A Triangle of Impossibilities: The Israeli Lebanese Maritime Border

Rawan Chaker

Globalization, advances in technology, and intensifying economic competition between states have amplified oceans’ importance in international affairs. Access to maritime spaces means access to natural resources and foreign direct investment. While clearly defined borders are one of the foundations for national sovereignty, these borders become much more ambiguous in maritime spaces. The unique cultural and geopolitical history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has produced for Israel and Lebanon an intractable maritime dispute, which carries dire implications for the future of Mediterranean diplomacy. 

The case between these two Mediterranean countries is marked by an inability to base the resolution on a legal precedent and the absence of a mutually agreed-upon land border. Still, economic incentives make coming to a resolution an urgent matter for both countries.

Today, Israel and Lebanon are at war: culturally, militarily, and economically. The maritime border issue can be traced through a long-lasting conflict dating back to the 1923 Paulet-Newcombe Agreement, which established the boundary between British and French colonial interests. This agreement birthed a longstanding conflictual relationship between Lebanon and Israel. A series of hostilities and war throughout the mid-20th century furthered feelings of mutual hostility. Tensions erupted in 1978 when Israel occupied southern Lebanon, only withdrawing in 1985. Over the last several decades, a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has sought to maintain a peaceful terrestrial border between Lebanon and Israel; however, the two countries disagree on a permanent land border and do not enjoy diplomatic ties. Therefore, they do not have the starting point to demarcate the maritime border.  

The history of international maritime border disputes unfolded in the last century, as the seas transformed into a potential theater for competition and instability. Technological advances facilitated the discovery and extraction of precious resources on the seafloor. National claims to these resources rapidly expanded, and nations raced to exert their jurisdiction over oil, gas, minerals, and fish stocks. The passage of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 attempted to set guidelines for navigating maritime border disputes and claims to offshore resources. The Convention defines a nation’s territorial sea and also establishes the use of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that lie beyond and adjacent to a state’s territorial waters. EEZs establish sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving, and managing natural oceanic resources. 

The contested EEZs are more than just sovereignty claims, but also encompass control of natural resources. In 2010, the US Geological Survey released a report on the energy reserves in the contested area, which estimated that the Levantine Basin might hold reserves totaling 1.7 billion barrels of oil, and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas. The oil and gas reserves off the shores of Lebanon and Israel are valued at $600 billion.

The center of the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border dispute is an offshore triangular area of 860 square kilometers. The precedent for determining the limits of maritime borders and EEZs is to draw them perpendicular to the coastline; however, the lack of an agreed-upon land border further complicates demarcation, resulting in both nations drawing from different bearings. The case cannot be based on existing legal precedent, as Israel is not a signatory to UNCLOS. Israel abstained from UNCLOS precisely because it will weaken their position with regard to its maritime border claims. Furthermore, mediation from a third party is complicated. The United States, for example, led negotiations in 2012, but the Lebanese felt that this effort was biased

Figure 1. Selected Energy Infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean

The United States’ mediation efforts in the region reflect the geopolitical significance of this crisis. The maritime border dispute has implications for regional stability, the security of third parties like Cyprus, and the economic success of both Israel and Lebanon.. The patience and persistence of the US mediation effort will contribute to bringing this longstanding issue to a conclusion.

Since 2012, ongoing efforts to arbitrate the negotiations between Israel and Lebanon demonstrated that focusing narrowly on technical issues, gaining support from the Lebanese public, and reaching consensus from other regional powers are the keys to success for bilateral agreements between Lebanon and Israel.

The arrival of a familiar face to the mediation effort in the form of Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein in October 2021, who previously served in this role under President Obama, signaled a potential turning point in the trajectory of the maritime dispute. Hochstein understands the economic risk if the parties were to return empty-handed. Understanding the path forward requires a political compromise that accepts a technical solution in exchange for economic benefits. 

The path forward necessitates a realistic approach that acknowledges the obstacles, the deeper issues, and the unique history of this case. A perspective that recognizes the complexity of the Arab Israeli conflict can prevent parties from becoming embroiled in the highly contentious nature of the wider conflict and derail the process. Still, conflict mediation should not rely on the lengthy process of international arbitration courts, but on deciding what each side’s national interests are and what they are willing to compromise to realize those interests. The mediation process should start with shuttle diplomacy, where the US meets with both sides individually, assessing the parties’ positions and identifying where there is room for negotiation. US mediators should understand the fragmented nature of Lebanese politics and the extent to which internal and external actors can potentially undermine the process.

The opportunity cost of continuing this conflict is  very high. While deepened conflict threatens regional stability, resolution could promise mutual economic benefit. Describing his mission,  Hochstein declared, “that’s what I’m here to change…to have Lebanon as a producer, having billion — multibillion dollar investments from foreign companies, creating jobs, creating opportunity, creating economic stability.”

Settling the maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel is a more limited goal compared to the resolution of the entire Arab Israeli conflict. But it is hopefully an achievable one. It is a case in which economic incentives from vast offshore resources brought two conflictual parties to the negotiating table. This gives hope for the resolution of other maritime disputes. However, it is critical to point out that this may be the last opportunity to solve this maritime dispute. Despite this being a long standing dispute, there was nothing that brought Israel and Lebanon to the same table before. The economic incentives are the only pretext for negotiations; so if the two sides don’t solve the dispute now why would they ever try to negotiate again? The US has been trying for approximately  10 years to mediate the maritime dispute. If not solved, both sides lose. After years of stalemate on the issue, it is necessary to foster a process that leads both sides to a resolution this year and not in another ten years.

Image: Selected Energy Infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Bureau of Energy Resources published in Henderson, Simon. 2021. “Lines in the Sea: The Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Dispute.” The Washington Institute. May 3, 2021.

Rawan Chaker is a candidate for the Master of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University.  She is focusing on advocating peace, conflict resolution, and support prosperity in the Middle East. Rawan formerly served as the Legal & International coordinator to the Lebanese Minister of Defense.

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