Still officially at war, countries to discuss maritime borders following extended diplomatic shuttling by US
Lebanon and Israel announced on Thursday that they will hold talks under the auspices of the United Nations on their disputed maritime border – their first on non-security matters in three decades – though few feel this will lead to a wider diplomatic breakthrough.
Washington described the news as “historic,” as the neighboring nations are still technically at war. They both claim a 330-sq. mi. area of the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean as being within their respective exclusive economic zones.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese major general and current head of the Middle East Studies Center in Beirut, does not expect that this will lead to peace negotiations.
“[It is] a very important historical and economic event that has absolutely nothing to do with normalization,” he told The Media Line.
It is a very important historical and economic event that has absolutely nothing to do with normalization
The talks come as Lebanon experiences a painful economic crisis, with officials hoping that the country can partake of financial benefits from undersea gas discoveries.
Jaber notes that US domestic politics played a role in bringing about the talks as President Donald Trump “wants to be seen as the one ending all hostilities and disputes between Arab counties and Israel.”
Yet he points out that Lebanon has a genuine interest in a breakthrough, saying it cannot stand by and “watch its wealth in the sea stolen without making a move.”
Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst on the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a retired colonel who served as foreign policy adviser to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, used the phrase “very strange” to describe the breakthrough.
“The Trump Administration has been hitting Hizbullah hard, imposing sanctions on the powerful Shia group and anyone linked to it,” he told The Media Line, adding that this normally would have caused the powerful, Iran-backed group to veto the talks.
The Trump Administration has been hitting Hizbullah hard, imposing sanctions on the powerful Shia group and anyone linked to it
Jaber concurs, noting that there is “complete agreement among Lebanese on this issue. While many were surprised by its approval, even Hizbullah is on board.”
Anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon last October as thousands of angry citizens flooded the streets in major cities, including the capital Beirut, protesting desperate economic conditions.
The Lebanese currency has lost 80% of its value over the past year. Poverty and unemployment have spiked, with tens of thousands losing their jobs and many businesses being forced to shutter.
Dr. Hassan Marhij, an expert in Middle Eastern and Syrian affairs, sees a lot of logic in the timing – and perhaps some optimism.
“The declaration [of talks] is part of the developments in the region, which are moving in the direction of general calm and signing of peace agreements,” he told The Media Line, referring to the US-brokered normalization deals that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reached with Israel.
The declaration of talks is part of the developments in the region, which are moving in the direction of general calm and signing of peace agreements
“In the general context,” he said, “the timing could be a prelude to Lebanon entering a new phase in the changing geo-politics across the region.”
Marhij believes that Hizbullah and its allies fully understand what resistance to the move could mean.
“This step has long-term strategic goals, and the Shi’ite duo in Lebanon [Hizbullah and the Amal movement] realizes that rejecting this move would reflect badly on them,” he stated.
“The country is going through tough economic times,” he explained, “and this would mean it would be able to push forward with [energy] exploration in disputed areas.”
Last month, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed the charter of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a body that will promote exploration and production.
The massive gas reserves found in the eastern Mediterranean over the past several years mean that what began as an informal forum of Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Greece is now an intergovernmental organization based in Cairo, with Egypt positioning itself as a regional hub for processing and export.
“The agreements that Israel concludes with countries in the region such as Cyprus and Greece have something to do with Lebanon agreeing to enter into these negotiations,” Jaber said.
The agreements that Israel concludes with countries in the region such as Cyprus and Greece have something to do with Lebanon agreeing to enter into these negotiations
Musa Uçan, an international affairs analyst at the Turkish think tank MİSAK (National Strategic Research Council), says Lebanon feels left behind and sees the talks with Israel as an opportunity to protect its share of natural gas.
“Big players like Israel, Turkey, France [and] Italy are competing with each other for East[ern] Mediterranean gas reserves. Egypt, Greece and the Greek Cypriot state [the Republic of Cyprus] are trying to form an alliance against Turkey, Libya and the Turkish Cypriot state [northern Cyprus],” Uçan told The Media Line.
He believes that Lebanon sees a potential deal with Israel as a solution to its economic crisis.
“We already know that major oil companies like [France’s] Total are interested in Lebanese gas but couldn’t start exploration because of controversy about maritime borders,” he stated.
We already know that major oil companies like Total are interested in Lebanese gas but couldn’t start exploration because of controversy about maritime borders
“The solution can no longer be postponed,” he continued, “because the global players want to finalize exploration, the division of gas reserves in the region and the transfer of East[ern] Mediterranean gas to Europe.”
Uçan does not expect the talks to lead to diplomatic ties with Israel.
“[There is the] political chaos, as the third prime minister-designate who was supposed to form a cabinet since Saad Hariri’s resignation last year quit,” he explained, referring to Mustapha Adib, who returned his mandate to President Michel Aoun last week.
There are also major political reforms being demanded by numerous countries, most notably France, before they agree to the provision of financial assistance.
“Lebanon needs a new constitutional law and to get rid of the current one, which institutionalizes sectarian, ethnic and social differentiation, and to bring corrupt politicians to justice,” Uçan noted.
“With the current constitutional law, politics and level of corruption, we can’t expect gas exploration to be a long-term solution for Lebanon’s real problems. Even [King] Solomon’s treasure couldn’t do that,” he said.
With the current constitutional law, politics and level of corruption, we can’t expect gas exploration to be a long-term solution for Lebanon’s real problems. Even King Solomon’s treasure couldn’t do that
Jaber believes that the “sooner we negotiate, the better the chances we will be able to reach an agreement” that benefits Lebanon.
“These negotiations, in my opinion, will only take a few months. I mean, early next year, God willing, we will have reached an agreement on the sea and land borders because both parties have an interest in reaching a final deal,” he said.
Neriah is less certain that things will happen so quickly.
“It is possible,” he said, though he used an Arabic proverb to say that hope “never built a house.”