In Israel-Lebanon Tensions, A Sea Change
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In Israel-Lebanon Tensions, A Sea Change

A 430-mile dispute over maritime border and gas reserves could lead to new conflict with Hezbollah.

Tel Aviv – Five years after the outbreak of the Lebanon war, a balance of deterrence has kept the Israeli-Lebanon border at its quietest since the 1960s.

But this week it appeared as if the next conflict might already be looming on the horizon at sea as the two countries wrangled over their maritime border and undiscovered gas reserves potentially worth billions of dollars.

Indeed, even though the U.N. meticulously traced out the Israel-Lebanon border when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, a maritime border has never been delineated. After two substantial Israeli natural gas discoveries in the Mediterranean off the shores of northern Israel, however, that undetermined sea border has suddenly become a bone of contention.

After months of rumblings over the sea border, on Sunday, Israel’s cabinet approved a proposed border which overlaps with a competing Lebanese claim by as much as 9.3 miles — creating a sliver of some 430 square miles in dispute.

Lebanon’s Energy Resources Minister Jibran Bassal called Israel’s proposed border line an “aggression’’ against its oil and gas rights. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman meanwhile, accused Iran of meddling in Lebanon’s foreign policy over the gas supply.

“The basis for a future confrontation between Israel and Lebanon is being sown today,’’ wrote Jacques Neriah, a former military intelligence officer, in an analysis published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“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.’’

Neriah noted that Hezbollah could defend Lebanese claims with an amphibious warfare unit and missiles capable of targeting ships.

Ratcheting up tension on Sunday, Haaretz reported that U.S. officials had endorsed the Lebanese version of the border. Israeli officials later denied that report.

“Americans support the Lebanese border proposal because they don’t want it to become another Shabba [farms],’’ said Shmuel Bar, the director of studies at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, referring to the contentious mountain border region which Lebanon claims as its own. “America is adopting an appeasement policy toward Iran and Syria. It is saying, “Since we are afraid this will develop into a flashpoint let’s adopt the Lebanese position.’’

Energy experts, however, argue that the spat is being inflated. The issue of mapping the border is at root a technical problem that can be resolved through international negotiations.

Indeed, a spokesman for National Infrastructure Industry, Hen Ben Lulu, said Israel is hoping to resolve the dispute through direct negotiations – or mediated talks — with Lebanon.

Amit Mor, the CEO of Echo Energy Ltd, an Israeli consultant, said that Israel’s gas concessions with proven reserves do not spill over the border declared by Lebanon.

“This is a small area relative to the Israeli off-shore economic waters, and relative to the Lebanese economic zone. The issue should be put into proportion,’’ he said.

“It is better for the governments of Lebanon and Israel to negotiate the dispute within an accepted international venue such as arbitration, such as mutual agreed international experts, or via agreed upon mediators.’’

The dispute comes at a time of anxiety for Israel regarding its natural gas resources: Israel has been under pressure by repeated shutdowns of its natural gas pipeline from Egypt. On Tuesday, the pipeline was bombed for the fourth time in a half year, the latest sign of the unraveling of a supply contract thought to be stable just a few months ago. The cutoff in supply is expected to boost electricity rates by as much as 20 percent to consumers.

The waters of the east Mediterranean have been marked by the U.S. geological survey as potentially containing giant reserves of natural Gas. Israel’s 2010 discovery of gas in the Leviathan field is expected to satisfy Israel’s energy needs for decades.

Mor noted that a conflict with Israel would hurt Lebanon more than Israel. With no confirmed offshore reserves, Lebanon will have a harder job attracting energy investors if there are hostilities with Israel.

Meanwhile, experts said that the balance of deterrence between Israel and Lebanon that has held for the last five years has created the fear of mass destruction if a new war breaks out.

For Lebanon that means a sustained pounding on its main infrastructure and for Israel, it could mean rockets fired at cities in southern part of the country. Though an inadvertent escalation is possible, it is unlikely that the maritime border dispute would spark a war, said one expert.

“There is a lot to lose for both sides,’’ said Eyal Zisser, a professor at Tel Aviv University. “I think they will find a compromise via the UN and the USA.’’’

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