Lebanon blows hot air in gas exploration dispute with Israel

Makram Rabah
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It is interesting how the entire Lebanese population, including myself, has suddenly become experts in maritime demarcation, gas exploitation, and production authorities.

It amplified with Israel’s recent commencement of gas exploration in the Karish oil field with the arrival of a storage and production ship, reigniting a dispute with Lebanon over blocks 8 and 9. The United States is trying to mediate through the office of its senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein.

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In theory, such a maritime border dispute is not rare, as many nations have faced off on such matters and have found legal means to settle mutual disagreements for both sides involved. Yet, in the case of Lebanon and Israel, nothing is as simple as it appears. Especially when the Lebanese side has, since the start of the demarcation efforts, shown little commitment and failed to see this process through to a satisfactory conclusion. Given the situation, securing the gains to permit Lebanon to jumpstart its gas exploration is unlikely.

Instead, the ruling establishment headed by President Michael Aoun has thrown out a somewhat populist demand that Lebanon’s maritime borders extend to line 29, which will make the current Israeli exploration an apparent infringement on Lebanese sovereignty, or so they claim. Consequently, the Lebanese state has requested the intervention of Hochstein, who arrived in Beirut on Monday and met with senior Lebanese officials, including President Aoun. It was a last attempt to settle this difficult situation.

Complicating matters further are the statements from Hezbollah against Israel, which in turn responded with equal threats claiming that the next war with Hezbollah would have dire consequences. It said it will involve a massive military operation that would destroy what remains of Lebanon’s non-existent infrastructure.

A map showing the claims to gas deposits targeted by Lebanon. (Photo: Lebanese Army)
A map showing the claims to gas deposits targeted by Lebanon. (Photo: Lebanese Army)

In reality, Hezbollah will not dare venture into an open confrontation with Israel, especially in Lebanon, as such a scenario would be counterproductive to the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna.

Thus, despite Hassan Nasrallah’s fighting words and his recent statement about his militia’s ability to disrupt the Israeli gas operations, his lack of action on the matter does not stem from his supposed wisdom and restraint. Instead, it stems from Tehran’s reluctance to face off with Israel.

Yet all this shadow boxing between Israel and Iran on the Mediterranean reconfirms the harsh reality that the Lebanese have few options but to regain the initiative and try to improve their standing in the negotiations. It must providing Hochstein with a clear list of demands with the legal framework to achieve them. It is somewhat tricky given that the Lebanese establishment, especially Aoun and his son-in-law, the US-sanctioned Gebran Bassil, looks at these gas disputes as ones that will provide them with the opportunity to try to get the Biden administration to offer further concessions. It might include lifting Bassil off the sanctions list.

By continuing to run with the line 29 claim without presenting credible evidence, Lebanon further risks alienating itself and exposing the criminal naivety of its ruling elite, who claim that they are working for the general good of its people. At the same time, they lack the vision and, more importantly, the skills to engage diplomatically with the international community to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty and resources.

When Hochstein visited Lebanon back in February, he came bearing a proposal to swap the two gas fields Karish and Qana between the Israelis and the Lebanese. This would permit both sides to move forward and benefit with no recourse to violence or even time-consuming legal arbitration.

As it stands, the Lebanese elite might be willing to go back to Hochstein’s proposal, sticking to line 23 and accepting to take the Qana gas field, confirming that all its populist bombast is merely a red herring to distract attention from their usurpation of power and confirming that they are unfit to rule.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the Lebanese are willing to engage in these political shenanigans, to begin with, while knowing the outcome. More so, they gullibly look at the gas fields as a way out of the ongoing economic crisis. At the moment, no amount of gas reserves can be enough to save Lebanon from its continuous free fall. The farce involving the debate about maritime demarcation is one more chapter the Lebanese need to learn from.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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