Prospects of US Mediation in the Lebanon-Israel Border Talks

On October 14, Lebanon and Israel started the long-awaited US-mediated talks to demarcate their maritime borders under the supervision of the United Nations. The framework agreement that was simultaneously announced by the parties concerned on October 1st is the most serious attempt to resolve this maritime dispute and secure gas drilling operations; however, there are inherent challenges that can lead to protracted negotiations and ultimately derail the talks.

For the past decade, successive US negotiators (Frederick Hoff, Amos Hochstein, David Satterfield, and currently, David Schenker) have attempted to reach a breakthrough in these negotiations. The contentious issues were related to both form and substance, such as who will run the talks, where will they be held, and what are the timeline and bases for the negotiations. Lebanon and Israel have been in a state of war since 1948 and do not have diplomatic relations or clearly defined borders. It is noteworthy that this is not the first time the two states have discussed boundary issues; they previously established a border monitoring group in 1996 and a tripartite committee run by the United Nations, which continues to meet today. The breakthrough is that for the first time, both Lebanon and Israel agreed to negotiate final border demarcation. Lebanon estimates it has 96 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and 865 million barrels of oil offshore. Israel has less economic urgency to resolve this dispute and is eyeing some percentage of a contested area of 860 square kilometers that Lebanon is claiming. While some issues were resolved ahead of these talks, others remain pending.

The Naqoura Meetings: Logistics and Negotiators

The talks are being held at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, a small town on the Mediterranean in south Lebanon, with the presence of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Ján Kubiš. Beirut insisted on having the United Nations in the room to document the proceedings and the United States to help mediate and exchange messages with Israel. Lebanon was most concerned about forms and visuals given that Hezbollah––currently plays a key role in determining Lebanese foreign policy––did not want to be perceived as appeasing Israel. The Lebanese preconditions included having military/technical instead of diplomatic/civilian talks and setting no timeline to reach a deal, to avoid pressure on the negotiations (Hezbollah is not particularly interested in a rushed deal). In fact, the party and its ally the AMAL Movement objected to civilians being part of the Lebanese delegation for fear that might give the talks a political nature. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration and the Israeli government were aiming for a diplomatic and media show around the first session of these talks, but this was aborted to avoid making the Lebanese delegation uncomfortable as it prefers a low-profile technical meeting.

As Lebanon enters these talks, there is a significant passing of the baton from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to President Michel Aoun as the key person managing this portfolio. There are two potential explanations for this shift between two Hezbollah allies. First, Berri, who has been tenacious in dealing with US mediation, recently came under pressure by the Trump Administration with sanctions imposed on his closest aide, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Berri’s tactical withdrawal shifts the focus of the border talks and US pressure to the Lebanese president and military, both of which are relatively closer to Washington. Second, neither Berri nor Hezbollah want to be the frontrunner in leading talks with Israel since such an engagement would not bode well with their base.

Since his election as president, Aoun had a more flexible approach than Hezbollah in dealing with the maritime dispute and was rather aligned with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hezbollah has vetoed1 having a representative from the Lebanese foreign ministry at the talks and Aoun managed to place a representative from the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA) on the negotiating team as a compromise—between Washington insisting on civilian presentation and Hezbollah asking for mere military/technical representation.

The record of the Lebanese side in handling the maritime discussions with Israel has been bogged down by the country’s political divisions and the lack of a steady approach.

Since 2011, Lebanon has not formed a qualified team of experts to negotiate demarcating the border. The record of the Lebanese side in handling the maritime discussions with Israel has been bogged down by the country’s political divisions and the lack of a steady approach.

