Israel-Lebanon. The Maritime Borders of Discord

Despite the American relaunch, the negotiations on the maritime borders between Beirut and Tel Aviv remain suspended.While Israel wants to nibble away as much land as possible, the Lebanese leaders, divided on strategy and driven by their individual interests, put their country’s interests at a disadvantage.

UNIFIL vehicles parked on the coastal road near the town of Naqura on the Lebanese-Israeli border (4 May 2021)
Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

Despite US efforts to revive them, negotiations between Beirut and Tel-Aviv over their maritime boundaries remain at a standstill. While Israel wants to grab as much surface as it can, the Lebanese leaders, motivated by their personal interests are acting against those of their country.

In mid-June, Ambassador John Desrocher, the US mediator in these negotiations, aimed at determining the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel, paid a visit to Beirut, bringing this thorny issue to the fore once again.

The news that leaked from his meetings with Lebanese officials suggest that the US is putting pressure on Beirut to refrain from bringing any preconditions to these negotiations. John Desrocher made it clear to the Lebanese that they could obtain no more than 860 km2 of the disputed area instead of the 2,293 km² they had claimed during the previous round of negotiations in May 2021. That demand had so angered the Israelis that they walked away from the talks, though without actually breaking them off.

Now, what with its lasting economic and social breakdown, the undeclared US blockade blithely tolerated by some Gulf countries and by European countries historically concerned with the situation in Lebanon, the country finds itself in a position of great weakness vis-à-vis its ferocious enemy. Israel. Moreover, the latter has the powerful backing of the US, official but hardly impartial mediator between the two countries.

A fatal mistake

The issue of maritime boundaries between Lebanon and Israel first arose in 2006, when Cyprus tried to delineate its boundaries with those countries before undertaking the exploitation of its underwater oil- and-gas resources, deposits which are embedded with theirs. The Lebanese Prime Minister at the time, Fouad Simora, commissioned the UK Hydrographic Office to draw up the necessary maps based on the 1949 armistice border with Israel, on the Southern border with historic Palestine as defined in the Paulet-Newcombe accords of 1923 and on certified documents deposited by Lebanon with the United Nations and Israel.

Now, according to a subsequent study carried out by the Lebanese army, the starting point for the British institute’s study is incorrect, for it is based on landmarks that became contentious following the Israeli retreat from South-Lebanon in 2000. Beirut only became aware of this mistake—which deprived it of 1,430 km2 of maritime surface—after initialling an agreement with Cyprus, which to be formally adopted, however, required the signatures of the President and the Prime Minister.

Once the mistake had been corrected, the Lebanese experts sent the maps to the Parliamentary Committee for Energy and Water for approval in order to deposit them with the UN so that the delineation of these maritime boundaries could be made official. In those years, however, from 2006 to 2008, and then again from 2014 to 2018, Lebanon was experiencing periods of political vacuum, and the dossier remained in limbo.

A compass that points to Ankara

That at least is the official version. Yet there is an unofficial version which claims that this was not just an oversight but was mostly due to the economic and confessional calculations made by a billionaire businessman, Najib Mikati, who was Prime Minister in 2013. Indeed, any discussion of Cyprus’s borders, necessarily involves Turkey. Now, according to an official source who prefers to remain anonymous, “Mikati’s relations with the Turks were excellent for two reasons. First of all, because he held the highest office of responsibility that a Sunni can hold in Lebanon. And secondly, because Mikati had considerable economic interests in Turkey, with investments in various sectors there, such as telecommunications, energy, real estate, finance, etc.”

As for the Turks, they take a dim view of Cyprus drilling for hydrocarbons in an area where they think they have rights of their own. So Mikati put off signing the agreement under the pretext that his government, having resigned in 2013, was not qualified to ratify this kind of accord. “Actually, however, our source adds, ”he had promised Erdoğan that the deal with Cyprus would not go through.”

In the meantime, in July 2011, Nicosia had signed an agreement of boundary delineation with Israel, in blatant disregard of maritime law, which required that Lebanon be consulted first.

The following year, Israel wanted to begin prospecting on its border with Lebanon. The United States sent their first mediator, Frederic Charles Hof. He told the Lebanese that the disputed area was now 860 km² instead of the 2,293 as evaluated by Lebanon once the mistake had been corrected. He proposed a compromise, dubbed the “Hof line”: 55% of the disputed area (the 860 km²) would be for Lebanon and 45% for Israel. A private US company would then exploit the common area and divide the income proportionately between the two countries. Lebanon turned down this proposition which it deemed biased and favourable to Israel. Next, the US sent Amos Hochstein in 2014 who made the same offer as Hof and again Lebanon turned it down.

The unavoidable Nabih Berri

The situation was at a standstill until the beginning of the Lebanese uprising on 17 October 2019. The US stepped up its pressure on Nabih Berri, in charge of the issue. Taking advantage of the political vacuum which the country experienced between 2012 and 2016, Berri—speaker of the Parliament since 1992, he was the only politician of his rank still in office1—had laid his hands on the boundary dossier, which normally should have been the sole prerogative of the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister, as stipulated in article 54 of the Constitution. He is still hanging on to the dossier despite Michel Aoun’s election as President of the Republic in 2016.

