Will Hezbollah prevent compromise on the Lebanon-Israel maritime dispute?

The recurrent pattern of asking for more and more has made a mockery of the ongoing attempt to diplomatically bridge the Israeli-Lebanese EEZ divide.

Israel's Leviathan gas processing rig as seen from the Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, Jan. 1, 2020. Credit: Flash90.
Israel's Leviathan gas processing rig as seen from the Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, Jan. 1, 2020. Credit: Flash90.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

When U.S. Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut last Monday, it appeared that some of the powers-that-be in Lebanon might understand the need for a compromise with Israel on the maritime dispute over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the coasts of both countries. But under pressure from Hezbollah, the Lebanese may, once again, make outrageous demands.

Despite their recent electoral setback, Hezbollah and its allies still have a firm grip on most of the levers of power in Lebanon. Therefore, Lebanon could well reject any reasonable, even generous compromise that would help extricate the country from its economic misery. The Lebanese people should be aware of the consequences of Hezbollah’s conduct, and may voice their displeasure at such an outcome.

A Pattern of Asking for More

In 1835, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin rendered in verse an old folk tale about a fisherman who spared the life of a magical golden fish and then was pressed by his wife to ask it for more and more—a palace, untold riches, royal status.

Demands kept escalating until the wife took a step too far. She asked to rule the sea and the magical fish with it. No answer came, and the fisherman went home to find his wife as poor as she had ever been.

This is not dissimilar to the ever-expanding Lebanese demands and claims on the EEZ boundary. For example, negotiations went nowhere last year after Lebanon inexplicably abandoned its previous claim based on “Line 23” along the Cypriot EEZ border and expanded its claim southwards to “Line 29.”

The recurrent pattern of asking for more and more has made a mockery of the ongoing attempt to solve the problem diplomatically. However, the negotiations, long-dormant due to Lebanese internal paralysis, were recently revived by the United States.

What Is at Stake Now?

As he did a decade ago, Hochstein is once again trying to find a reasonable middle way between the Lebanese and Israeli positions.

Gas finds have changed the region’s trajectory. The Lebanese reviewed their position under the law of the sea, finding new legal interpretations of the coastal contours to gain additional territory—1,400 square kilometers (540 square miles) rather than 860 square kilometers (332 square miles) south of where Israel claimed the EEZ line had historically been. By doing so, Lebanon claimed the Israeli Karish gas field, part of Israel’s EEZ.

Israel’s initial response in 2011 could have been to point out that Lebanon’s original boundary was already drawn. Indeed, Israel would have been within its rights to insist on it.

But soon enough, the key players on the Israeli side—including Avigdor Lieberman, who was serving as foreign minister at the time, and whose first instinct was to take a firm nationalist line—came to see the situation as a potential win-win proposition: Israel would offer a generous compromise, and both sides could then submit bids on their respective sectors, generating an incentive for stability and drawing potential investors.

Israel thus consented to a division of the disputed area, most of which was offered to Lebanon. Israeli-born American Hochstein, then acting as mediator, put forward creative ideas that would have enabled Lebanon to share in the prospective wealth of the eastern Mediterranean.

Alas, the unsettled state of Lebanese politics—in which several factions constantly vie for their share of dwindling resources—make it impossible for Beirut to reach any decisions, and Hochstein’s efforts predictably came to naught. A decade later, amid the ever-deteriorating state of the Lebanese economy, former President Donald Trump restarted negotiation efforts toward the end of his term.

In October 2020, at the UNIFIL base in Naqoura, a Lebanese team led by a military officer met with an Israeli delegation led by the director of the Ministry of Energy. A U.S. representative attended the meeting.

As it turned out, the Lebanese delegation did not talk about the resolution of the previous dispute, but staked out a series of new unsubstantiated claims, unrelated to anything except the apparent expectation that they could once again blackmail Israel and the United States into further concessions.

Can Negotiations Still Succeed?

Hochstein’s willingness to return to Lebanon—despite Hezbollah’s openly anti-Semitic taunt that the country’s fate will not be in the hands of Hochstein “or any other Stein”—may indicate that he hopes to find a more receptive ear following the results of the election in May, which weakened Hezbollah and its allies. That election demonstrated that the economy is now the main issue on the minds of many Lebanese.

Once again, however, the fisherman’s wife is at work: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah saw fit to insinuate that Lebanon (i.e., Hezbollah) has the means to prevent Energean—whose Israeli offshoot wholly owns the Karish and Tanin fields—from operating the Singapore-built Floating Production Storage and Offloading ship that recently passed through the Suez Canal.

A careful reading of Nasrallah’s statement indicates that he is not unaware of Lebanese hopes that energy extraction might help save the country from financial collapse.

So, he leaves open the prospect of using violence “only” if the negotiations—which will take place—fail to produce a satisfactory result. But rhetoric that absurdly refers to the Karish-Tanin area as a Lebanese claim is bound to narrow the government’s options for a workable compromise at the negotiating table. It should be made clear to the Lebanese leadership and people that such tactics will only consign their already bankrupt country to further misery. Israel’s willingness to compromise has been demonstrated, and rightly so.

It makes sense to offer Lebanon a real and workable stake in developing their gas fields. Israel has no interest in Lebanon’s economic collapse. Yet there is a line beyond which no Israeli government can retreat in the face of ever more arrogant demands.

Choosing conflict will not deter the corporations that already have an established presence in Israel. It will, however, frighten away all of those still considering investment in Lebanon’s gas fields. The voices of those in Lebanon who understand this must prevail if the country is to have a chance of climbing out of the abyss.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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