Analysis: The politics behind the Lebanon-Israel border talks

Lebanon and Israel are holding US-mediated talks on a maritime border dispute.

United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) vehicles patrol the Lebanese southern coastal area of Naqura by the border with Israel,
A settlement to the dispute is likely a long way off, but all parties stand to make political gains [Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon and Israel are scheduled to sit down for talks on Wednesday on a decade-old maritime border dispute that has gained importance after large and lucrative discoveries of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean.

The talks are the first between Beirut and Tel Aviv in 30 years on a civilian matter. They will take place in the southernmost Lebanese border town of Naqoura under United Nations auspices, with US mediation.

The United States has worked to broker a deal on the issue for most of the last decade – a hard task given that Lebanon does not officially recognise Israel and the two nations technically remain at war.

Israel in 2006 fought a 34-day war with Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim group backed by Israel’s greatest regional foe, Iran.

But it was Hezbollah’s main Lebanese ally, House Speaker Nabih Berri, who announced late last month that he had reached a framework agreement for the talks after working on the issue for 10 years.

Any deal on the maritime border is likely to be far off. But the parties involved in negotiations stand to reap immediate political benefits.

INTERACTIVE: Israel Lebanon maritime border

The backstory

The dispute dates back to 2011 when Israel ratified a maritime border agreement with neighbouring Cyprus that used as a reference point a maritime border that Lebanon and Cyprus had agreed to in 2007, but which Lebanon’s parliament never ratified.

Lebanon later in 2011 clarified its maritime border to the United Nations, saying that it included an additional 860 square km (332 square miles) south of the 2007 line.

Israel disagreed, and the dispute over that sliver of the sea was born.

A decade of US mediation was beset by differing views in Lebanon and chronic political crises.

Lebanon has insisted that both its land and sea border disputes with Israel be resolved together and disagreed with Israel about setting a time limit for the negotiations.

A visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March of last year led to a breakthrough.

“When Pompeo came and met with Berri, it clicked,” Yassine Jaber, a member of Berri’s political bloc and head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Al Jazeera.

Laury Haytayan, Middle East and North Africa Director of the National Resource Governance Institute told Al Jazeera: “From what we’ve seen there’s definitely been a compromise.”

“The Israelis wanted a deadline, which doesn’t exist. It could start this week and never end. And the Lebanese said there would be no agreement if there wasn’t an agreement on land and sea together. But this is not there,” Haytayan said.

Instead, the land borders will be discussed on a separate track.

Israel and Lebanon both fell into political crises shortly after Pompeo’s visit, which pushed back talks.

Israel held three elections between April 2019 and April 2020 as it failed to form a government, and Lebanon moved from its biggest-ever popular uprising against the ruling class into near-collapse.

As the crisis in Lebanon grew, so did the significance of potential gas revenues. Lebanon in 2018 signed its first contacts for exploratory drilling with an international consortium, including for southern Block 9 which partially lies in the disputed area, but Berri said drilling there has been delayed by the dispute.

“All the fine details were agreed to in mid-2020,” Jaber said.

Lebanon heads into the negations with a four-man team, two military and two civilians, but no diplomat, as had previously been reported.

Israel’s six-person delegation includes the director-general of the energy ministry, a diplomatic adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an Israeli army strategist.

The two Lebanese civilians, Wissam Chbat, lead geologist at the Lebanese Petroleum Administration, and Najib Massihi, a maritime border expert, have a “maximalist approach to the border issue – they see that legally we can get more than we’ve asked for so far,” Haytayan said.

Former US-sponsored proposals had given Lebanon between 52 and 60 percent of the disputed area, but Lebanese officials declined.

A question of timing

The timing of the negotiations has raised eyebrows. They take place as the US ramps up sanctions on Lebanese individuals and entities with ties to Hezbollah.

The US blacklisted Berri’s top aide, former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil, just three weeks before Berri announced that negotiations would take place.

“This was a direct threat to him: ‘If you don’t comply, you’re blacklisted and sanctioned too’,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.

The announcement of talks also comes amid the US-sponsored landmark normalisation deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, seen as an attempt by US President Donald Trump to boost his foreign policy record amid a difficult re-election campaign.

Berri announced the agreement on October 1, saying it had been reached in July – though the version he read was dated September 22.

“It’s clear Trump thinks that signing treaties between the Arabs and Israel will help his re-election bid. He can tout these talks between Israel and Lebanon as part of that process,” Khashan said.

Lebanese leaders have also agreed to go to the table as they face unprecedented pressure, both at home and from the international community, to implement wide-ranging reforms after a huge explosion at the port destroyed large parts of Beirut and killed nearly 200 people in August.

The blast exacerbated an economic and social crisis that had already thrown most of the population into poverty.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut twice after the blast and said the international community would disburse much-needed financial aid if politicians quickly formed a government to implement an ambitious reform agenda.

But Hezbollah and their ally, Berri, prevented that from happening.

Instead, they chose familiar ground: negotiations with no time limit that pose little threat to their interests at home, versus a French initiative that sets clear, short-term deadlines for an overhaul of the political system.

Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Studies, said the parties picked the US-mediated negotiations over the French initiative in an attempt to stave off more sanctions by the Trump administration until US elections in November – elections that Trump increasingly looks like he will lose.

“At the end of the day they know the buck stops in Washington. If [former US vice president Joe] Biden is elected I don’t think Lebanon will sign a final [borders] deal: they’ll gather their cards and play a new hand,” he told Al Jazeera.

Soft normalisation?

Jaber says that Lebanon had always pushed for the talks to take place under UN auspices at Naqoura, where the Israeli and Lebanese armies hold regular meetings to discuss security matters, rather than outside of Lebanon.

“We didn’t want to go to New York, or somewhere else so as not to give the appearance of normalisation [with Israel],” he said.

He dismissed any such possibility and said both parties had come to the table for purely economic reasons: Oil and gas extraction requires stability.

Others say Lebanon has taken a soft step towards normalisation.

“Its beyond demarcating our borders,” Haytayan said. “We are recognising the existence of Israel by recognising its borders.”

Source: Al Jazeera