The Lebanese delegation for the Naqoura talks consists of four negotiators:

  • Brigadier General Bassam Yacine is the lead negotiator, currently serving as the Lebanese military’s deputy chief of staff. He comes from the Lebanese Air Force with no technical expertise in the maritime dispute with Israel. Yacine is from south Lebanon and is close to the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces General Joseph Aoun.
  • Marine Colonel Mazen Basbous is the head of operations in the Lebanese military and one of its in-house experts on the maritime dispute with Israel.
  • Najib Masihi is a Lebanese American expert in maritime and territorial boundaries who has previously cooperated with the Lebanese military on this issue but has no policy experience in conducting negotiations.
  • Wissam Shbat is close to President Aoun and is a board member of LPA and head of its geology and geophysics unit; this is an appointed board based on confessional quotas in 2012, and its six-year term expired in November 2018. Successive Lebanese governments have failed2 to renew the board members’ terms or to agree on new appointments. The Lebanese delegation was supposed to be a military/technical one, but the latest additions from the LPA seem to be a move by Aoun to appease the US position.

For its part, Israel had a more consistent pattern, with the energy ministry running the maritime dispute with Lebanon; this ministry has been under the control of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party since March 2013. The Israeli negotiating team has six members and mostly consists of young civilians:

  • Udi Adiri is the lead negotiator and is currently serving as the director general of the energy ministry.
  • Mor Halutz is the chief of staff of Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.
  • Aviv Ayash is Steinitz’s international advisor.
  • Reuven Azar is Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisor and deputy head of the national security council.
  • Aalon Bar is the foreign ministry’s deputy director general for the United Nations and International Organizations.
  • Brigadier General Oren Setter serves as head of the strategic division in the Israeli military.

The Maritime Border Talks: Background and Substance

There are four gradual phases on the agenda of the Naqoura talks: 1) setting the land reference point from which to depart toward the sea; 2) defining the southern maritime border where the disputed area is located; 3) agreeing on the land border demarcation after the completion of the maritime demarcation; and 4) exchanging documents and handing over copies to the United Nations. This format indicates that the maritime demarcation is a priority, but that it is not enough to finalize the land border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel. The reasons are as follows.

First, this maritime dispute is the product of a series of events that have paved the way for the parameters of the Naqoura talks. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that coastal states have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with respect to natural resources. However, Cyprus as an island country close to both Lebanon and Israel complicates maritime border demarcation.

Lebanon reached a maritime border agreement with Cyprus in January 2007. It stipulated that Nicosia cannot demarcate its EEZ border with another state before informing and consulting with Beirut. This agreement had two main problems. First, it was not ratified by Lebanon and hence was not binding, which allowed Cyprus to go ahead and sign an EEZ delimitation accord with Israel in December 2010. Second, the Lebanese Public Works and Transport Ministry made a topographical error in the 2007 deal with Cyprus, which allowed Israel in its maritime deal with Cyprus to claim parts of what Lebanon considers its own territorial waters. This prompted Beirut, in July and October 2010, to deposit with the United Nations the geographical coordinates of the southern and southwestern maritime borders of that EEZ. Lebanon now wants to set the convergence point that is of equal distance between Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus while Israel wants to adopt the provisional erroneous point that was set in the 2007 Lebanon-Cyprus deal.

The challenge of the maritime dispute is that it does not fall within the UNIFIL’s current mandate, and Israel is not a party to UNCLOS even though the latter’s rules are generally considered binding as customary international law. Hence, it became clear that the most viable path to securely allow Lebanon and Israel to start offshore energy drilling in the disputed area had to go through a maritime border agreement. While Lebanon and Israel have tacitly committed not to escalate maritime tensions, negotiating a framework agreement alone required nearly a decade as well as intensive US shuttle diplomacy.

While Lebanon and Israel have tacitly committed not to escalate maritime tensions, negotiating a framework agreement alone required nearly a decade as well as intensive US shuttle diplomacy.

Second, there is also a pending land border demarcation that predates the maritime dispute. Three different documents are often used to make the border case by both parties: 1) the Newcombe-Paulet Agreement in 1923, which set the primary boundaries between British-mandate Palestine and French-mandate Lebanon and Syria; 2) the 1949 Israel-Lebanon Armistice Demarcation Line or the Green Line, which was established between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as a de facto border in 1949 after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war—this Green Line was updated in 1950 but there is no record of the updated version, which seems to have disappeared from the archives; and 3) the “Blue Line,” which was demarcated by the United Nations in 2000 for the purpose of marking Israel’s supposed withdrawal from Lebanon and not as a final border demarcation. Lebanon had 13 reservations regarding this line and Israel had three. Resolving these contentious points is crucial to the deal.

