Gas reserves bring Lebanese-Israeli maritime border issue into focus, alternative option proposed

It is difficult to see the Lebanese government happily hosting an Israeli gas pipeline in its territorial waters.

2017/06/11 Issue: 110 Page: 21

The Arab Weekly
Nicholas Blanford

Beirut - Border disputes between Lebanon and Israel, on both land and sea, have bedevilled international mediators since the crea­tion of the Jewish state 70 years ago.

A failure in early 2000 to agree on the sovereignty of the Shebaa Farms region, a mountainside of some 28 on Lebanon’s south-eastern border, led to a 6-year campaign of periodic attacks by Hezbollah against Israeli troops oc­cupying ridge-top outposts. Hezbol­lah called those attacks “reminder operations,” warning that the Leba­nese group remains a threat and that the Shebaa Farms is unfinished business.

More recently, the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel has come into focus because of the anticipated existence of sub­stantial gas reserves, potentially worth tens of billions of dollars, which span the undemarcated ju­risdictions of both countries.

Competing interpretations of where Lebanon and Israel believe their Exclusive Economic Zones lie have resulted in an overlap of 854 In January, the Lebanese government moved forward after a 3-year delay on the licensing bid for five of the ten exploration blocks in Lebanese territorial waters. Howev­er, large portions of three of the five blocks — blocks eight, nine and ten — lie within the disputed triangle of water.

Israel reacted by lobbying Wash­ington to pressure Lebanon into re­versing its decision and announced in late March that it was submitting a bill to the Knesset to formally an­nex the disputed zone. In turn, Na­bih Berri, the Lebanese speaker of parliament and a vocal proponent of pushing forward with gas explo­ration bids, warned the decision was “tantamount to a war by Israel.”

Experts on the borders of the Mid­dle East at the US State Department have for years been attempting to mediate a solution to the maritime crisis but have been unable to per­suade Lebanon and Israel to reach a compromise.

However, Reed Clark, an Ameri­can expert on energy engineering who lives in Beirut, has proposed what on paper could be a win-win solution to the dispute that takes advantage of a future pipeline that would ferry Israeli gas to Turkey.

Israel and Turkey are said to be close to reaching an agreement on the export of Israeli gas to Turkey with much focus on the route an underwater pipeline would take. The current mooted route would pass through Cypriot waters, which poses a political quandary as Nico­sia is at odds with Ankara over the existence since 1983 of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the northern half of the island.

Furthermore, a pipeline running to Turkey via Cyprus would pass through the ultra deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean, depths of 1,500-2,000 metres. The engineer­ing logistics and high cost of laying a deep-water pipeline are formida­ble given the water pressure at such depths and the risks of accidents or sabotage.

Clark proposed switching the path of the pipeline from Cyprus to shal­low Lebanese coastal waters, where the depths range 80-100 metres, saving Israel a considerable sum. In exchange, Lebanon would acquire sovereignty over the disputed 854, benefit from Israel-Turkey pipeline transfer fees and have the ability to tap into the pipeline for its own future gas exports.

“In the end, Lebanon will have gained immensely, sacrificed noth­ing and can sheath one of the rat­tling sabres,” Clark wrote in his pro­posal.

Security for the pipeline could be provided by the UNIFIL peace­keeping force in southern Lebanon, which includes a maritime com­ponent of naval vessels patrolling Lebanese waters. The Maritime Task Force’s mandate is to prevent the smuggling of arms to Lebanon but it could be adjusted to include overseeing pipeline protection.

While the proposal appears to be an elegant mutually beneficial agreement, the devil may lie in the details. The pipeline would have to swing north-east from Lebanon’s northern border into deeper reach­es of the Mediterranean to avoid passing through Syrian waters. Giv­en the war in Syria and sanctions against the Syrian regime, running the pipeline in Syrian coastal terri­tory could be an unwanted compli­cation.

Furthermore, Israel may well conclude that the cost of laying a deep-water pipeline via Cyprus is preferable to giving Lebanon the 854 zone that is believed to contain some of the largest gas de­posits of Lebanon’s ten exploration blocks.

Then there are the sensitivities in Lebanon of being seen conduct­ing any kind of agreement with the Jewish state. The Lebanese govern­ment has banned the movie “Won­der Woman” from being shown in Lebanon because the lead actress is an Israeli citizen. It is therefore dif­ficult to see the Lebanese govern­ment happily hosting an Israeli gas pipeline in its territorial waters, one that brings additional revenue to the Israeli treasury, even if Lebanon also benefits financially from the deal.

“Can you really see an Israeli pipeline running from Ashdod [in Israel] to Tyre [in Lebanon]?” asked one Lebanese MP familiar with the proposal.

On the other hand, in the absence of alternative ideas to resolve the maritime dispute, it might be worth a shot.

Nicholas Blanford is the author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel (Random House 2011). He lives in Beirut.

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