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ISRAEL: Natural gas deposits stir waters with Lebanon

July 27, 2011 |  8:26 am

Levant_Basin_Province

Five years after what Israel calls the Second Lebanon War, the border seems quieter than ever -- although this could always change.

The war prompted the Israeli military to dust off routine drilling of forces and other things neglected due to budget cuts and the assumption that "those kinds of wars" were gone. It also showed that the civilian population was the new front line, after a third of the country was pinned down in bomb shelters for a month. 

Hezbollah has turned a corner too, Israelis observe, improving its capabilities and replenishing its arsenal above and beyond what it had in 2006, which calls into question the effectiveness of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the war and was supposed to curb such armament.

Fifty tons of explosives could be dropped on Israel in the next war, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee recently, quickly adding that Israel could retaliate with 1,500 tons of its own extremely precise ammunition.

But at present, Israel and Lebanon are fighting a different kind of war -- over maritime borders and economic issues. If past maritime disputes were mostly about fishing rights, today's squabble concerns a far bigger matter -- billions of dollars worth of natural gas.

In recent years, Israel has found and begun developing massive natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea. There is much more wealth underwater-- the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Levant Basin contains as much as 122 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas -- and all countries around the basin want a piece of the action.

This means that everyone involved needs to agree which waters are whose to explore and exploit for natural resources. Israel and Egypt sorted out the borders in their peace treaty, and each worked out their marine affairs with Cyprus, the neighbor across the basin. But Lebanon and Israel have no agreed border on land, much less at sea, and for now, they have no chance of reaching a bilateral agreement on the matter.

A country can claim 200 nautical miles off its shores as its exclusive economic zone. In case of close neighbors and an overlap, an equidistant point must be found and agreed to establish such a zone. When Israel and Cyprus divvied up the waters between them, Cyprus said this didn't conflict with an agreement signed with Lebanon previously.

In the gas game, Israel was well ahead of Lebanon, which last year finally passed a new energy law that paved the way for exploration. Earlier this year, the Lebanese government signed an agreement with a French company to prepare a tender in partnership with a Norwegian program that was to be ready right about now. 

Israel probably thought it was ahead in the borders game too, but Lebanon threw in a surprise a while back: Rather than ratifying a 2007 agreement with Cyprus, it submitted its own proposal to the United Nations.

Israel challenged the Lebanese proposal, saying it dips significantly farther south than it should, and scrambled to call its turf, submitting to the U.N. its own maritime-boundaries and economic-zone proposals.  

In the best of all worlds, Israel and Lebanon would reach an agreement in bilateral negotiations. That's still a while away, so, in the meantime, someone will have to decide.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon has a marine contingent, but marking maritime borders is not within its mandate. Although reluctant to intervene, the United Nations may ultimately have to.

If unresolved, the dispute is likely to wind up before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, established by a 1982 U.N. convention that has become customary law, including for countries that did not sign it, such as Israel.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. is also involved in the dispute and reportedly backs the Lebanese proposal (though Israel's foreign minister dismissed this). Entrusted with this headache is American diplomat Frederic Hof, who has good knowledge of the issue as well as of mapping affairs. Israeli media reported that Hof will head for Beirut soon for discussions.

The U.S. wants to avoid a sea version of the Shebaa Farms dispute, a low-level border conflict in southern Lebanon, and reportedly wants a cooperative Israel. But Washington also is likely seeking to ensure the interests of American companies already committed to business in Israel's northern gas fields.

For now, the conflict is being handled by diplomacy, but there's plenty of belligerent talk too. The latest came Tuesday night from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah -- a reminder of the expressly non-diplomatic way of settling disputes.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Image: A map of the Levant Basin province in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

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