Tensions are rising between Israel and Lebanon, this time over underwater gas reserves. After months of debate, Israel’s cabinet approved last week a proposed maritime border that overlaps with a competing Lebanese claim, creating a sliver of some 430 square miles in dispute.
Typically, after decades of arguments over fishing rights and offshore oil, countries draw up exclusive economic zones with borders extending 200 nautical miles off the low water mark on their coasts. Yet Lebanon refuses to recognize Israel’s zone despite the fact that it does not cover any Lebanese territory.
The Hezbollah-dominated government of Lebanon responded by calling the Israeli border proposal an “aggression” and is appealing to the U.N. to arbitrate. Beirut is escalating its anti-Israel rhetoric instead of engaging in negotiations on maritime border demarcation as Jerusalem suggested. Thus, Hezbollah, Iran’s long hand, is actively stirring the pot in the Mediterranean.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Both countries have trillions of cubic feet of underwater natural gas and can benefit tremendously from these resources. All they need is the good will to negotiate a sea border demarcation agreement, which Lebanon refuses to do. Lebanon has no hydrocarbon discoveries so far but seems to be eager to discover another border conflict.
The dispute stems from differing interpretations of international maritime law, by which countries draw their borders at sea. Israel already demarcated its border with Cyprus, and both countries are successfully involved in prospecting for oil and gas on their seabeds. Texas-based Noble Energy is involved in developing two Israeli offshore gas finds, Tamar and Leviathan, which are sufficient to supply Israel and offer liquefied natural gas for exports.
Israel has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and therefore is not obligated to settle the dispute under UNCLOS, as Lebanon demands. The U.N. has a longstanding anti-Israel bias, and the Jewish state does not expect justice to come from that body. Moreover, even under UNCLOS, the two parties have not exhausted available remedies, such as negotiations, mediation, and arbitration.
Even though the U.N. meticulously traced out the Israel–Lebanon land border when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, it did not establish a maritime border. This simply was not an immediate issue until Israel made two substantial natural gas discoveries in the Tamar and Leviathan fields in the Mediterranean off the shores of northern Israel. Now this disputed border has become a bone of contention and may sow the seeds for a future conflict.
The Iran-affiliated Hezbollah, recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is armed by the Chinese-designed, Iranian-made C-802 anti-ship missiles, which could be devastating against the future Israeli offshore gas platforms and tankers. Hezbollah also has seaborne commando units. The terrorist organization is now threatening aggression against Israeli gas projects in the waters that Lebanon does not even dispute. Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem emphasized that Lebanon will not tolerate Israel seizing its oil, gas and water resources: “Lebanon will stand guard in order to protect all its rights—no matter the cost.”
In an analysis published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, former Israeli military intelligence officer Jacques Neriah writes, “The potential oil and gas fields off the Lebanese and Israeli coasts look set not only to become a potential long-term source of heavenly bounty, but also a source of conflict.”
Maritime border disputes such as this are regularly settled in bilateral negotiations and without recourse to the dispute resolution mechanisms in UNCLOS, as Israel’s settlement of the maritime border with Cyprus proved. In this important discussion, the United States should not be taking a wrong side. The Lebanese government sent its proposal to the U.N. as well as to the State Department, which conducted an expert review and reportedly endorsed the Lebanese document. A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official recently told Ha’aretz newspaper that the American diplomat in charge of the issue is Frederic Hof, who was responsible for Syria and Lebanon under former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell. Fearing the emergence of another festering dispute like Shaba Farms on the Israel–Lebanon border, Hof advised Israelis to go with the U.N. dispute resolution. However, Israel, like the U.S., is not a party to UNCLOS and does not trust the U.N. impartiality in this case.
The State Department’s fear of a flare-up in the Mediterranean and preoccupation with UNCLOS should not result in coddling a terrorist organization and the state it is running. The State Department should not promote a convention that the Senate has not ratified, nor should it push its ally to do so.
The Administration should reject a tacit approval of the Lebanese border proposal dictated by Hezbollah and push back on Iranian meddling in the Levant. Instead, the U.S. should stand by its democratic ally and reject the Hezbollah- and Teheran-inspired position that can only further escalate tensions in the Levant. Washington should clarify that the two countries should settle the border dispute between themselves—and enjoy the benefits from the underwater natural resources.