BEIRUT: Lebanese negotiators are set to adopt a maximalist stance when the indirect talks to delineate the maritime border with Israel start again Wednesday - a game-changer position that brings what is currently an Israeli gas field into disputed territory.
Sources familiar with Lebanon's position at the negotiations with Israel told The Daily Star Tuesday that the Lebanese Army commander has ordered the country’s team of four negotiators to push for an additional 1,430 square kilometers to be included in Lebanese territory.
This is on top of the already disputed 860 square kilometer area that both sides say is in their respective Exclusive Economic Zone.
One source said the purpose of the negotiations is to “restitute Lebanon's rights to its land and maritime boundaries and gas wealth,” adding that the Lebanese team will argue that Lebanon’s maritime boundary starts from the land point of Ras al-Naqoura.
In an aggressive change of position, Lebanon no longer adjusts what is the boundary around the Israeli island of Tekhelet and several other small rocky outposts. It also considers the 1923 boundary between what was the British Mandate over Palestine and the French Mandate over Lebanon as the demarcation line, rather than the border that was set in the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Lebanon and Israel.
“By virtue of international law, Tekhelet’s island cannot be taken into account in the delimitation process between Lebanon and Israel because it is small and uninhabited,” the source said, adding that the island is a mere 70 meters long and 40 meters wide.
The previous limit of the disputed zone extended along the edge of three of Lebanon’s total 10 maritime blocks but Lebanon’s new position moves that limit southwest to bring what is currently Israel’s Karish gas field into Lebanese territorial waters. It also lays claim to Israel's Block 72, which sits off the country's northern shores at the edge of the earlier 860 square kilometer disputed zone.
Israel sold Greek energy company Energean its rights to Karish in 2016, and the company mentions on its website that it expects to draw first gas from the field in the second half of 2021.
Israel in June had also invited energy companies to bid for exploration rights in Block 72 and was supposed to announce the successful bidder Monday.
The call for bids raised tensions between Israel and Lebanon, who are still formally at war, with President Michel Aoun describing Israel’s action at the time as “extremely dangerous.”
Lebanon’s negotiating position potentially obstructs Energean from proceeding with its plans to take Karish into production, as well as Israel’s planned drilling in Block 72.
“This is a game changer. Energean will definitely have a reaction to this because they have spent so much money,” Lebanese oil and gas expert Laury Haytayan told The Daily Star.
“Either they will continue in agreement with Israel, regardless of what Lebanon is claiming, or everything stops until there is a resolution for this disputed zone. Israel could also completely halt the negotiations,” she continued.
A Total-led drilling group including Italy’s Eni and Russia's Novatek is meanwhile supposed to proceed with drilling in Lebanon's Block 9, which was on the previous edge of the disputed zone.
The consortium was awarded Lebanon's first offshore exploration licenses in 2018 and has so far only drilled in Block 4, finding no commercially viable gas reserves.
Work on Block 9 has nevertheless not progressed, even though Total in 2018 said that only 8 percent of it was disputed and that it would drill away from the contested zone.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Oct 1. said, however, that he had asked French President Emmanuel Macron to “pressure Total in order to avoid the delay of offshore gas exploration,” implying that Israel had obstructed work – even though Total has ostensibly suspended activity in the area due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Lebanon already has Block 9 and the contract doesn’t say that Total cannot start drilling if there is no solution to the disputed zone. But now I guess they are blocking each other,” Haytayan said. “Lebanon is saying that if you are blocking the work of Total in Block 9 then I am going to block your work in Karish and Block 72.”
Hayatan praised Lebanon’s aggressive stance, saying that it showed Lebanon was not been forced to enter into negotiations with a weak hand.
The negotiations were announced Oct. 1 and began two weeks later, coinciding with a US-driven campaign to normalize relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. The announcement also shortly followed the Trump administration’s sanctioning of Berri’s top aide and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and former minister Youssef Fenianos for allegedly aiding Hezbollah.
“We are going into these negotiations with a very strong, maximalist approach to what we can get,” she said. “Yes, we need to find a solution to our border, but the timing was very political and the analysis was that we were forced into this. This negotiating position is a sign to say that, regardless of why we entered into the negotiations, we are not going to give away our rights.”