Beyond maritime borders : can Lebanon reconcile with its southern neighbor?

After a year and a half of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel with US mediation, both parties have declared that a final agreement has been reached. The connection between the existence of valuable natural resources, especially oil and gas, with higher levels of authoritarianism in oil-rich countries has been established by academic research. Almost instantly one can point out economic reasons to most conflicts and this is especially true when traditional global powers seek these natural resources for themselves. In other words, if oil and gas in an entirely sovereign recognized country can lead to conflict, it must almost be certain that such energy resources in disputed areas would have even more reasons to turn deadly. Can energy security bring two enemy countries together if their interests meet? Can Oil and Gas in the mediterranean lead to peace between Israel and Lebanon?

Relative deprivation theory stipulates the way a group — or in this case, a country — looks at other groups (or countries) to seek the essential things they lack. This article tries to imply or ask the question of peace for mutual economic benefit. Although this idea sounds like a more sensible or pragmatic thing to do, both the Lebanese and Israeli governments are in peculiar situations. The final document is still secretive, in fears that some parties in both Lebanon and Israel would actively seek to either change its content or seek to annul it altogether if publicized. The Lebanese one is under the hegemony of Iran and is not deemed legitimate by many in the country and even abroad, while Israel, whose legitimacy is constantly contested, is headed to its fifth general election in 3 years. Lebanon’s parliament has yet to elect a new President who would succeed incumbent Michel Aoun whose term ends on the 31st of October 2022. The plausibility of a vacant presidency looms over the urgency of passing a maritime deal before Aoun’s tenure ends. Israel’s Netanyahu, aspiring to be elected as PM again, has come out against the deal by holding a more hawkish and maximalist stance. On the other hand, Israeli PM Lapid, who spearheads Israeli support for the deal, argued that potential oil and gas revenues for Lebanon would lessen Iran’s hold of the country. Although a notable observation, it is quite early to draw such conclusions. Israel’s attempts to drill in contested waters without the demarcation of the maritime border first would be very dangerous for regional security. While Israel has already signed a deal with the EU to export it its gas through Egypt, it is very unlikely that Lebanon will start drilling or even exporting its gas anytime soon (that is, if gas is even found in Lebanon’s waters).

Talks about demarcating the maritime border with Israel was brought up years ago but as with every other issue or law, it takes forever for competing Lebanese politicians to agree on a common strategy therefore almost ignoring the existence of said proposal. Lebanon agreed on a maritime border with Cyprus in 2007, but the former’s parliament is yet to ratify it. In fact, Lebanon’s current land borders are also technically not demarcated, neither with Syria nor with Israel. As the border with Israel is heavily guarded with UNIFIL personnel, it does not necessarily lead to any problems in the near future. Though in the event of a peace deal between the two states, the conversation of demarcating Israel and Lebanon’s land border will come up. In many locations, Lebanon’s border with Syria is simply barren land, and since the economic crisis, smuggling of subsidized fuel and medicine from Lebanon to Syria has been highlighted in the media. Given the economic crisis in both countries, during the initial phases of Lebanon’s crisis, large numbers of USD in cash was smuggled into Syria. Besides the Beirut International Airport, Lebanon’s land border with Syria is the main route for weapons from Iran to reach Hizbollah in Lebanon. 

The military capabilities of both Israel and Hizbollah have been tremendously improved since the 2006 war. Hizbollah’s rockets can reach the entirety of Israeli territory, not to mention the extensive combat training its militants have had in places such as Syria, Iran, Yemen and allegedly Iraq. Given the current world order and the way politics is played both in the world and of course in Lebanon, one must ask what has changed to have Hizbollah change its rhetoric and eventually support an agreement. Earlier this year, a Hizbollah MP told a crowd of supporters that Hizbollah would rather keep the gas in the water and prohibit either country from extracting, meaning both countries won’t benefit as opposed to supporting a compromise deal for the benefit of both.

Line 23 vs 29: between pragmatism and idealism

The official Lebanese government’s position argues that line 23 is its rightful maritime border. Laury Haytayan, a prominent Lebanese Oil and Gas expert and president of the Lebanese Taqqadom Party argued that “technically” Lebanon must argue for line 29. She later admitted on national television that the negotiations between Israel and Lebanon are not about drawing a technical/scientific border in accordance to international law, instead she says both countries are “playing politics”. As the new MPs are entirely idealist given the base that elected them, they have been advocating and popularizing line 29. The traditional figures in the country, including Hizbollah MPs and the Lebanese Presidency (among others) do not hold this claim to be true. In other words, the extremist anti-zionists in the country are more willing to compromise with Israel than the idealist pro-western ones. Amos Hochstein, the US’s senior advisor for energy security and chief mediator between Israel and Lebanon in these negotiations, implied in talks with the new MPs from the “reform bloc” over the summer that Lebanon is in a precarious economic, political and security situation and that any deal is better than no deal. The MPs then softened their tone with this regard during the later phases of negotiations; although have seemingly been bringing it up again since the finalization of the agreement was rumored. 

Akin to this situation, one would be reminded of the demarcation of the maritime border between Norway and the United Kingdom after WWII. It was less so about what is “just” or “in accordance with international law” and more about the United Kingdom urgently wanting to begin looking for natural resources and eventually drilling. However there was no enmity between these two countries to begin with, unlike the case between Lebanon and Israel. 

The numerous geopolitical developments both in the world and especially in the Middle East region mean that anything can happen. To say that Israel and Lebanon must cooperate for the betterment of their societies is simply wishful thinking. Pragmatism in this case can go either way. Many factors interplay such as Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords, Russia losing the war in Ukraine, a regime-change in Iran, a US-Iran deal, some form of understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran or even the impact of climate change in reference to the many wildfires, shortage in potable water and potential earthquakes in the region.

Since Hizbollah has almost total hegemony over the Lebanese state and its institutions, one could easily imply that Lebanon is in fact under the constraints of Iran. Any potential peace deal with Israel, especially out of goodwill, will therefore not take place. The question being asked throughout this article emphasized the prospects of mutual economic gains leading to Lebanon making peace with its foe or alternatively guarantee a longterm sustainable “ceasefire.” However, in the event of a final deal on the demarcation of the maritime border, the two countries will still deem each other as enemies. Both a civil war in Lebanon which would drag Israel into it and a peace deal between the two countries for the sake of economic gain are equally probable in the future. For now, facts on the ground stipulate that the status quo will remain. Public discussions about this deal will simply be swept under the rug and kept on the down-low in contrast to the high publicity of the Abraham Accords (especially concerning Israel and the UAE). 

Statements coming from Israeli, Lebanese, Hizbollah and US leaders in the past few days are a testament that (1) perpetual enmity is understood as harmful to all parties (regardless of populist rhetoric), (2) it is vital for the two countries’ economies, regional security and the world’s energy demands (the EU is urgently searching for alternative yet RELIABLE sources of energy), and (3) the US still holds tremendous leverage and relevance in issues pertaining to regional security in the Middle East. 

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