(April 21, 2019 / JNS) Crises with Lebanon are starting to appear on the horizon. For Lebanon, there are two major issues that need to be solved with regard to Israel: the disputes over the land and maritime borders.
After the United Nations laid down the border between Israel and Lebanon in 2000 after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the security buffer zone, Lebanon rushed to protest the decision. It claimed that 13 places along the border—from Rosh Hanikra to Mount Hermon—had remained on the Israeli side even though they belonged to Lebanon, and must be returned. Israel did not agree and began building a border fence along the line the U.N. had determined, thereby creating the crisis on land.
The maritime problem has to do with the 330 square miles of open water off Israel and Lebanon’s shared coastline that happens to be the source of major natural-gas deposits. Lebanon is claiming full ownership while Israel disputes that claim.
Both sides have sought U.S. help in solving both matters. Thus far, four U.S. envoys have been dispatched to Beirut with proposed solutions, all of which Lebanon rejected. On his last visit to Lebanon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a creative solution that immediately sparked disputes within Lebanon.
Israel is refusing to report details about the Pompeo talks, but the secretary of state’s idea was to treat the two disputes separately, which would make them easier to solve. He suggested, first of all, focusing on the land border to find an answer that would satisfy Lebanon, whereas the maritime border would be handled separately by agreed-upon mediators. Until the mediation is completed, international companies would be responsible for extracting gas, and the profits would be split between Israel and Lebanon. After the mediation process, both nations would abide by the decision of the mediator.
But the American proposal caused tension between Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, who supports the two issues being handled separately, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is backed by Hezbollah. Hariri argues that the Lebanese economy is in crisis and the revenue from natural gas could help.
Berri and Hezbollah, on the other hand, claim that if Israel were to agree to Lebanon’s demands regarding the land border this would scupper Hezbollah’s claims that Israel is “occupying” Lebanese territory. This, it is argued, would spark a debate within Lebanon about the need to demilitarize Hezbollah.
The United States wants to separate the two matters because doing so would allow it to move Qatari gas to Europe via Israel and Cyprus, without it being exposed to the military threat Hezbollah poses. That would allow the United States to strike a blow against Russia, Europe’s largest gas supplier. Israel is keeping mum, but we can assume that these issues were raised in the recent talks with Pompeo, and that the continued production of natural gas in accordance with the U.S. proposal is seen as more important than minuscule adjustments to the border line.
Itzhak Levanon is the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
This column originally appeared on Israel Hayom.