A U.S. proposal on the boundary separating the Lebanese and Israeli maritime economic zones is presently under consideration by both countries and if accepted could end a lingering dispute over rival claims and hasten Lebanon’s plans to tap the billions of dollars of gas estimated to be lying beneath the seabed.
The proposal, which was submitted to both countries recently, is a compromise between the overlapping boundaries individually submitted by Lebanon and Israel which left some 854 square kilometers in dispute.
The U.S. has been mediating a solution between Lebanon and Israel since mid-2011, partly to neutralize another potential trigger for war, partly to allow both countries to peacefully exploit the fossil fuel wealth beneath the seabed of the eastern Mediterranean and partly in the hope that U.S. oil companies can secure exploitation contracts.
The U.S. initiative was driven by Frederic Hof, who served with the State Department in President Barack Obama’s first term. Although his chief responsibility was Syria, Hof was handed the maritime boundary portfolio as he is a recognized expert on the borders of the Levant. Hof, who is currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, declined to comment for this article.
However, two separate sources familiar with the proposal said it was an impartial and balanced attempt to find a solution.
“The U.S. has offered some ideas and the parties have them under careful consideration,” one source said. “Both sides appear to be interested in an equitable solution, which sums up what international law requires in resolving disputes of this nature.”
In 2007, Lebanon and Cyprus signed an agreement on the boundary separating their respective Exclusive Economic Zones. As is customary in such agreements, Lebanon left open to future amendment the location of the southernmost and northernmost points of the EEZ boundary depending on future EEZ limits with Israel and Syria.
In October 2010, Lebanon submitted its proposed EEZ boundary with Israel to the United Nations. The Lebanese line runs from Ras Naqoura on the Lebanon-Israel border to a point 133 kilometers out to sea at an average angle of 291 degrees. The final point of the Lebanese EEZ line actually lies 17 kilometers southwest of the most southerly point in the Lebanon-Cyprus EEZ agreement, taking advantage of the wiggle room for that latter location provided in the agreement with Nicosia.
The southern EEZ point was not selected arbitrarily but followed the cartographic rule of being equidistant between three points on land, in this case Ras Naqoura, the promontory of Haifa in Israel and the Akrotiri peninsula in Cyprus. The Lebanese EEZ line also coincidentally conformed to a line of buoys previously placed unilaterally by the Israeli navy from Ras Naqoura and was in alignment with the northern edge of Israel’s maritime oil and gas concession blocks. Thus it appeared that Lebanon and Israel were in unspoken agreement that the maritime boundary ran at an average 291 degrees from the joint land border at Ras Naqoura.
In July 2011, Israel submitted its own proposal for an EEZ boundary with Lebanon, but instead of following the 291 degree line to match Lebanon’s suggested boundary, it ran at a steeper angle of approximately 298 degrees to end at the same point where Lebanon’s EEZ boundary with Cyprus had ended.
It appeared that Israel had deliberately ignored its own previous unofficial indications of where it believed the maritime boundary lay (the line of buoys off Ras Naqoura and the northern edge of the oil and gas concessions) to slice off an 854 square kilometer sliver of sea claimed by Lebanon.
The sources, however, said that both Lebanon and Israel had presented cartographically justifiable proposals.
“There is no such thing as a single, canonical ‘right answer’ in matters of this nature,” one source said. “Parties mix and match a variety of methodologies to produce lines that maximize unilateral claims. That’s what happened.”
The U.S. stepped in when neither side appeared willing to budge and could not enter direct bilateral negotiations because of the state of war that exists between them.
While disagreements over the delineation of mutual EEZ boundaries are commonplace around the world, the hostile relationship between Lebanon and Israel was a complicating factor. Furthermore, there are major economic interests at stake. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in March 2010 that the Levantine basin in the eastern Mediterranean, which includes the territorial waters of Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Cyprus, could hold as much as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 34.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Since then, surveys conducted off the Lebanese coast have only confirmed Lebanon’s untapped oil and gas wealth.
David Rowlands, the CEO of the Norway-based Spectrum Company, told The Daily Star in September that a seismic survey of the Lebanese coast indicated that Lebanon’s share of offshore gas was greater than that of Cyprus and Syria.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil has claimed that the area off the southern coast alone contains 3.39 trillion cubic meters of gas which “could be enough to cover Lebanon’s electricity production needs for the next 99 years.”
The sources would not reveal details of the U.S. proposal, but one said that the suggested boundary fell “somewhere between the two lines” submitted by Lebanon and Israel.
Similar to the U.N.-delineated Blue Line that corresponds to the Lebanon-Israel land border, acceptance of the U.S. proposed EEZ boundary would not represent an official maritime border until both parties formally sign a border agreement.
“In this case, all that’s required is that they separately submit their identical maritime separation line to the U.N. and amend whatever undertakings they have to the contrary with Cyprus,” one source said.
Speaker Nabih Berri said in September that “we will not compromise on any amount of water from our maritime borders and oil, not even a single cup.”
However, Prime Minister Najib Mikati is believed to be supportive of a quick resolution to the dispute. And Berri has been the most active politician in pushing for the exploitation of Lebanon’s offshore resources, suggesting that the fossil fuel wealth waiting to be tapped will overcome reservations over a compromise with Israel.
Furthermore, new technologies and rising fuel prices are making economically viable many oil and gas reservoirs around the world that were previously considered commercially unattractive. If Lebanon and Israel cannot resolve their EEZ boundary, international oil firms may choose to exploit oil and gas opportunities elsewhere rather than invest in an area that could prove the trigger for a future war.