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Why before the elections? American pressure to demarcate Lebanon's maritime borders

March 8, 2022 at 7:47 pm

Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) meets with US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein in the Lebanese capital Beirut [AFP via Getty Images]

At Israel’s request, the US-appointed itself as a mediator in the dispute over the maritime borders between Lebanon and occupied Palestine. The conflict is old, and Washington sent Frederic Hof as a mediator, years ago, and he conducted research and surveys in the disputed area and came up with a proposal to give Lebanon about 500 square kilometres out of its total area of ​​860 square kilometres, with the rest going to Israel.

Lebanon rejected Hof’s proposal, so Washington’s efforts were frozen for years. Then they were resumed several months ago, without reaching an agreement. After that, a new American mediator, Amos Hochstein, who holds Israeli citizenship and served in the Israeli army, came and gave his opinion to settle the conflict, without reaching a conclusion, although he claimed that he outlined a possible settlement project for the conflict, which he will inform the two parties to the conflict on his next visit.

Hochstein did not keep his promise and visit but, instead, sent a message to Lebanon through Dorothy Shea, the American Ambassador in Beirut, to the Lebanese President, General Michel Aoun. The content of the message was concealed, but sources close to senior people in power summarised the main points of Hochstein’s new offer as follows:

  • The adoption of Line 23 in drawing the southern maritime borders, provided that this line deviates upwards to the north at Blocks 8 and 10 so that they and the outer part of the Lebanese Qana field are given to Israel.
  • The French company, Total, will act on behalf of Lebanon and the Greek-American company, Halliburton, will act on behalf of Israel in managing the joint fields.
  • The works that take place in this area shall be under Qatari sponsorship.

The leaked offer by Hochstein was rejected and condemned by the national and political forces hostile to America, especially since a previous study that was drawn up by a specialised British institution commissioned by the leadership of the Lebanese Army, gave Lebanon, on top of the area of ​​860 square kilometres, an area of ​​no less than 1,430 square kilometres, by adopting Line 29 instead of Line 23.

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In an attempt to counter the campaign to reject Hochstein’s new offer, sources from the Republican Palace said that it is merely a documentation of the minutes of the meetings held by the American mediator on his last visit, and that there are no final conclusions in Lebanon, and that President Aoun and Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, agreed to form a committee to study the offer, consisting of a representative of each of them and representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Environment, Energy and Public works, as well as representatives of the Lebanese Army. Minister of Public Works, Ali Hamiyah, who represents Hezbollah in the government, refused to be a member of the committee, stressing that the party told him that it “will not participate in any meeting or direct talks through the Minister or through an intermediary related to the file of maritime border demarcation, especially if the committee will meet with American delegations.”  As strong voices are rising in political and media circles rejecting the content of Hochstein’s new offer, questions are increasing about the significance of presenting this offer during the parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-May, and with the escalation of war in and on Ukraine. The most prominent sceptical questions are as follows:

  • Does Hochstein’s offer imply an implicit settlement of US sanctions imposed on President Aoun’s son-in-law, Minister and Representative, Gebran Bassil?
  • Are some of the authorities aiming to achieve an economic achievement that will generate thousands of millions of dollars for Lebanon as a result of extracting oil and gas from its territorial waters?
  • Is the settlement envisaged at this time intended to be capitalised on politically and in the media in the upcoming parliamentary elections?
  • Is it possible to pass this settlement – the deal despite Hezbollah’s strong opposition to it?
  • Why is Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri, not represented in the committee tasked with studying Hochstein’s proposal and presenting its recommendations on it?
  • Is Hochstein’s offer an attempt to drag Lebanon into normalisation with Israel directly or indirectly?

It is difficult for those concerned to provide convincing answers to these questions, given the current difficult stage that Lebanon is going through. However, I have an opinion, which I previously stated, and which constitutes an appropriate national way out of the maritime borders demarcation problem that Lebanon has been suffering for years.

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Lebanon has ten blocks along the Lebanese coast that contain rich oil and gas deposits and it can adopt one of two investment-worthy approaches:

  • Commencement of oil and gas exploration in the blocks relatively far from the border with occupied Palestine, on the condition of complete adherence to what the government defines as the sovereign lines of the exclusive economic zone in the face of Israel’s ambitions and those behind it.
  • Commencement of exploration in Blocks 8, 9 and 10 adjacent to the maritime borders with occupied Palestine, where Israel has established offshore facilities to extract oil and gas and threatening to destroy these facilities, especially since the resistance is capable of doing so if the enemy tries to prevent Lebanon from exploration and investment in its neighbouring blocks.

Both approaches secure for Lebanon two goals, and two very important interests: protecting its sovereignty over its land and territorial waters and collecting thousands of millions of dollars from investing oil and gas deposits. We are aware that Lebanon suffers from a chronic and severe crisis, and that it does not currently have leaders capable of making fateful decisions, but waiting for an appropriate time and for leaders capable of making fateful decisions remains more useful and safer than compromising sovereignty and rights and suffering the curse of history.

This article appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 6 March 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.