Signs of progress on maritime border between Lebanon and Israel

The US has been actively mediating, and ideas for United Nations supervision role are under consideration

Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, meets with Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Hassan Karim, in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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Lebanon says it is ready to demarcate its maritime border with Israel, following US mediation efforts and attempts backed by Cyprus and Greece to broker a deal under United Nations (UN) supervision governing both land and sea borders.

“Lebanon is ready to delineate the maritime borders and the special economic zone through the mechanism adopted for the demarcation of the blue line under the supervision of the United Nations”, Lebanese  Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said on Tuesday.

Mr Berri was speaking during a meeting with Major General Stefano Del Col, head of mission and force commander of the United Nations 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. In the absence of a demarcation, UNIFIL has historically used an unofficial land border, known as a blue line, between Lebanon and Israel land border to maintain peace. Both sides have agreed to the blue line.

The maritime demarcation is an important economic issue for Lebanon as fears mount over the country's sluggish growth rate, lack of reform and growing deficit. The sea border area to be demarcated covers a disputed zone rich in subsea oil and gas. Lebanon and Israel have divided their territorial waters into numbered blocks that can be acquired by oil companies for exploration and drilling, but several of these blocks remain contested.

The issue dates back to 2007 when Lebanon and Cyprus drew their maritime borders to create special economic zones to launch offshore oil and gas exploration. Israel then used the points agreed upon by Lebanon and Cyprus to define its own maritime border. Israel’s lack of consultation on the issue angered the Lebanese government and led to the dispute around blocks 8 and 9, an area covering roughly 860 square kilometres in the Mediterranean.

Mr Berri’s announcement suggests that UNIFIL could expand its role from currently helping demarcate the land border to also defining the maritime border.

A UNIFIL spokesperson told The National "the issue of maritime demarcation is outside UNIFIL's mandate under Security Council resolution 1701."  The UN adopted resolution 1701 following the 2006 war to maintain the cessation of hostilities along the land border. This implies that Gen Col's view of the expanded mission into maritime borders may require a larger mandate for UNIFIL.

But despite Mr Berri’s optimism, a deal may not be imminent due to apparent divisions within the Lebanese government. Lebanon’s defence minister Elias Bou Saab struck a defiant note on Lebanon’s Southern border with Israel on Wednesday. “We will continue to demand every inch of Lebanese territory”, he was quoted as saying by the NNA. Contested land areas include Shebaa Farms and the Ghajar village.

In Washington, the Trump administration has been keen on pursuing a deal that would settle the border issue between Lebanon and Israel, and allow oil and gas exploration in the country. In February 2018, acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs David Satterfield visited Beirut, and reportedly offered the Lebanese authorities 60 per cent of the disputed area, a package that he had also negotiated with Israel, according to Al Hayat Newspaper. Beirut declined the offer.

During his last visit to the region in March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made stops in both Lebanon and Israel. One source familiar with his meetings in Beirut told The National that the maritime border was the first item on his talks with Mr Berri.

Those discussions continued in Washington during a Lebanese delegation visit two weeks ago. Sources familiar with the meetings told said the new approach embraces the UN umbrella and supervision, and is open to a deal that demarcates both the land and sea borders. Cyprus has also been playing an active role given its presence in the area. Its 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 among different parties. "Our position has not changed: 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," the official said. However, Mr Berri's latest statement has signalled that a UN umbrella approach 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 demarcated land border “can be a trigger for military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah,” she said.

Lebanon could also benefit economically from securing a deal by spurring international investment in its oil and gas sector at a time when the economy is stagnant.

“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,” added Ms Slim.

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.

The fact that much of the area is under dispute is likely to discourage investors, explained Laury Haytayan, Middle East and North Africa director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in New York.

Ms Haytayan also 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”.

Differences within the Lebanese government are also derailing an agreement, she added. On the one hand, Mr Berri advocates a joint land and sea border deal, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri and foreign affairs minister Gebran Bassil prefer two separate arrangements, arguing that focusing on each separately could grant Lebanon more leverage and speed up negotiations.