Economic Interests Supersede Identity Politics in Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Negotiations
JNS.org – Despite reports of difficulty bringing Israel and Lebanon together for maritime negotiations, Eastern Mediterranean policy experts and fellows at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, Gabriel Mitchell and Ambassador (ret.) Michael Harari, believe that negotiations would be significantly beneficial for both parties.
It was reported last week that Israel and Lebanon were on the verge of launching direct talks, with US mediation attempting to settle their maritime border disputes. Recently nominated US envoy David Satterfield has been conducting shuttle diplomacy between the sides, picking up on efforts that were previously led by the Obama administration.
Disputing an area of 300 square miles of water—an extension of territorial disputes that have existed since 1948, and further became exacerbated in the 1970s and 1980s—the two countries have not engaged in negotiations for more than a decade, as they are still officially at a state of war.
Under the Obama administration, a 55-45 split for Lebanon and Israel of the disputed territory was rejected by Lebanon, and according to Mitchell’s estimate, Israel “will not offer anything better than that in subsequent negotiations.”
According to Harari, who served as Israeli ambassador to Cyprus from 2010-15, while many factors may limit the parties coming together, in the context of the “powerful” potential of energy, he anticipates successful negotiations.
At a Jerusalem press conference on July 4, Harari noted that the economy in Lebanon is “not doing well,” and resolving the maritime dispute will be necessary to make the most of natural-gas findings in their waters and to bring in foreign investment. This opportunity may be a likely possibility, he said, as “regional operational cooperation and development is going very well, and Lebanon is watching.”
The regional gas forum established earlier this year in Cairo, which also includes Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said Harari, “emphasizes to Lebanon that if it wants to take advantage of energy potential, it should make a resolution with Israel.”
He explained that “negotiating would make sense for both parties, and especially Lebanon,” considering its current economic instability. “I’d be very disappointed if negotiations do not go through.”
Similarly, Mitchell told JNS, it’s worth noting that at this time, various other economic negotiations are taking place between Israel and its neighbors, including the recent “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain, which brought together representatives from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Morocco, the United States and the United Kingdom for the purpose of economic cooperation and private development projects.
“We are experiencing an environment where more consider economic initiatives with Israel than previously,” stated Mitchell. “While Lebanon still harbors a greater degree of public and institutional animosity towards Israel compared to the Gulf States, this is taking place in a window of time where economic interests are superseding identity politics.”
Nevertheless, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has voiced frustration over Lebanon’s failure to agree to US-mediated talks on the maritime border, blaming the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah for pressuring the government.
“(The) Lebanese on the one hand really want to develop their natural resources, and the unresolved dispute with Israel is disruptive for them – for us too, but for them more,” Steinitz told Israel’s 102 FM.
But Steinitz added that Lebanon could also be facing “internal pressure, that they (are) under the sway of fear of Hezbollah.”
A goal to attract international business
Moderator Nimrod Goren, the founder of the Mitvim Institute, similarly noted that this is a “good development and opportunity that we are talking about development and cooperation, and not rockets and war.”
With Lebanon and its Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah in economic crisis, deepened by the threat of US sanctions, Mitchell posed that each party has an incentive to settle the territorial dispute so that international companies exploring waters will invest and “don’t need to ask too many questions about the border and potential resources underneath it.”
Additionally, Mitchell noted, in the context of the Trump administration that has “written blank checks” to Israel—with the Golan Heights and Jerusalem recognitions as examples—Lebanon may be more willing to be proactive and engage in dialogue out of concern that “Israel will unilaterally decide the waters are their own.”
At the same time, Mitchell and Harari presented various factors that could limit the negotiations, including a decline in prices for natural gas within the global energy market, internal opposition within Lebanon against negotiating with Israel, uncertainty about who will lead the negotiations and the possibility that more pressing issues in the region that may take precedence for each party.
Harari and Mitchell agreed that the United States remains the most relevant actor in the geopolitical arena to bring Israel to the negotiating table and sign an informal compromise. However, according to Mitchell, Israel will not accept the United Nations as the primary negotiator, partly because Israel has not signed onto the organization’s law of sea.
“The United States may not be able to provide the perfect mediation, but Washington is best,” he said, to act as mediator “for time being.”
“While these diplomatic activities are based on projections, negotiations should be given a chance,” said Mitchell. If successful, he said, other regional actors such as Cyprus and Turkey, also with maritime disputes, may look to Israel and Lebanon to find a mechanism for regional cooperation and conflict resolution.