BEIRUT: A dispute between Lebanon and Israel over their respective claims to a slice of the eastern Mediterranean that potentially holds billions of dollars of untapped oil and gas deposits looks closer to being settled, according to diplomats following the issue.
Cyprus, which has a share of the potential oil and gas wealth beneath the Mediterranean, has signaled a willingness to help mediate a solution to the maritime boundary dispute between Lebanon and Israel.
“I think the Cypriots would like to have a formal mediation role,” said one Western diplomat closely following the maritime boundary debate.
Another Beirut-based diplomat also following the issue said, “There appears to be a greater willingness among all parties to resolve this in some way.”
Cyprus already has separate agreements with Lebanon and Israel respectively over the demarcation of their Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries. The problem lies in determining the EEZ boundary between Lebanon and Israel after both countries submitted rival delineations, leaving a triangular overlap of some 854 square kilometers starting from Ras Naqoura on the Lebanon-Israel border.
This is no arcane border dispute, however, given the billions of dollars in oil and gas deposits thought to be lying beneath the sea bed. In March 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Levantine Basin in the eastern Mediterranean, which includes the territorial waters of Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Cyprus, could hold as much as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 34.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Israel is several steps ahead of Lebanon, having parceled up some 9,600 square kilometers off its northern coast in a series of licensed exploration blocks.
In January 2007, Lebanon and Cyprus signed a bilateral agreement in which the edges of their respective EEZs were marked by six coordinates judged to be equidistant between the two countries. Point 1 marked the southernmost coordinate, although a clause in the agreement allowed Lebanon to amend this point depending on any future EEZ agreement with Israel. Cyprus has ratified the agreement, but Lebanon has yet to do so and says it will not until the EEZ boundary with Israel has been determined.
In 2010, the Lebanese government submitted to the U.N. a proposed boundary for the southern limit of its EEZ with Israel. It consisted of eight points running from Ras Naqoura to Point 23, which lies 133 kilometers out to sea at an average angle of 291 degrees. Point 23, however, lies 17 kilometers southwest of Point 1 which, at a glance, suggests that Lebanon could have been seeking to slice off a stretch of Israeli territorial water.
But there were solid cartographic grounds for selecting Point 23 as the terminus of the boundary. The point lies not only 133 kilometers from Ras Naqoura, but the same distance from the Akrotiri peninsula in Cyprus and the Haifa promontory in Israel.
Furthermore, Lebanon’s proposed line not only follows a line of buoys unilaterally placed by the Israeli navy to mark the border but also follows the northern edge of Israel’s oil and gas exploration blocks.
In other words, Israel appears to have already tacitly accepted the same line as proposed by Lebanon. However, two months after Lebanon submitted its boundary proposal to the U.N., Israel reached an EEZ boundary agreement with Cyprus in which the starting point was the original Point 1 in the Lebanese-Cypriot agreement, hence the 854-square kilometer overlap.
Lebanon believes it has a cast iron case for Point 23 because of the established cartographic rule of using triangulation from three points on land to determine a maritime position.
According to As-Safir, in a meeting in Beirut last month, Major General Abdel-Rahman Shehaitly told Fred Hof, a U.S. State Department diplomat and expert on the borders of the Levant, “I hope that you can tell us what are the data and standards on which Israel based its demarcation of the maritime borders. But unfortunately, there is no such thing as Israel has taken an arbitrary decision that did not take into account the rules that should be respected while setting up maritime borders.”
Lebanon’s position has won some sympathy from foreign diplomats.
But the question is how to resolve the dispute amicably so that Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus can begin exploiting their potential oil and gas wealth and to offset the possibility of the spat turning violent.
Cyprus apparently was initially reluctant to play a mediating role between Lebanon and Israel, but appears to have reconsidered, according to diplomatic sources.
Cyprus already has EEZ agreements with Lebanon and Israel and it makes no difference to Nicosia where Lebanon and Israel choose to place their own EEZ boundary. But because Lebanon refuses to ratify its EEZ agreement with Cyprus until resolving the dispute with Israel, it means that Nicosia cannot fully begin its own oil and gas exploration activities.
Cyprus has several exploration blocs that straddle the proposed Lebanon-Cyprus EEZ boundary, and they were intended to be jointly exploited by both countries in subsequent agreements.
Cyprus has been pressing Lebanon to ratify the EEZ agreement, noting that there is a clause that allows Point 1 to be amended afterward if necessary.
But Beirut isn’t budging, which means that Cyprus now has a vested interest in helping Lebanon and Israel reach an accommodation. A deal between Lebanon and Israel over their shared EEZ boundary will allow Beirut to ratify its EEZ agreement with Cyprus, which will let the two countries begin discussing arrangements for joint oil and gas exploration ventures.
An EEZ boundary between Lebanon and Israel would also serve as a de-facto border, a maritime Blue Line, helping resolve periodic tensions between the Israeli navy and Lebanese fishermen.
“Inevitably, each side believes the position it has staked out has transcendent merit,” said the Western diplomat.
“Hopefully, the need each side has to get beyond legal entanglements and political complications will inspire enough flexibility and pragmatism to produce a solution, one that could be very lucrative for all concerned.”