Last week, Lebanon and Israel agreed to a “framework” for talks that are to be mediated by the U.S. at the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura. The purpose of these proposed talks is to negotiate an agreement over disputed maritime borders between the two countries.
According to an Israeli diplomatic source, however, Israel did not agree to negotiate land borders. This is not one bit surprising, since Israel has never officially defined its borders over the past 72 years.
One might wonder why the “democratic” state of Israel has never defined its borders, or even implemented a formal constitution after so long. The answer is likely so that it can keep options open to expand its domination over Palestinians (both those under occupation and those who are Israeli citizens), as well as over neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Syria.
And why is Israel now suddenly willing to negotiate maritime borders with Lebanon, a country that it is technically still at war with? And why is Lebanon also willing to do the same, given that Israel has invaded, devastated, and killed its people over many decades?
The primary factor for both countries is economic in nature. In 2010, Noble Energy discovered a massive natural gas field in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in Israeli territorial waters. Researchers estimate that the Leviathan field has a reserve of more than 600 billion cubic meters of natural gas, and it is one of the largest discoveries of gas in the world in the last decade.
Obviously, Israel is highly motivated to tap into these reserves to gain cheaper energy, to profit, and to increase its energy independence. Noble Energy, a Texas-based company, along with its Israeli partner, the Delek Group, first delivered gas to the Israeli market in December 2019, and Israel is already exporting to Egypt and Jordan.
Lebanon claims that part of the Leviathan field is in its own maritime territory. Lebanon is also in a much more desperate position than Israel. Even before the August blast in Beirut’s port that devastated much of the city, killed hundreds of people, and left hundreds of thousands homeless, Lebanon’s economy was already in a freefall. In June the Lebanese Pound hit a nadir, losing more than 78 percent of its value in eight months. Having claims to the gas field would provide a much-needed lifeline for its stagnant economy.
In these talks, the US role of a “mediator” is motivated more by political and diplomatic reasons, and the Trump administration has tried to capitalize on its involvement in the recent normalization deals between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. Although a maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon would not be as dramatic, Trump can claim an additional foreign policy win that could help in his upcoming re-election bid. That is why it is no coincidence these talks are expected to begin on October 14, just weeks before the election.
So why is Israel now concerned with international maritime law? After all, it has flagrantly violated international law with impunity for more than seven decades, especially regarding its illegal military occupation of Palestinians and violations of their basic human rights. Israel also has proven time and time again that it does not care about the territorial sovereignty of Lebanon. Over several decades, Israel conducted a massive invasion of Lebanon, occupied its territory, bombed it and its civilians on numerous occasions, and to this day, Israeli jets and drones still violate its airspace.
But in this case, the diplomacy route seems to be the preferable option for Israel. The American Society for International Law mentions that maritime boundary disputes could be settled through the International Court of Justice, which would define the boundaries, and Israel would probably want to avoid being sanctioned through this path. Instead, it is now taking advantage of Lebanon’s economic vulnerability to force a bilateral agreement that could not be challenged by Lebanon later.
But despite its severe economic crisis, Lebanon must be extremely wary of negotiating with Israel, and it needs to look no further than the case of Palestinian “negotiations” with Israel to understand this.
Despite agreeing to and signing the Oslo Accords of 1993, which were supposed to bring peace and self-determination for Palestinians, Israel continued to expand its illegal settlements on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Today, the Israeli settler population is between 600,000 and 750,000. This is just one issue and it does not include other countless violations and the near-total domination that Israel continues to exert on Palestinians. Lebanon must know that Israel is almost guaranteed to renege on its commitments, and that neither the US, France, nor the West will make a meaningful effort to stop it.
Beyond the problem of Israel’s clear history of reneging on agreements, it also has the upper hand on information. Through its partnership with Noble Energy (the company that discovered the gas field), along with the sophisticated technology that it possesses, Israel certainly has much more knowledge about the precise locations of gas reserves, and it will propose its boundaries accordingly. If Israel offers maritime boundaries that seem too good to be true, then they probably are.
Unfortunately, Lebanon’s politicians are notorious for their brazen corruption. They are likely to seek a quick deal that will give the country access to more cash, which could help ease its economic crisis while also relieving some of the political pressure that they are facing from their citizens.
But in the long term, this will be detrimental to the interests of Lebanon and its people. Israel always negotiates in bad faith, and it will always try to give Lebanon, Palestine, and others the short end of the stick. The world must understand this reality and stand up to Israel’s manipulative behavior.
The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.