A comment made by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a Tel Aviv conference on January 31 sparked outrage in Lebanon, bringing the issue of the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel back into the spotlight and catching Washington’s attention once again.
The Obama administration started mediating between Lebanon and Israel to help contain the dispute in 2012, but little happened on this front after President Trump took office in 2017. It seemed to all parties that mediation was no longer a priority for the US. Then, in October, during Lebanon’s first oil and gas licensing round, a consortium of companies led by France’s Total bid on Block 9, which includes a disputed maritime area. The bid rekindled interest in the dispute, but the buzz was discreet, confined to experts and diplomatic circles, until it was thrust out in the open again when Liberman described Lebanon’s offshore tender as “very provocative” and urged international companies not to bid on it, about a month and a half after licenses were awarded (see timeline).
The dispute goes back to December 2010, when Cyprus and Israel signed a maritime border agreement that was denounced by Lebanon because it encroached on parts of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On July 10, 2011, the Israeli cabinet approved a map of Israel’s northern maritime border, and two days later, the Israeli mission to the UN included a list of coordinates delimiting the northern end of Israel’s territorial sea and EEZ. Some of these coordinates overlapped with the Lebanese EEZ.
But to understand how we got here, we must go back to 2007. On January 17 of that year, Lebanon signed a maritime border agreement with Cyprus. It followed the standard procedure outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, marking a series of points that are equidistant from Cyprus and Lebanon known as the median line. Point 1 was used to mark the southernmost point along this line, while Point 6 marked its northernmost point. The agreement included a standard clause specifying that the coordinates of the first and last markers—in this case Points 1 and 6—may be adjusted in light of future delimitation of the EEZ with other neighboring states, since a bilateral agreement cannot define the borders of third states.
The agreement was never ratified by the Lebanese Parliament, largely because of pressure from Turkey, which denounces all maritime border agreements signed by the Republic of Cyprus with its neighboring countries. As such, the agreement never entered into force.
It wasn’t until April 2009 that a Lebanese commission tasked with defining the coordinates of Lebanon’s EEZ completed its work, identifying Point 23—17 km south of Point 1—as the southernmost point of Lebanon’s EEZ. The coordinates were approved by the cabinet on May 13, 2009 and by Parliament on August 4, 2011. In accordance with UNCLOS, Lebanon submitted the relevant charts and lists of coordinates to the UN in July and October 2010 and in November 2011. Just like Israel’s 2011 submissions, these were unilateral determinations and do not amount to border delimitation.
The question is: Why did Lebanon sign a border agreement with Cyprus in 2007, more than two years before it had a precise definition of the borders of its EEZ?
While the Lebanon–Cyprus agreement was never ratified and did not reflect Lebanon’s final position on the southern boundary of its EEZ, it did provide Israel with an opening. In December 2010, Israel signed a similar offshore border agreement with Cyprus. This deal ignored the coordinates that had been declared by Lebanon and sent to the UN a few months prior, instead using Point 1—the southernmost marker referenced in the 2007 Lebanese–Cypriot agreement—as the northernmost marker in the Israeli–Cypriot agreement. It allowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say in July 2010 that “the outline that Lebanon submitted to the UN … conflicts with the line that we have agreed upon with Cyprus and—what is more significant in my eyes—it conflicts with the line that Lebanon itself agreed upon with Cyprus in 2007.”
While Israel objected to the southernmost coordinates submitted by Lebanon, less known is the fact that Syria also objected to the delineation provided by Lebanon. In a letter transmitted to the UN Secretary-General on July 15, 2014, Syria stated that the delineation does not have “any binding legal effect on other states. It remains only a notification, and one to which the Syrian Arab Republic objects.” This could open Lebanon to similar dispute with Syria in the future.
Of course, the Israeli–Cypriot agreement, like the Lebanese–Cypriot agreement before it, included the standard clause specifying that the geographical coordinates of the first and last markers may be adjusted in light of future delimitation of the EEZ with other neighboring states. This left room to maneuver.
The overlap is a triangle around 856 square kilometers in size that widens as it goes further out to sea. According to Frederic Hof, the first US mediator to be involved in the EEZ disagreement, disputes of this nature are common, and “both sides acted professionally in their calculations and performed in ways fully consistent with customary international practice.”
Because Israel is not a signatory to UNCLOS and because of the political situation between Lebanon and Israel, a third-party mediation was the optimal choice to try to find a solution to the dispute. Cyprus offered its services a couple of times, but the Americans were the first to submit a potential resolution to the impasse. Hof presented a plan in May 2012 to create a provisional but legally binding maritime separation line and a buffer zone with no petroleum activities. According to media reports, it acknowledged that around 500 square kilometers of the disputed area belong to Lebanon. It received mixed reactions in Lebanese media but was neither approved nor officially rejected at the time.
Amos Hochstein, the deputy US assistant secretary of state for energy diplomacy, took over Hof’s mediation efforts at the end of 2012. In Beirut, the handoff was seen as an opportunity to put Hof’s plan aside and seek more favorable proposals. In November 2013, Hochstein reportedly submitted to Lebanese officials a plan to draw a maritime “blue line” similar to the one established by the UN in June 2000 to demarcate the Lebanese-Israeli land border. The line would be temporary in nature and was meant to curtail tension between the two countries by prohibiting any exploration within the disputed area until a solution is reached. The plan made room for a limited role for the UN, acknowledging a Lebanese demand to involve the UN in the process. It was seen as a good starting point in Lebanon but was not met with enthusiasm in Israel. Frequent power vacuums in Lebanon did not help. By the time Lebanon had fully functioning institutions, with a new president in Baabda in October 2016 and a new cabinet in December 2016, the end of the Obama administration was only weeks away, bringing with it the end of Hochstein’s mediation. The Trump administration had other priorities, and didn’t actively involve itself on the subject until recently. A week after Liberman’s comments in December 2017, Acting US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield visited Lebanon in preparation for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beirut on February 15. The US appeared to be dusting off the Hof plan, and Beirut was not thrilled. Lebanon made a counter-proposal to demarcate the border via a trilateral committee including Lebanese, Israeli, and UN representatives, in addition to experts and American diplomats—a procedure similar to the one used in 2000 to demarcate the land border known as the Blue Line. (The offshore extension is now being referred to as the White Line.) But both the US and Israel prefer to keep any UN role minimal.
For now, there is a lack of urgency in Beirut to settle the dispute—or, more precisely, to move forward with plans that seem unfavorable to Lebanon, now that Block 9 has been awarded and actual escalation is not expected, given that it is likely not in the interest of any party. The awarding of Block 9 and the upcoming exploratory activities within it were what triggered the Israeli comments at the end of January.
Block 9 covers 1742 square kilometers, out of which around 145 square kilometers (around 8 percent) fall within the disputed area. At the official signing ceremony for the exploration and production agreement on February 9, Total’s Stéphane Michel confirmed that the company’s target for drilling in Block 9 is going to be in the northern part of the block, some 25 km away from the disputed area. It is hoped that this will contain tension and allow the company to proceed with its work undisturbed. But will it be enough? Total has committed to drilling at least one well in Block 9. Failing to drill will incur a penalty worth tens of millions of dollars. But it’s not uncommon for a company to take that hit if it estimates that a penalty is less costly than drilling. In fact, in early 2015, just before the discovery of Zohr, a large natural-gas field off the coast of Egypt, reignited interest in the region, Total failed to proceed with its commitments in Cyprus and relinquished Block 10 without drilling any well.
Until next year, then, all eyes will be on the political actors in this tale.