Maritime gas dispute risks conflict between Lebanon and Israel

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Beirut, Lebanon – Karish is a relatively small untapped gasfield in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, but its location between Israel and Lebanon means that it could lead to a new conflict between the two neighbours.

While Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said on Monday that United States-brokered negotiations over the exploration of Karish had reached the “final stages”, Israel is expected to begin preliminary work on Tuesday to start extracting gas, a move that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called a “red line” on Saturday.

For its part, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz has said if Hezbollah harmed an offshore rig in Karish, “the price will be Lebanon”.

The two countries have a history of conflict, most notably when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the latter’s civil war, as well as the 2006 Lebanon War.

Many fear that the dispute over where exactly the maritime border crosses Karish could unintentionally ignite a new fight.

However, it appears as though the current tension may be more about appearances than actual preparations for war.

“It’s pure politics, to be able to say that any deal that comes in, Hezbollah had a role in it, and they defended the rights of Lebanon,” said Laury Haytayan, MENA director of Natural Resources Governance Institute.

“They want to bring back the idea that their power and weapons are used in the national interest and not in the Iranian agenda, reshaping the narrative that they protect Lebanon’s wealth,” Haytayan told Al Jazeera.

According to Haytayan, the two countries also view the maritime border dispute differently; while Lebanon sees it as an energy and economic issue, Israel sees it as a security issue.

“For Israel, it’s very important to deal with this to take away one element of tension and possible escalation with Hezbollah,” Haytayan said. “If Lebanon starts exploration and has its own oil and gas, Hezbollah won’t be able to threaten Israel’s platforms any more because it would be: you threaten my platform, I threaten your platform.”

Line in the sea

While both sides agree that the rich gasfields in the Eastern Mediterranean should be divided, the question is over where the line should be.

In 2020, Lebanon attempted to submit a new interpretation of the border that would have given it the northern part of Karish, which is estimated to have $1.3bn worth of gas.

That was rejected by Israel and the US, and negotiations stalled for nearly two years.

This year, Lebanon dropped the 2020 border proposal, and the two countries are expected to compromise on a border position similar to the Hof line – originally proposed in 2012 by then-mediator Frederic Hof – which gives all of Karish to Israel and most of the South Saida Prospect, or Qana field, to Lebanon.

However, negotiations have hit a sensitive point pertaining to where, on land, the maritime border starts, which could have implications on territorial delineation and sovereignty.

A senior government official close to the negotiations told Al Jazeera that Beirut has asked Israel to “clarify” what the latter has labelled “security issues” regarding the land border.

“If it’s a security issue there won’t be a problem and we will reach an agreement because there will be an arrangement, [but] we cannot agree on any modification on the land or any consequence that would lead to any modification of the land [border],” the source said.

After his last visit to Beirut on September 9, US mediator Amos Hochstein said progress was made, but that “more work needs to be done” in the coming weeks to reach an agreement.

However, as the negotiations drag on, there is more potential for their collapse.

Hezbollah has threatened to attack a ship sent to Karish by Israel, and on July 2 Israel said it shot down three drones headed towards the gasfield launched by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Energean, the company licensed by Israel to extract gas from Karish, has announced it will start imminently, with Israel under added pressure to increase its energy output after it signed a deal with the European Union to export gas for the first time, as the bloc seeks alternatives to Russian energy.

“Until now the negotiations are going in the right way, it’s normal to go back and forward in negotiations,” the Lebanese official added.

“There is progress, but I don’t know if the progress means we will reach an agreement.”

Solution for Lebanon’s economic crisis?

At home, the Lebanese government has sold the promise of the Qana field as the light at the end of a financially-collapsing tunnel, despite experts warning that no deal can be a substitute for the urgent reforms needed to stabilise Lebanon’s economy.

Internal oil production would ease the country’s deep energy crisis, which has seen residents coping with little, if any, state-run electricity. Politicians have also sold it as a leveraging tool to negotiate an International Monetary Fund loan from a stronger position.

However, if negotiations with Israel fail, Lebanon will be left to convince the French energy company Total, which owns the contractual rights to exploit the area, to operate in a disputed area, something the company has said is not willing to do.

In addition, if oil and gas are found in Qana, it may still fall within Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone, meaning that further negotiations would be needed.

Funding would also be needed to restore decrepit power infrastructure, and the use of the Arab Gas Pipeline to export to other Arab countries.

And, according to Diana Kaissy, an advisory board member at the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative, the existence of oil and gas in Qana is still uncertain.

“We cannot say a field exists unless you drill and you find that reservoir,” Kaissy told Al Jazeera. “So far no drilling has happened and no reservoir was found, and so the existence of Qana is just a name given to an idea to what we might find when we drill.”

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