Flare Up Between Israel and Lebanon Over Gas
July 12, 2011 by admin
- The potential oil and gas fields off the Lebanese and Israeli coasts look set not only to become a long-term source of heavenly bounty – but also a source of conflict in the years ahead. Behind the tensions over the potential gas discoveries is the fact that the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon has never been delineated because the two states are still formally at war.
- Lebanon has a real interest in developing potential fields and a possible confrontation with Israel will not assist in reducing its energy dependence. However, the sudden interest in potential offshore fossil-fuel wealth has turned the Mediterranean into a potential theater of confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah.
- Hizbullah already boasts an amphibious warfare unit trained in underwater sabotage and coastal infiltration. Its ability to target shipping – and possibly offshore oil and gas platforms – was exposed in the war with Israel in 2006 when Hizbullah came close to sinking an Israeli missile boat with an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 missile.
- Responding to this threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in January that the offshore gas fields were a “strategic objective that Israel’s enemies will try to undermine” and vowed that “Israel will defend its resources.” It would be a fair assessment that any damage incurred due to Hizbullah’s activities would generate retaliation that would be aimed against the infrastructure of the Lebanese state.
Israel and Lebanon: Still Technically at War
The basis for a future confrontation between Israel and Lebanon is being sown today. But unlike the past, the scene of the next armed conflict between the two neighboring Mediterranean states might be confined to the gas and oil concessions scattered along their common but disputed maritime border. 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 in the years ahead.
Indeed, the stakes are tremendous. Both Lebanon and Israel are currently dependent on neighboring countries for importing fuel for power generation. Israel presently relies on Egypt for most of its gas, but the durability of that arrangement has been cast into doubt following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The Egyptian pipeline supplying gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up numerous times since the change of regime in Egypt, disrupting the flow of gas to Israeli, Jordanian and Lebanese power stations.
Key to the tensions over the potential gas bonanza is that the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon has never been delineated because the two states are still technically at war.
Two gas fields off the northern Israel coast – Tamar and Leviathan – contain an estimated 8.4 trillion cu. ft. (238 billion cu. m.) and 16 trillion cu. ft. (453 billion cu. m.), respectively, sufficient to satisfy Israel’s energy needs for the next half-century. What remains unknown is if the fields stretch into Lebanon’s territorial waters. Even if neither of them stretches that far, Tamar and Leviathan are part of much bigger potential oil and gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Levant Basin Province, encompassing parts of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, could contain as much as 122 trillion cu. ft. (3.4 trillion cu. m.) of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. (For comparison, Libya has gas reserves of 53 trillion cu. ft. [1.5 trillion cu. m.] and oil reserves of 60 billion barrels.)1
Lebanon Looks to the UN
As expected, Lebanon declared on July 10 through its various spokesmen that it would file a complaint with the United Nations against Israel, after the Israeli Cabinet approved a map of its proposed maritime borders, which Lebanon is calling an aggression and an infringement on its right to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).2
Commenting on the Israeli decision, Lebanon’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour declared in an interview: “For sure we will [file a complaint]. 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. Israel is creating a new area of tension,” he added.3
Mansour said that the borders drawn by Israel constituted an aggression against Lebanon’s economic borders: “When there is an economic zone 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,” he said.4
According to the Israeli press, Israel will submit the map approved by its Cabinet to the UN for an opinion, as the neighboring states face off over offshore gas fields. The Israeli map lays out maritime borders that conflict significantly with those proposed by Lebanon in its own submission to the UN last summer.
