delegation two weeks ago.

Sources said the new approach embraces the UN supervision and could enable a deal that decides the land and sea borders.

Cyprus has also been playing an active role. Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulidis visited Lebanon last month.

A US official told The National that Washington is now waiting for Lebanon to reach an internal consensus on the issue.

“Our position has not changed," the official said.

"When Lebanese leaders reach a consensus position on a path forward on boundary negotiations, the United States stands ready to re-engage and work towards solutions that are mutually agreeable to both parties."

But Mr Berri’s latest statement has signalled that UN oversight could be accepted by all parties.

Reaching a deal would be significant, says Randa Slim, the director of back-channel diplomacy at the Middle East Institute.

The absence of a formal land border “can be a trigger for military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah", Ms Slim said.

Lebanon could also benefit economically by spurring international investment in its oil and gas sector.

“It would be a boost for US-Lebanon relations, given the US mediation role and opportunities it may present US companies in oil and gas exploration,” Ms Slim said.

Lebanon signed offshore oil and gas exploration agreements early in 2018 with France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek.

A second licensing round was approved in early April for four blocks, including block 8 which also falls partly in the disputed territory.

But the fact that much of the area is under dispute will probably discourage investors, said Laury Haytayan, Mena director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in New York.

Ms Haytayan pointed to several outstanding issues.

“If there is an agreement that Unifil will be the right party to deal with borders, then Lebanon and Israel need to both set up a team to lead those negotiations," she said.

Differences within the Lebanese government are also blocking an agreement, Ms Haytayan said.

While Mr Berri advocates a joint land and sea border deal, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil prefer two separate arrangements.

They say that focusing on each border separately could give Lebanon more leverage and speed up negotiations.

Updated: April 25, 2019 11:13 AM

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