Official Israeli circles said that the Lebanese government is in the process of granting licenses to explore for oil and gas in a Mediterranean region that Israel claims as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
With that announcement, the Israeli-Lebanese dispute over their maritime border is out in the open, despite news that US mediation had achieved great successes in resolving that issue.
The subject of oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean was a main meeting topic between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Washington on Oct. 1, and US Vice President Joe Biden, who is handling that issue. The results of that meeting have not been announced.
Official Israeli sources informed the Globes economic newspaper that Lebanon is trying to impose facts in disputed areas between Lebanon and Israel. The sources pointed out that “Lebanon is about to award offshore oil and gas exploration licenses in areas that encroach on Israel’s EEZ.” Globes said that it is not yet known how Israel will deal with those licenses, which may spark a border dispute with Lebanon.
Israeli international law experts are urging their government to quickly announce its objections to the Lebanese moves either legally or militarily.
At the beginning of September, Lebanon announced its intention to grant tenders for licenses to explore for oil and gas in five blocks in Lebanese waters. But Israeli experts who analyzed the coordinates on the Lebanese map “discovered” that the southmost area to be licensed, Block 9, is in Israeli waters. The newspaper said that this area is the most attractive and the most likely to yield significant gas discoveries.
The official responsible for oil in the Israeli Ministry of Energy and Water, Alexander Varshavsky, presented his analysis at an international oil conference in Cyprus two weeks ago. He said that Israel has refrained from taking a similar step and has not granted licenses to explore for oil and gas in the disputed area.
The dispute between Israel and Lebanon is over the maritime demarcation line separating two EEZs. Both sides agree that Ras al-Naqoura lies on the common land border. But they disagree on the angle of the line drawn from Ras al-Naqoura toward the Cyprus EEZ. The disputed area is 850 square kilometers [528 square miles], in the shape of a triangle.
In 2010, Lebanon presented a map of its maritime boundaries to the UN. Israel did the same for its borders a year later. The map signed by Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus is the basis of the dispute. The United States is trying to get the parties to resolve the dispute peacefully.
Israeli border expert David Kornbluth said that Israel may lose its claim on the disputed area if it does not respond to the Lebanese move. “Judicial practice says that the state that doesn’t object to such a step is considered to have withdrawn its claim.”
To assert Israel’s claim, he called for naval patrols in the area, issuing a formal communication, requesting that a third country mediate and informing international companies that participate in the bidding licenses that this area is disputed. It is known that dozens of international companies, most of which refuse to deal with Israel, fear for their interests in the Arab region and are making bids to Lebanon.
On the other hand, it was learned that US Vice President Joe Biden delayed his speech to the Jewish American J Street organization by an hour and a half because he was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting took place at the White House in the presence of US Secretary of State John Kerry, after Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Barack Obama. US media barely mentioned the meeting, but some considered it more important than Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama. The meeting with Biden was about the oil and gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Kerry and Biden are focusing US efforts in this regard.
It is obvious that this is not only about Lebanon and Israel. The US strategy for the eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries is related to Turkish, Cypriot and Greek relations, and the relations between them and Israel as well as Lebanon. A US strategy developed by the Marshall Institute and adopted by the US administration is based on exploiting the gas issue to conclude political settlements and resolve the disputes between countries in the region. The strategy calls for a gas pipeline from Israeli and Cypriot fields to Turkey, and that Lebanon can later benefit from the pipeline after it starts extracting gas.
In that context, Biden met with the Cypriot president last week after he met with the Turkish prime minister a month ago. Cypriot newspapers said that these moves were aimed at resolving the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus over their EEZs and gas fields.