At the Israeli cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “the outline that Lebanon submitted to the UN is significantly further south than the one we propose.” “It [Lebanon's map] also conflicts with the line that we have agreed upon with Cyprus and, what is more significant in my eyes, it conflicts with the line that Lebanon itself agreed upon with Cyprus in 2007.” “Our goal is to determine Israel’s position regarding its maritime border, in keeping with the principles of international maritime law,” Netanyahu said.5
Mansour said that Israel’s demarcation of its maritime borders with Cyprus had infringed on Lebanon’s right to its economic zone. “This contradicts international law,” Mansour said. In the 2007 agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon on their common maritime border, the parties had left “in Area 23 of the agreement map an unmarked line 17 km. long that has been now included by Israel in its EEZ which she has no right to.”6 Mansour said that the area included in the Israeli map was equivalent to 1,500 square kilometers of Lebanese territory lost to Israel.7
Mansour added that no agreement can be obtained without the acquiescence of the three parties involved. But with Lebanon being in a state of hostility with Israel, Lebanon had asked UNIFIL to intervene and assist in drawing the maritime line between the parties. UNIFIL declined to accept the request arguing that this was not in its mandate.8 Mansour reported on July 10, 2011, that following this refusal, Lebanon had requested help from the UN to demarcate its maritime borders with Israel. However, the UN had yet to respond to the request.9
Lebanon’s Energy and Water Resources Minister Jibran Bassil assured the Lebanese that the country’s natural resources were “not in danger.” Bassil said that Lebanon had acted in accordance with maritime law and “Israel should first sign this law before invoking international law.” Bassil added that Lebanon would wait and see what Israel is presenting to the UN: “If it respects international law, then no problem. But Lebanon has been accustomed to Israeli aggressions on its sea, waters, skies, and now on Lebanon’s oil and gas rights.”10
Answering Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that Lebanon was acting under pressure from Hizbullah, Bassil said: “If Israel wants to aggress us, then Hizbullah is not the only one concerned, but it is the whole state of Lebanon. No Lebanese will agree to desist himself of his oil and gas rights.” Bassil pointed out (as did the Lebanese foreign minister before him) that no international oil and gas company will be active in an area of conflict.
“We are determined to defend our rights, especially since we are fully committed to the law of the sea. If Israel violates this law, it will pay the price.” Bassil said that Lebanon had given its maritime maps to the UN and the “UN should behave in line with the law.” The minister said that he would call for placing the issue first on the agenda of the next Cabinet session.11 “We will take the suitable measures, like launching a diplomatic and political campaign [to defend our right],” he said.12
On January 4, 2011, Lebanon had requested UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure that Israel’s plans to drill for gas in the Mediterranean would not encroach on its own offshore reserves. Lebanon’s then foreign minister, Ali al-Shami, wrote to Ban asking him to “exert every possible effort to prevent Israel exploiting Lebanon’s maritime hydrocarbon resources which fall within its exclusive economic zone.”13
Shami’s letter came a week after Texas-based Noble Energy and its Israeli exploration partners said the Leviathan prospect – 130 km. (80 miles) off the Israeli port of Haifa – was the world’s biggest deepwater gas find in the past decade.14
Shami stressed: “Lebanon’s right to exploit fully its hydrocarbon resources, which fall within its exclusive economic zone, is based on legitimate rights established by international law….Any Israeli exploitation of this resource would be a blatant violation of these laws and an attack on Lebanese sovereignty.”15
Spurred on by Israel’s plans to drill for gas, Lebanon’s parliament adopted a long-awaited energy law on August 17, 2010, which paves the way for exploration of offshore reserves. Representatives of energy companies are already in Beirut lobbying for potentially lucrative oil and gas concessions. In an October statement, Norway-based Petroleum Geo-Services confirmed that Lebanese waters contained potential valuable deposits and may prove to be an “exciting new province for oil and gas.”16
Indeed, the prospect of oil and gas beneath Lebanon’s coastal waters could have immense benefits for a country with one of the highest debt rates in the world – around $52 billion, or 147 percent of gross domestic product. But progress has slowed down because of the collapse of the government in January and the delay in the formation of a new Cabinet due to political bickering.17
Moreover, Lebanon is well aware of the UN reluctance to venture into this field. A reflection of this was seen during the visit of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, who declared after his visit on March 3, 2011: “I assured the Minister that the United Nations is considering how best it can help Lebanon…in regard to the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel. But I also stressed to the Minister that there are many steps that Lebanon itself can take….For example, Lebanon can move towards defining the maritime borders with other neighbors, for example Cyprus and Syria, through the ratifications of agreements that have already been negotiated, or through the negotiation of other agreements. We also look forward to Lebanon accelerating the implementation of the oil and gas exploration law, which Parliament adopted last year.”18(The agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon has not been ratified by the Lebanese parliament because the government has not submitted it for ratification, in order not to antagonize Turkey that is fiercely opposed to any deal with the Cyprus government regarding resources.
