Israel, Lebanon Talk Maritime Borders

Israel and Lebanon recently initiated groundbreaking negotiations to resolve a long-standing maritime border dispute in the eastern Mediterranean. Because the two countries are formally in a state of war and have no diplomatic relations, the United States is mediating the talks.

Both countries claim that about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea lie within their exclusive economic zones. Resolution of the dispute could lead to developing the potentially lucrative natural gas fields that would benefit both sides.

“Our goal is to end the dispute,” said Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. “The issue is important to us. It’s even more important to the other side. We already have gas reserves that provide for our local needs.”

Lebanon’s decision to negotiate with Israel—the first government-to-government talks between the two countries in three decades—comes against the backdrop of several converging factors. First, an unprecedented economic crisis resulting from years of corruption and political sectarianism has plunged tens of thousands of Lebanese people into poverty. Antigovernment protests are now commonplace. Developing Lebanese energy could generate substantial economic growth.

Second, U.S. sanctions on Iran have resulted in a serious cash-flow problem for Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group financed by Iran. Hezbollah, which effectively controls the Lebanese government, is scrambling for funding. Moreover, after the explosion of a suspected Hezbollah weapons depot in Beirut, Lebanon, in August 2020, Hezbollah has become increasingly unpopular. The explosion killed at least 200 people, injured about 5,000 others, and left large swaths of the Lebanese capital in ruins. Hezbollah’s leadership apparently does not want to be perceived as hindering the country’s future economic development.

The talks between Lebanon and Israel also come after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt did so in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The Abraham Accords peace agreement appears to have given the Lebanese government a diplomatic opening to facilitate negotiations with Israel.

Lebanese officials insist the talks are limited to energy and will not lead to diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said peace with Lebanon will be impossible as long as Hezbollah controls the country’s political and economic systems. “Since the dawn of Zionism,” he said, “we have held a defensive weapon in one hand, while the other has been outstretched in peace—to anyone that wants peace. It is said that peace is made with an enemy. No. Peace is made with someone who has ceased to be an enemy. Peace is made with those who want peace and not with those who remain committed to your destruction.”

Critics of the border negotiations argue that Hezbollah stands to benefit most from a settlement. In any event, the idea to resolve the dispute originated with Israel, which is willing to divide the maritime rights according to a 58:42 ratio in Lebanon’s favor.

Any such deal would represent a setback for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a vitriolic critic of Israel who opposes the Abraham Accords and wants to dominate the eastern Mediterranean region.

Middle East expert Dov Zakheim explained, “It will take some time before Israel and Lebanon reach an agreement. . . . Nevertheless, any agreement, however minor, between Israel, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clearly despises, and Lebanon, whose polity he seeks to penetrate, works against his increasingly hegemonic vision for what is, in effect, an Ottoman restoration. And that, in and of itself, is a good thing in an increasingly unstable Eastern Mediterranean.”

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