To Deal Or Not To Deal – The Maritime Boundary Negotiations
Reports from international media indicate that Lebanon may be ready to consider compromising with Israel over resolution of the disputed areas to achieve a final deal over their shared maritime gas resources. The information was leaked to Reuters by three Lebanese officials with knowledge on the matter. American Senior Energy Advisor, Amos Hochstein is mediating on behalf of the United States since, technically, Israel and Lebanon are still at war and have not participated in direct negotiations that would bring about an acceptable settlement.
In fact, on June 14, Hochstein was pictured with Ambassador Dorothy Shea and Lebanese President Michel Aoun discussing the details of where the final line should be drawn between the two states. The negotiations stalled last year, after Lebanon made a demand that expanded its claim by 1,400 sq kilometers, necessitating the restart of a proactive US role to mediate the negotiations.
Tel Aviv’s position is that the commercially productive field called Karish is within its exclusive economic zone, while Lebanon’s position is that it is in contested waters and should be untouched until the maritime border is completely delineated. A Greek-flagged vessel belonging to the London-based Energean (ENOG.L) arrived to develop a gas field in Karish, triggering Beirut’s objections. The Lebanese government invited Hochstein to Beirut in mid-June to revitalize the talks after it condemned the arrival of the ship.
The US Envoy described the situation as “delicate,” but felt reassured by a proposal presented from Lebanese President Michel Aoun, which expanded Lebanon’s claim to include the Qana field adjacent to Karish which would allow for both countries to have access to productive zones. Lebanese leaders seem to be in unison on the issue, which Hochstein praised as reflecting their “serious efforts,” and desire to begin development of natural gas.
However, the popularity of the deal is not as uniform as the government’s position makes it appear.
Two days before the Hochstein’s arrival, hundreds of people and several Lebanese lawmakers demonstrated in the south of Lebanon against surrendering the Karish field to Israel as part of a finalized deal.
In addition to meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers, Hochstein also had a separate meeting with a delegation of independent members of Parliament whose reform agenda is built on the initial demands of the October 17 protest movements. They expressed their dissatisfaction with President Aoun’s conceding Lebanon’s claim based on Line 29 and believe the caretaker government was wrong to forfeit Lebanon’s claim to it. They asked questions regarding the protection of Lebanon’s natural resources and benefits to the Lebanese people. MP Melhem Khalaf spoke on behalf of the group, saying the people invested their trust to have their rights served and honored. The discussion centered on the controversial Line 29 and the need to negotiate from a position of strength, and not make any decisions out of fear of Israeli threats.
To gain insight into the position of the Independent members, I spoke with MP Najat Saliba, who participated in the meeting, who told me her view is that Line 29 should have never been given up.
Firas Hamdan read a statement on behalf of 13 independent parliamentarians, most of whom were elected last month, where they expressed their refusal “to neglect Lebanon’s maritime resources, which belong to all Lebanese.”
President Aoun assured the MPs that Lebanon will reject intimidation from Israel and that they will have their opportunity to vote on any final deal in Parliament.
The preservation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and natural wealth should not and must never be compromised for the sake of making a deal. Its leaders have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure all is being done to protect the nation’s vital wealth for the next generations to come. Only time will tell if that is the case.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.
Correction: The line referring to Lebanon’s demand of expanding its territorial claim was corrected to 1,400 sq kilometers from 1,400 kilometers, as originally published on June 30, 2022.