Israel-Lebanon Scramble for Eastern Mediterranean Gas

Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border
By Massimiliano Fiore

Over the last 12 months, Israel and Lebanon have become embroiled in a legal and diplomatic battle over rights to undersea natural gas fields along their common but disputed maritime border. This could potentially provide the spark to ignite the next war between the Jewish State and the Islamic Resistance Movement Hezbollah. A gigantic deposit of natural gas (Leviathan) estimated to contain 453 billion cubic meters of natural gas, at a likely market value in the hundreds of billions of dollars, was discovered in June 2010 approximately 130 kilometres offshore of Haifa. Alongside natural gas, the Leviathan is also believed to yield 4,2 billion barrels of oil.

The reported offshore reserves therefore represent a “golden opportunity” for both Israel and Lebanon. The stakes are enormous because - with little or no oil or gas deposits - Jerusalem and Beirut are currently highly dependent on neighbouring countries for importing fuel and power resources. On the one hand, this discovery - combined with the one previously made in 2009 at a site called Tamar 100 kilometres off the coast of Haifa - may not only provide Israel with security in terms of its supply of electricity for the next half-century, but also drastically alter Israel’s economic and energy situation. With a long history of dependence on foreign energy and boycotts from Arab energy producers, this find could turn Israel into an important natural gas supplier in the Mediterranean region. On the other hand, with one of highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world (147 per cent of its GDP, around USD$ 55 billion), Lebanon could not only pay off its public debt, but also achieve high-energy security and sustainable growth.

The current tension mainly stems from the fact that the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon has never been delineated because they have been officially at war since the establishment of the Jewish State in May 1948. Lebanon initially argued that the field extended into its territorial waters.

The Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, declared that “Israel is racing to make the case a fait accompli … ignoring the fact that according to the maps the deposit extends into Lebanese waters”.

Israel’s Head of Petroleum and Natural Gas Exploration in the National Infrastructure Ministry, Yaakov Mimran, called the claims “nonsense” and maintained that the fields are “absolutely within Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)”, but what remains unknown is whether the fields span into Lebanon’s territorial waters.

Under the law of the sea, an EEZ is a sea-zone over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources. It stretches from the seaward edge of the state’s territorial sea out to 200 nautical miles from its coast. Under Article 56 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the coastal state enjoys sovereign rights in the EEZ for the purposes of “exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources … of the waters superjacent to the seabed and its subsoil”.

Although the EEZ is now firmly established in International Law, the vagueness of the 1982 Convention – typical of any multilateral treaty where a wide degree of consensus is sought – fuels continued disagreement about the respective rights of different states in overlapping EEZs. Article 74 provides that the delimitation of the EEZ between states with opposite or adjacent coasts shall be effected by agreement. But what is the accepted international procedure in the absence of a mutual agreement? Many analysts and experts believe that the standard principle is the “right of capture”, according to which each side is permitted to extract oil or gas from its side of the border, even if the reserves stretch into anther country’s territory. The principle of good faith seems, however, to suggest that - pending an agreement - the states concerned shall make every effort not to jeopardize or hamper the reaching of an “equitable solution”.

Where should the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon be fixed? Lebanon submitted to the UN in August 2010 its version of where the maritime border should be - a proposal that did not include the Tamar and Leviathan gas prospects. And, on 10 July 2011, the Israeli Cabinet approved its draft of the maritime border with Lebanon, which significantly conflicts with the one submitted by Lebanon to the UN (it is further south than the line Israel proposed), further exacerbating the already tense geopolitical standoff between the two countries. At stake are 850 square kilometres of disputed territory containing reserves with potential value in the billions of dollars.

Sharp words have been exchanged between Jerusalem and Beirut in the last month. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour declared that “we will file a complaint to the UN against Israel. This is an aggression on our gas and oil rights and we will not remain silent. This is a de facto policy that will not bring peace for Israel”. He also added that no agreement can be obtained without the acquiescence of the three parties involved, stating further that, “When there is an EEZ linked to a number of states, demarcating borders does not happen by one state unilaterally or by two states at the expense of the third”.

Lebanon’s options for enforcing its claim are, however, limited. The Lebanese Government could attempt to take legal action by petitioning the UN to intervene or by bringing the claim to an international court or body of arbitration specializing in those disputes. But these efforts can be very lengthy.

And without an agreement being signed, the Eastern Mediterranean is turning into a potential theatre of confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah. It is not difficult to imagine Hezbollah using its weapons to target Israel’s gas and oil platforms. The Islamic Movement already boasts an amphibious warfare unit trained in underwater sabotage and coastal infiltration. Recent military intelligence reports have also indicated that Hezbollah now possesses the ability to target shipping along the entire length of Israel’s coastline and possibly Israel’s offshore gas and oil installations.

The Secretary-General of the Islamic Resistance Movement Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned that “those who put a hand on the Lebanese territories containing oil assets will have their territories harmed in return” and promised that the Resistance “would force Israel and the world to respect Lebanon’s right”.

Responding to the military threat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel “will defend its offshore gas fields”. National Infrastructure Minister, Uzi Landau, declared that “Israel would not hesitate to use its force and strength to protect not only the rule of law but the international maritime law”. The Israeli Navy has since reportedly presented to the government a maritime-security plan costing between USD$40 and 70 million to defend the gas fields.

While the dispute is legal in nature and should be solved through either direct or mediated negotiations within an accepted international venue, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that any future disagreement regarding the maritime border could provide the spark to ignite an all out war between Israel and Hezbollah. 


8 August 2011