Implications of the Dispute
The dispute over the gas fields along the Lebanon-Israel maritime border has been described by some analysts as another Shab’aa Farms issue, which historically has been a periodic clash point between Hizbullah and Israel. However, on the gas issue it seems that the parallel is misplaced. Lebanon has a real interest in developing potential fields and a possible confrontation with Israel will not assist in obtaining the energy independence it is seeking. Analyzing Lebanese declarations, it is clear that the Lebanese have chosen first to seek a diplomatic solution either through the UN apparatus or through international courts and bodies of arbitration that specialized in those disputes.
It comes as no surprise, however, that the sudden interest in the potential fossil-fuel wealth off the Israeli and Lebanese coastlines has turned the Mediterranean into a potential theater of confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah. The Lebanese group already boasts an amphibious warfare unit trained in underwater sabotage and coastal infiltration. Hizbullah’s ability to target shipping – and possibly offshore oil and gas platforms – was exposed in the war with Israel in 2006 when Hizbullah came close to sinking an Israeli missile boat with an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 missile. Hizbullah fighters have since hinted that they have acquired larger anti-ship missiles with double the 72-mile (116 km.) range of the C-802 variant.
Last year, Hizbullah leader Nasrallah warned that his organization now possesses the ability to target shipping along the entire length of Israel’s coastline. Nasrallah even promised that if Israel threatens future Lebanese plans to tap its oil and gas reserves, “only the Resistance [Hizbullah] would force Israel and the world to respect Lebanon’s right.”19 In this context, one cannot dismiss the possibility that in time of conflict Hizbullah would use its weapons to target and hit Israel’s gas installations in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
Responding to this threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in January that the offshore gas fields were a “strategic objective that Israel’s enemies will try to undermine” and vowed that “Israel will defend its resources.”
No doubt the U.S. has a keen interest in preventing any conflagration in the region, especially in an area where American drilling and oil and gas exploration companies are involved. A report in Ha’aretz20 pointed to the U.S. as having adopted the Lebanese position on the issue, but this has been denied by government spokesmen. It is clear that the U.S. will not blindly accept either of the two positions: the U.S. will follow the legal lines of international jurisdiction and encourage both parties to do so. In this realm it seems that the U.S. will advise the Lebanese government to exercise some restraint over Hizbullah and will signify that any military intervention by Hizbullah could come at the expense of Lebanese interests.
As for Israel, the Cabinet has already approved a budget to protect Israel’s “strategic maritime energy sources.” It would be a fair assessment that any damage incurred due to Hizbullah’s activities would generate retaliation that would be aimed against the infrastructure of the Lebanese state.
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1. Liban-Israel: la bataille du gaz offshore,l’ONU refuse de se prononcer sur ce conflit, http://www.lepost.fr/, 8 January 2011; Nicholas Blanford, “The Next Big Lebanon-Israel Flare-Up: Gas,” TIME, 6 April 2011; http://lebanonmatters.com/2011/04
2. www.dailystar.com, 10 July 2011
5. Israeli TV Channel 22, 10 July 2011
6. http://www.annahar.com/, 10 July 2011
7. http://www.assafir.com/, 10 July 2011
9. www.yalibnan.com, 10 July 2011
14. www.yalibnan.com, 5 July 2011.
17. Nicholas Blanford.
18. http://unscol.unmissions.org/, 3 March 2011.
19. Nicholas Blanford.
20. http://www.haaretz.co.il/, 10 July 2011.
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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.