Timing, Scenarios, and Regional Context

This breakthrough in border talks comes at a critical time. Lebanon and Israel are struggling to contain a public health crisis and are in a quasi-second lockdown due to high COVID-19 infection rates, conditions helping their unpopular leaders to hold off street protests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slipping in the polls at home due to abuse of power charges and there is a significant public confidence gap with Lebanese leaders, whose corruption record led to the Beirut port explosion in August and to the 80 percent drop in the value of Lebanese currency. Moreover, Israel and Hezbollah recently had a public argument about  Hezbollah’s weapons caches and US maximum pressure on Iran has reached its climax weeks ahead of the US presidential election on November 3rd. The stakes are high for both sides because a maritime deal would allow gas exploration to proceed and could potentially unlock a major source of public revenue.

The stakes are high for both sides because a maritime deal would allow gas exploration to proceed and could potentially unlock a major source of public revenue.

There are questions about the timing, motives, and possibilities of these talks, factors that have repercussions for Lebanese politics, US-Iran rivalry, and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has not commented yet on the negotiations with Israel; his party has deferred the demarcation to the Lebanese state, and its parliamentary bloc has issued a statement noting that the talks had “absolutely nothing to do with either any reconciliation with the Zionist enemy … or policies of normalization recently adopted … by Arab states.” The US envoy David Schenker expressed a similar observation, that these talks “have nothing to do with the establishment of diplomatic relations or normalization.” Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz tweeted that “we are not talking about negotiations for peace and normalization, rather an attempt to solve a technical, economic dispute that for 10 years has delayed the development of offshore natural resources.” These American and Israeli statements seem aimed at mitigating pressure on the Lebanese official position when it comes to the sensitive issue of engaging Israel.

Whether the Naqoura talks were linked or not to this Arab-Israeli normalization process, there was simultaneous US pressure last month to move forward on those two fronts with the same deadline for reaching an agreement before the US election. While Paris was preoccupied with the French initiative in Lebanon, the Trump Administration prioritized the border talks with Israel. Lebanese politicians realized that a confrontation with the Trump Administration is costly at this vulnerable moment, after the Beirut blast, and opted instead to absorb the US pressure and announce a nonbinding framework agreement.

This month, American pressure will focus on pushing for a rapid breakthrough with the second round of talks scheduled for October 28. However, there are inherent challenges that might lead to a vicious cycle of negotiations that may take years to resolve, including on an agreement regarding the percentage Lebanon and Israel should share in the disputed 860 square kilometers, which covers Lebanon’s offshore gas Blocks 8, 9 and 10. The “Hoff line” proposal gave Lebanon 550 square kilometers, which was rejected as Beirut insists on full rights in this disputed area. To be sure, Lebanon does not enter these negotiations from a position of strength and is in dire economic need to unlock foreign aid and begin the flow of potential gas revenues. Lebanon has refused to join the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum or any other regional mechanism that includes Israel; therefore, it has been more or less isolated in the eastern Mediterranean gas process given the emerging alliance between Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece.

Berri hopes that these talks will provide a stable environment that will allow France’s Total energy company to begin gas exploration in Block 9 by the end of the year; this reflects the priority to open gas exploration and not necessarily to reach a prompt border demarcation deal that may raise questions about the future of Hezbollah’s weapons. The alternative, if this negotiation fails, is to consolidate the current status quo—that is, to give guarantees to the consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni, and Russia’s Novatek to begin exploration in Block 9, which includes eight percent only of the disputed area that mostly covers Block 8, where no gas exploration is planned yet.

It is important to note that a final land and maritime demarcation agreement also means defusing all tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border, which might require a larger American-Iranian deal, one that is not within reach at this time. Pending negotiations, the announcement of the framework agreement could potentially be the sole achievement of these border talks.

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.