Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Between US Officials Visits and Inter Lebanese Issues
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to visit Beirut this week for talks with Lebanese leaders expected to focus on bilateral relations as well as to present different solution about the disputed marine border between Lebanon and Israel.
Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, who visited Beirut last week to prepare for Pompeo’s trip, last year unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a deal on the disputed maritime border between Lebanon and Israel, in light of Lebanon’s discovery of potential offshore oil and gas reserves and fears that Israel would drill in these waters.
During his quick visit, the top U.S. diplomat will meet separately with President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, an official source said.
However, Speaker Nabih Berri expressed “anger” with David Satterfield, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, who met with several Lebanese officials in Lebanon last week without meeting the Speaker or President Michel Aoun.
But Berri has assured that “he would have refused to see Satterfield even the latter asked to meet him,” added al-Joumhouria daily.
Explaining Berri’s position, the newspaper said that Berri’s refusal to see Satterfield is due to a “stormy” meeting in February between the two over the Lebanese-Israeli oil and gas exploration dispute.
Satterfield reportedly did not play the role of mediator, but adopted the Israeli position in a sharp way pressuring Lebanon to accept an American solution to the maritime border crisis ultimately serving the interests of Israel, it said.
In this meeting, after the debate, Satterfield reportedly told Berri in a rhetoric “outside” the diplomatic framework "take it or leave it.”
According to information obtained by the daily, the above has prompted Berri to sharply snap at the U.S. envoy.
Berri told Satterfield: “I am Nabih Berri, you can't talk to me this way. The American proposal is unacceptable. Our position is firm and known to uphold our full right to the 860 square km area and its oil and gas reserves in the sea which Israel is trying to steal. This is not the only property within Lebanon’s territorial waters and sea borders, but add to it an area of more than 500 square km to the south that also belong to Lebanon.”
Berri emphasized that Lebanon will not allow Israel to seize control of parts of its offshore oil and gas fields.
Pompeo’s visit to Beirut comes less than two weeks before Aoun’s planned two-day trip to Russia. While in Moscow on March 25-26, his first since his election as president in 2016, Aoun will hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on bilateral relations, the Syrian refugee crisis and the stalled Russian initiative aiming to secure the return of displaced Syrians in Lebanon to their country, the official source said.
The source added that the offshore oil and gas issue would be discussed during the meeting. Russian company Novatek is part of a consortium that includes France’s Total and Italy’s Eni and is expected to begin exploring Lebanon’s potential offshore oil and gas reserves later this year.
What’s the fuss over Block 9?
In December, Lebanon approved a bid from a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two of the five blocks put up for tender in Lebanon’s much-delayed first oil and gas offshore licensing round, Reuters reported.
One of the awarded blocks, Block 9, borders Israeli waters.
Lebanon and Israel are caught up in a maritime border dispute over a triangular area of sea that makes up about 860 square kilometers (approximately 330 square miles) that extends along the edge of three of the blocks up for tender.
The problem stems from 2007 when Lebanon and Cyprus agreed on the delineation of their respective EEZs. The most southerly point of the EEZ boundary lies 17km north-east of where Lebanon, three years later, staked its claim for the end point of its maritime boundary.
The EEZ agreement allows for a readjustment of the final point if Lebanon and Israel concur on their mutual EEZs but a precedent had been set and Israel exploited it in 2010 by using the same point as the beginning of its EEZ boundary with Cyprus, leading to the overlap.
Pompeo and Satterfield have a tough diplomatic assignment in trying to forge a compromise between Lebanon and Israel related to the Block 9 falls within the disputed zone. The French-Italian-Russian consortium signaled it will not explore near the disputed area.
Whether or not Pompeo and Satterfield are successful in his diplomatic efforts, neither Lebanon nor Israel have an interest in seeing the maritime boundary dispute turn violent.
Even more crucially, both countries share massive incentives to avoid any kind of action that threatens to upset the development of their respective energy sectors. It is true, as Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said previously, that diplomatic negotiations could well delay exploration, delaying Israel’s plans to expand its existing production of natural gas. The same applies for Lebanon’s efforts to get its own energy sector off the ground. But this is insignificant, in the grand scheme of things, compared to the interruptions in gas exploration that could be expected to result from the outbreak of a shooting war, not to mention the direct and indirect costs – in blood and treasure alike – of such a conflict. All told, the drag on the economic prosperity of both countries would outlast the fighting itself as foreign investors and qualified insurers would be spooked for years.