The stakes are growing in the looming confrontation between Lebanon and Israel over the suspected existence of massive fossil fuel deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. The delight in Israel at the recent discovery of two large gas fields off its northern coastline has given way to concerns that it could provide the pretext for a new war with Hezbollah.
That anxiety has hardened with the uncertainties regarding Israel’s arrangement to purchase Egyptian gas following the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and calls in Cairo to annul the agreement. The upshot is that the potential oil and gas wealth in the eastern Mediterranean could provide an economic windfall for the countries in the area — Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Cyprus — but it also represents a colossal security headache.
The two gas fields off the northern Israel coast — Tamar and Leviathan — contain an estimated 237.8 billion cubic meters and 453 billion cubic meters, respectively, sufficient to satisfy Israel’s energy needs for the next half century. Last year, the United States Geological Survey estimated that the Levantine Basin Province, which encompasses parts of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, could contain as much as 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Key to the tensions between Lebanon and Israel over the gas deposits is that their joint maritime border has never been delineated. Beirut has asked the United Nations to help mark a temporary sea boundary between Lebanon and Israel, a maritime equivalent of the “Blue Line” established by the UN in 2000, which corresponds to Lebanon’s southern land border. The UN has agreed to assist and the Israelis are studying the proposal. But the UN faces a potentially thankless task. The demarcation of the Blue Line 11 years ago was mired in mutual distrust and wrangling with neither the Lebanese nor the Israelis willing to concede an inch of territory to the other. Without goodwill from both sides, the maritime boundary could be even more difficult to define given the complicated geography of the coastline. Some have described the dispute over the gas fields along the Lebanon-Israel border as another “Shebaa Farms” — a source of manufactured tension with Israel.
But one European diplomat in Beirut said that parallels between the Shebaa Farms and the off-shore gas fields are misplaced. “Forget the Shebaa Farms,” the diplomat said, “the Lebanese are not being difficult [over the maritime boundary], because they have real economic interests here. Unless there is a pragmatic arrangement you could have a confrontation.” It is perhaps no surprise then that the sudden interest in the potential fossil fuel wealth off the Israeli and Lebanese coastline has turned the Mediterranean into a potential new theater of conflict between the Israelis and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s ability to target shipping — and possibly offshore oil and gas platforms — was demonstrated in the month-long war with Israel in 2006 when the militants came close to sinking an Israeli naval vessel with an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 missile. Hezbollah fighters have since hinted that they have acquired larger anti-ship missiles, double the 72-mile range of the C-802 variant. Last year, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned that his organization now possesses the ability to target shipping along the entire length of Israel’s coastline. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the offshore gas fields as a “strategic objective that Israel’s enemies will try to undermine,” and vowed that “Israel will defend its resources.”
In February, the Israeli navy reportedly presented to the government a maritime security plan costing up to $70 million to defend the gas fields. Upping the ante even further, Nasrallah promised in March that if Israel threatens future Lebanese plans to tap its oil and gas reserves, “only the Resistance would force Israel and the world to respect Lebanon’s right.”
Then there is the recent passage of two Iranian navy vessels through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and the Israeli navy’s subsequent discovery in March of a smuggled consignment of arms and ammunition, including six C-704 anti-ship missiles believed destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The missiles, though smaller than the C-802, could target Israeli shipping off Gaza as well as Israel’s Yam Tethys oil rig off the coast of Ashkelon. The oil and gas fields off the Lebanese and Israeli coasts look set not only to become a potential long-term source of wealth — but also a source of conflict in the years ahead.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London