Maritime Border Talks Won't Lead to Israeli-Lebanese Normalization | Opinion

Israel's normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan have raised expectations of a "domino effect" of similar accords. While it is reasonable to anticipate additional Arab countries like Oman will follow suit, Lebanon certainly won't anytime soon. Beirut's maritime border demarcation talks with Jerusalem, if they even succeed, are meant strictly to resolve a specific technical matter. Rather than paving the way for Israeli-Lebanese peace, Beirut's officials are seeking to reap an economic windfall from offshore hydrocarbon deposits, circumvent the painful reforms necessary to build a sustainable Lebanese economy and perhaps obtain sanctions relief from the United States.

In the months since Israeli-Emirati normalization, every instance of contact between Beirut and Jerusalem has raised hopes of an imminent peace deal. Days after Israel and the UAE announced their agreement, Lebanese president Michel Aoun's comment that peace with Israel "depends" on the two countries resolving their problems unjustifiably made headlines. Israeli-Lebanese maritime border demarcation talks—now in their second round—are being hailed as "historic" and "unprecedented," raising speculation that negotiations could serve as a springboard for normalization. Even a seasoned general like Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz has misread Lebanon's intentions as signifying a desire for peace. But any linkage to the so-called Abraham Accords distorts Beirut's motivations for finally resolving its maritime dispute: its urgent need to exploit its offshore natural resources.

Lebanon and Israel have been at loggerheads over their maritime border for a decade. Each side alleges the other is unlawfully claiming part of its own sovereign offshore territories, believed to contain vast hydrocarbon deposits. Beirut has delimited 10 exploration areas (or blocks) in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while Israel has 72. The disputed area, totaling 860 sq km, or 330 square miles, affects Lebanon's Block 8, Block 9 and Block 10, and overlaps with Israel's four northernmost exploration blocks.

Previous U.S.-mediated demarcation efforts failed because of Lebanon's insistence on simultaneously demarcating its land and maritime borders with Israel, a nonstarter for Jerusalem. Meanwhile, fear of sparking conflict prevented both countries, officially at war, from exploiting the contested zone's offshore resources. This delay has disproportionately impacted Lebanon, as Israel had already begun hydrocarbon exploration and extraction in other parts of its EEZ.

But Lebanese desperation has recently increased dramatically, making Beirut retreat from its prior demand. The events of the past year, including the October 17, 2019, uprising and the outbreak of COVID-19, have plunged Lebanon into its worst economic crisis in decades, accelerating the unraveling of its improperly structured economy.

Lebanon is now in a fiscal freefall. At 170 percent of GDP, its public debt is the world's third highest. Meanwhile, the country has a persistent energy crisis, over half the country is unemployed, inflation is skyrocketing and the economy is expected to shrink by more than 12 percent.

With no productive economic sectors, Lebanon possesses few means, if any, to repay that debt or stabilize its economy. Seeking aid from its traditional donors is no longer an option. Those benefactors—including France, the United States and the International Monetary Fund—are no longer willing to freely bankroll Beirut. Lebanon's entrenched oligarchy is unwilling to implement necessary reforms to ensure that such aid wouldn't be squandered, as such measures would spell their own demise. Further discouraging aid, the United States has recently begun sanctioning Lebanese allies of Hezbollah, whose dominant hold on Lebanon remains undiminished.

Lebanon coast
Fishermen cast their nets off of Beirut's Ramlet al-Bayda public beach in the Lebanese capital on November 18, 2020. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty

Its aversion to reform notwithstanding, Lebanon's ruling clique cannot leave the country on its current downward trajectory. It has therefore been seeking economic lifelines that will restore at least the minimum of economic stability, but without eroding its power. "Turning eastward" to establish economic ties with countries like China that would provide unconditioned aid was one option. Exploiting Lebanon's potential offshore hydrocarbon deposits—once estimated to produce $200 billion in revenues, at least $6 billion of which would come from the disputed blocks—is another.

But the maritime dispute with Israel poses an obstacle. To date, Lebanon has only awarded drilling licenses for two of its exploration blocks to the Total Consortium: Block 4, where exploratory drilling failed to discover commercially viable quantities of hydrocarbons, and Block 9, 8 percent of which is disputed with Israel. But Lebanon currently has no alternative to exploring Block 9. COVID-19's negative impact on global oil demand has delayed licensing rounds for its remaining exploratory blocks indefinitely.

Moreover, the window for Lebanon to exploit Block 9's resources has begun to close. On June 23, Israel unexpectedly launched an offshore bidding round for Block 72—claimed by Lebanon as part of Block 9—with a licensee initially expected to have been announced by October 26. Meanwhile, the Total Consortium's plans to even begin exploration in the contested block have been indefinitely delayed, partially due to the August 4 explosion at Beirut Port, which Total had been using as a staging point. This likely heightened Lebanese fears that Israel could "deplete" the block's reserves. While Beirut has strenuously objected to the Israeli move, it lacks the power to derail Jerusalem's plans, further inducing the Lebanese to pursue negotiations.

Recent U.S. sanctions also likely fed into the Lebanese sense of urgency to resolve this dispute with Israel. Earlier this year, the Caesar Act sanctions on the Syrian regime went into effect, severely restricting Lebanese business dealings with Syria, one of Beirut's main trading partners and its sole outlet to the east. Equally critically, the United States had sanctioned two high-ranking Lebanese officials allied with Hezbollah—former transportation and public works minister Yusuf Finyanus of the Marada Movement and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's AMAL Movement—only weeks before a chastened Berri announced Lebanon's newfound flexibility on border demarcation. This flexibility is likely a quid pro quo for Caesar sanctions exemptions—a longstanding Lebanese request mirroring those Washington granted Iraq from its sanctions on Iran—and relief from future sanctions on Lebanese officials.

Moreover, Lebanese officials have unambiguously stated their opposition to reconciliation with Israel. The country's foreign policy remains dominated by Hezbollah, which shares the Lebanese ruling class's financial interest in resolving the maritime border dispute. Without the group's acquiescence, its ally Berri could never have agreed to talks with Israel or to decoupling the resolution of the maritime border dispute from that of the land border. But Hezbollah, and Berri's AMAL movement, have made clear their opposition to negotiations even giving off the semblance of normalization—a position echoed by other Lebanese officials, including President Aoun. Further dispelling the notion of a Lebanese desire for peace, Beirut's negotiating team has come to the table with maximalist stances that jeopardize the success of the current talks, let alone a pathway towards Israeli-Lebanese peace.

Peace with Lebanon gripped Israel's imagination even before the Jewish state's independence, underpinned by the erroneous belief in an organic Jewish-Maronite alliance. That flawed theory led Israeli prime minister Moshe Sharett to opine in 1955 that Lebanon would be the second Arab state to establish ties with Israel. This concept, naïve from the outset, would become a dogmatic fixture of Jerusalem's foreign policy for decades, leading to disastrous Israeli misadventures like 1982's Operation Peace for Galilee's objective of empowering Maronite warlord Bachir Gemayel. The intervening decades—with Hezbollah's rise and Israel's brutal military reprisals against the country—should have put the lie to Sharett's prediction. After all, even the moderate Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora declared Lebanon would be the "last Arab country to make peace with Israel."

But, as the unjustified excitement over purely technical border demarcation negotiations suggests, old dogmas die hard.

David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) on Hezbollah and Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidADaoud.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.