Washington felt the moment was ripe to snatch a “victory,” making do in fact with direct talks between Lebanese and Israeli which could be chalked up to President elect Donald Trump, whose term of office was soon to begin. But the Lebanese refused to negotiate from such a position of weakness, Not only were they afraid of having to make concessions concerning the hydrocarbon revenues, but also of having to accept a form of de facto normalisation due to these direct negotiations with Israel, if the matter fell into the hands of Lebanese negotiators over-inclined to accommodate the USA. Future events justified their attitude.

Following his election in 2016, Michel Aoun tried to take the dossier back from Nabih Berri. Several sources report that he even sent many emissaries to this end, but Berri persisted in his refusal, hoping to reach an “historic accomplishment.” Aoun then appealed to Hezbollah, an ally he has in common with the speaker of Parliament. However, Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s secretary general, sided with Berri, thinking he would take a tougher line with Israel than Aoun.

Nabih Berri was at the centre of the talks mediated by the successive US emissaries, from Frederic Hof to assistant Secretary of State David Schenker in October 2020. Anxious to avoid the sanction with which he and his family were threatened by the Trump administration for his proximity with a “terrorist” organisation (Hezbollah), he finally made public on October 1, 2020, an “umbrella agreement“for indirect negotiations with Israel before”passing the buck" to Michel Aoun.

A threat of normalisation?

Rapidly this umbrella agreement was officially adopted by Israel, Washington, the UN and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil)2 In Lebanon, the transfer of the handling of the issue to President Michel Aoun is well received, especially by the Christian parties. Of his own initiative, he had welcomed the US mediation.

Five rounds of talks ensued. In the very first, the Israelis violated the umbrella agreement by enlarging the composition of their delegation which ceased to be strictly military and became techno-military and political, in particular with the participation of the Minister of Energy and Benyamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser. Aoun responded to this Israeli initiative by enlarging in turn the Lebanese delegation to include two experts among others. Now, by accepting to negotiate with a delegation including an Israeli politician and a diplomat, the Lebanese president indirectly made a move towards normalisation with Israeli.

Worse still, the President of the Republic wanted to include in the delegation of negotiators official figures like the director general of the presidency and a representative of the foreign ministry, as proposed by his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, former minister of foreign affairs. It took a joint communiqué from Hezbollah and the Amal movement, Nabih Berri’s own party, warning Michel Aoun against such a step, to make him change his mind.

Towards a status quo ante

Hezbollah’s official position, as reiterated often enough by Hassan Nasrallah in various speeches, may be summed up thus: this affair is in the hands of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah will abide by its decision. However, it is obvious that the party does not believe in the desirability of these negotiations, no doubt because of its conviction that the balance of power is not in Lebanon’s favour.

Which explains Lebanon’s decision to raise the ante by laying claim to 2,293 km2 i.e., the area stretching from line No. 1—that of the incorrect boundary with Cyprus—to line No. 29, which Nabih Berri is said to have called “a line of negotiation, not one of law.”

The fat is that Beirut has aroused the ire of Tel-Aviv and Washington, which have in turn raised their demands to line 310, which originates in the town of Saida located 35 km to the South of Beirut. A laughable demand according to the Lebanese experts, since Israel possesses no documents attesting their rights over that area, contrary to Lebanon.

During the next two rounds of talks, the Israelis insisted on limiting them to the 860 km2. But Lebanon has still not updated its maps with the UN to justify demanding a larger surface. Even though Hassan Diab’s cabinet had resigned in August 2020 and was merely handling routine business, the President of the Republic had the power to issue an executive order to settle the matter. And he did in fact issue nearly two hundred such orders while the government was already handling only routine business. But because of pressure brought by the US, Aoun refused to do so on the pretext of the cabinet’s resignation and the need for a national consensus on an issue of this kind.

Following the President’s instructions, the Lebanese delegation refused to attend a sixth round of talks “because of the pre-conditions laid down by Tel-Aviv limiting the talks to a surface of 860 km2.”

The talks are currently suspended, but neither party has said they are over. Both Lebanon and Israel are waiting to see how the regional and international situations evolve in order to seize the proper moment to resume negotiations: the US elections and the changing priorities of the incoming administration, negotiations over the Iran-US nuclear deal, the Iranian elections, the composition of the new Israeli government… Of all these changes under way, only the formation of the Lebanese cabinet remains up in the air, while the country keeps on falling into a bottomless pit…

1Editor’s note: Reference to the vacancies at the time of the offices of President of the Republic and Prime Minister

2A UN-NATO peacekeeping mission established on 19 March 1978 by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon which Israel had invaded five days prior, in order to ensure that the government of Lebanon would restore its effective authority in the area.