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Diplomacy is key to maritime border dispute

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BEIRUT: With Lebanon and Israel having offered conflicting proposals for the delineation of their Exclusive Economic Zones, diplomats are looking at ways of containing a dispute that could provide a potential spark for the next war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Bellicose rhetoric has been flying thick and fast lately. Over the weekend, Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, warned against Israel exploiting potential oil and gas resources lying in the disputed zone formed by the maritime boundary proposals submitted by Lebanon and Israel. The zone consists of approximately 854 square kilometers.

Israel, too, has warned that it will defend its economic interests. Last December, the Israeli navy reportedly drew up a maritime security plan costing between $40 million and $70 million to defend its gas fields.

Some Israelis have accused Lebanon and Hezbollah of using the maritime boundary dispute to try and create a new “Shebaa Farms,” meaning a controversial territorial claim granting Hezbollah justification to maintain a militant posture toward Israel.

However, foreign diplomats familiar with the issue say such accusations are misplaced. Given Lebanon’s soaring public debt and the potential fossil fuel wealth waiting to be tapped, Lebanon has genuine economic interests in determining its maritime frontier with Israel.

So which of the two EEZ boundary proposals submitted by Lebanon and Israel has the greater merit?

Lebanon’s proposed EEZ boundary begins at Ras Naqoura, which marks the land border between Lebanon and Israel, and terminates at Point 23 which lies 133 kilometers from the coast at an average angle of 291 degrees. This line conforms to the northern edges of two of Israel’s oil and gas exploration blocs, named Alon D and Alon F. It also matches a line of buoys unilaterally placed by the Israelis stretching from Ras Naqoura which is patrolled by Israeli naval vessels. Lebanese fishermen from Naqoura and Tyre have grown accustomed over the years to being fired upon by the Israeli navy if they approach too close to the line of buoys.

Lebanese army geographers determined the location of Point 23 based on a standard cartographic rule of measuring a maritime boundary coordinate that is equidistant between three points on land. As such, Point 23 lies 133 kilometers not only from Ras Naqoura, but also from the Akrotiri peninsula in Cyprus and from the promontory of Haifa in Israel.

In summation, therefore, Lebanon’s EEZ boundary proposal is justifiable on cartographic grounds (as confirmed to The Daily Star by foreign diplomats) and also conforms to pre-existing Israeli determinations of the approximate boundary (the northern edges of the Alon D and F oil and gas concessions and the line of buoys).

What, then, of Israel’s proposal?

Israel’s line also begins from Ras Naqoura (albeit 35 meters north of Lebanon’s starting point) and stretches 127 kilometers at 298 degrees to terminate at Point 1, which lies 17 kilometers north east of Lebanon’s Point 23. Point 1 marks the beginning of the respective EEZ agreements Lebanon and Israel have with Cyprus. Lebanon’s EEZ boundary with Cyprus heads north east from Point 1 and Israel’s boundary with Cyprus runs southwest from Point 1.

Israel justifies adopting Point 1 as its most westerly marker in its EEZ boundary proposal with Lebanon based upon Beirut’s previous EEZ agreement with Nicosia. However, Israel’s argument is flawed on two counts, diplomats say.

First of all, Lebanon’s EEZ agreement with Cyprus contains a clause leaving open the possibility of amending Point 1 in the future depending on negotiations with Israel regarding the Lebanon-Israel EEZ boundary. That means that Point 1 is not a fixed and final position. Israel’s agreement with Cyprus contains the same clause allowing for future amendments to Point 1.

Second, Israel’s EEZ boundary proposal with Lebanon is undermined by the pre-determined (and more southerly) line already established by Israel through its delineation of the Alon D and F oil and gas concessions and the unilaterally placed line of buoys.

Although Lebanon’s boundary proposal has greater merit than Israel’s, the problem remains to find an equitable solution that will prevent the dispute escalating into violence and leave both countries free to hunt for oil and gas deposits in their territorial waters.

According to foreign diplomats, Lebanon has shown some flexibility in seeking a mediated solution to the dispute. However, Lebanon is hamstrung somewhat by its refusal to negotiate directly with Israel, a country with which it is in a state of war and has never formally recognized.

This requires the intervention of a third party as a mediator. The U.N. would be the obvious choice, especially as it has experience in mediating similar maritime boundary disputes.

Indeed, the heated rhetoric aside, diplomats say that the differences between Lebanon and Israel over their respective EEZ boundaries are far from uncommon internationally and are traditionally been resolved amicably.

Another potential mediator is Cyprus. Both Lebanon and Israel have signed EEZ agreements with Cyprus and it makes no difference to Cypriot economic interests where the Lebanese and Israelis determine their own EEZ boundary. But Cyprus may not be the most impartial of mediators, given its closer ties to Tel Aviv than Beirut.

Furthermore, Lebanon has come under pressure from Turkish northern Cyprus not to honor its EEZ agreement (signed in 2007 but yet to be ratified by parliament) with the Greek half of the island. A spokesman for Turkish Cyprus told As-Safir newspaper Monday that if Lebanon ratifies its EEZ agreement with Greek Cyprus, it would create “more tensions in the region.”

However, the real stumbling block to a negotiated solution appears to be Israeli intransigence. Israel is reluctant to allow the U.N. to mediate the dispute and is insisting that Lebanon engage in direct negotiations, not only over the maritime EEZ boundary but also over the land border between the two countries.

According to a diplomatic source following the EEZ dispute, the Israelis “are seeking to embarrass Lebanon diplomatically by requesting negotiations that Lebanon cannot provide.”

The source added that Israel would most likely reject any mediated resolution over the matter.

“But from [all] perspectives, Lebanon is quite right, both on [the location of] Point 23 and in seeking a diplomatic solution to the problem,” the source said.

Israel is unlikely to face any international pressure to back down from its EEZ boundary proposal which essentially means that, barring a mediated solution, the 854 square kilometer disputed area will become a no-go buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel, a maritime equivalent of Israel’s ill-fated 1985-2000 “security zone” in south Lebanon.

Ultimately, however, market forces are likely to be the determining factor that ensures stability between Lebanon and Israel over the EEZ boundary. No petroleum company will invest in oil and gas concessions anywhere near the disputed zone.

Indeed, the exploration licenses for Israel’s most northerly oil and gas concession blocks – Alon D, E and F – are still on sale, having found no takers willing to risk having their concessions sliced up by a future EEZ boundary between Lebanon and Israel.

Furthermore, putting rhetoric aside, Hezbollah and Israel have no real interest at the present time in fighting a new war, one that will be far more destructive on both sides than the July 2006 conflict.

That should mean that Lebanon and Israel can agree to disagree over the delineation of their joint EEZ boundary and instead concentrate on pursuing the oil and gas riches that lie waiting beneath the sea bed – far removed from the disputed zone.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 27, 2011, on page 2.
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