Eastern Med and the Pax Americana [NGW Magazine]
In August, it was announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would sign agreements of normalised relations – the Abraham Accords. The following month this took place in a ceremony at the White House, under the auspices of US president Donald Trump; the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and the UAE foreign minister.
The two countries, which have never been at war, have for two decades maintained relations and co-operated in security and business, so from that perspective the normalisation might have escaped notice.
The US administration, which has been vigorously involved in promoting normalisation agreements between Israel and the Gulf states, is now also working to promote normalisation between Israel and other Arab countries, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Officially the three are enemy states to Israel and never recognised it as a country. So signing peace accords with it has never happened. Despite this, as far as is known from sources outside Israel, Israel has security and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, as well as with Sudan, though neither country shares a border with Israel. Relations between Israel and Lebanon are more complex, as the two countries share a common land border of about 100 km and a maritime border where supposedly huge natural gas resources are to be found.
Southern Lebanon has, in recent decades, hosted anti-Israel organisations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and later Hezbollah, which has carried out terrorist acts against Israeli targets across the border. The Lebanese government has to all intents and purposes lost control of these areas which today are controlled by Hezbollah, which is supported, financially and militarily, by Iran.
According to Israeli security organisations, Hezbollah is threatening Israel with tens of thousands of long- and short- range missiles and rockets. Some of them may even endanger Israel's natural gas production facilities in the Mediterranean. All this armament was supplied primarily by Iran.
In the last few years Israel has conducted hundreds of air attacks on shipment of high precision weapons shipped from Iran to Lebanon. In the last few weeks there have been no reports of such activity.
In August of this year, the US major Chevron took over the struggling junior producer, Noble Energy, the operator of the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields offshore Israel.
The following month the Lebanese and Israeli governments announced the start of bilateral talks to mark the maritime border between them, under the auspices of the US government, which is to mediate between the two sides. The first meeting was held on October 14. An agreement on the maritime border between the two countries will allow the start of exploration work in Lebanon’s Block 9, which experts estimate has the potential for major gas discoveries.
"A settlement of the technical dispute over 850 square miles is very important especially for Lebanon," the CEO and co-owner of Eco-Energy Financial & Strategic Consulting, Amit Mor, told NGW. He said the benefits to Lebanon from settling the dispute could be enormous. If gas is found, it will provide an alternative to burning costly diesel and heavy fuel-oil for power generation and also yield royalties and taxes as well as improve the environment.
Both Chevron and Greek producer Energean have applied for a licence from the Israeli energy ministry to explore in the vicinity of Lebanon's Block 9. Co-operation with other companies on the Lebanese side could benefit the winning bidder in the event of a major discovery in an area that both countries claim is theirs.
However, what is not yet known is to what extent Chevron is involved in the rapid advancement of negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. Even less clear is what Israel, which has more gas than it can export or use, seeks to achieve through the talks.
Among its objectives it might make a compromise agreement on the maritime border with Lebanon conditional on removing Hezbollah's military threat to Israel. It will not want to see a situation develop in which in a few years' time Lebanon produces natural gas in the Mediterranean while Hezbollah conducts a military campaign against Israel on land.
Lebanon is entering talks from a clearly weak position. For decades, the country, which is divided between a Muslim majority and a Maronite minority, and also has a large Druze minority and a Shiite separatist movement in the south, has run into a national crisis that it is unable to resolve and as a result the state is hardly functioning. Although Israel and Syria have not been directly present in Lebanon for more than a decade, the crisis culminated this year, when an explosives depot in the port of Beirut exploded, causing extensive destruction within a radius of many kilometres, indicating the Lebanese administration's lack of control over the heart of the country. Lebanon has almost no foreign currency reserves and barely functions as a state.
Lebanon has taken some time to reach this point. Hezbollah has representatives in the Lebanese government, so it bears responsibility for what is happening throughout the country. Recently, Hezbollah, which is defined as a terrorist organization by Israel and the US, was forced to approve the talks between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border, but demanded that they be conducted only by military personnel and their goal defined in advance. The US assassinated in January this year the former commander of Iran’s Al-Quds forces, Qasem Soleimani. Iran is also in a dire economic situation, under severe US sanctions, and that also may have influenced its tacit agreement to the talks between Israel and Lebanon.
The questions surrounding the summer activity are manifold:
- Was Chevron involved in promoting the talks on the way to Pax Americana in the Middle East based on energy interests?
- What are Israel's goals in the talks with Lebanon? Are they limited to the resolution of technical issues concerning maritime border marking; or are they more expansive, looking to resolve the threats imposed by Hezbollah on its northern border?
- Has Iran, the biggest threat to Israel, approved the talks?
- Will Lebanon be ready to extend the talks to cover more than merely technical issues?
Israel position not clear
"Iran is not involved in the talks, except indirectly through Hezbollah's tacit consent to their existence," Israeli security expert Assaf Orion told NGW. The Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv also said it is not clear whether Israel has set security goals for the talks. "At this stage, Israel's goal in the talks is to reach an agreement on the maritime border that will enable the utilization of the gas resources it [the border] passes through. It is not clear whether security goals have been set, but in my opinion Israel should strive for agreements /understandings on the security of gas rigs in the Mediterranean and a mutual guarantee of the two countries to avoid harming each other," Orion said.
Orion says that implicitly Hezbollah agreed to the talks, while publicly condemning them through its media spokespersons. Iran, he claims is not involved in the talks, except indirectly through Hezbollah's tacit consent. However, there is a momentum that allows for the resolution of disputes in negotiations, and on the other hand, there is considerable opposition to this in Lebanese politics, so the chances for more expansive dialogue and agreements are slim.
"Hezbollah has in the past chosen to fight Israel despite severe attacks on Lebanon. It has repeatedly declared its readiness for another war, and also threatens to damage Israel's gas rigs. Hezbollah is pursuing a foreign and security policy that is not subject to the Lebanese government, so it is quite possible that a situation will break out after a maritime border has been agreed and gas production has begun. This is the explanation for the need for security arrangements and security guarantees for the peace of the gas rigs against acts of aggression by Hezbollah," says Orion.
Orion also doubts if talks will change the geopolitical situation in the region "due to the immaturity of the public and the political system in Lebanon, and the forceful dominance of Hezbollah and Iran in the country. However, the very fact that negotiations can be resolved undermines Hezbollah's central ethos as a defender of Lebanon.”
If internationally sponsored agreements can be reached with Israel, then Iran’s weapons are now only a threat to those of the Lebanese population who happen to be close to where the weapons are hidden.
Despite scepticism on the Israeli side, the first direct talks between Israel and Lebanon in 30 years may have a more than technical goal, the settling of a border dispute. In the last few weeks, for example, there have been no reports about new Israeli air strikes on weapons shipments from Iran through Syria to the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The tacit agreement of Hezbollah and Iran to the talks, both in crisis mode, is significant. The Abraham Accords exert their own influence on public opinion in the Arab world in general and in Lebanon in particular toward Israel. In late October, Claudine Aoun Roukoz, the daughter of Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun, said she would like to visit Jerusalem after land border disputes between Lebanon and Israel – and there are 17 disputed locations along the land border – are resolved.
Chevron’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean gas scene is significant as the American administration, perhaps in its dying days, is trying to push forward a peaceful resolution to the maritime border dispute that would enrich an American gas company. The next administration is expected to continue that policy.
For Israel it is an opportunity to neutralise by negotiations rather than by military activity, the threat posed by the Hezbollah in the last 20 years. However Israel might instead settle the maritime border dispute with Lebanon without reaching a more comprehensive solution on Hizbollah. That would be a missed opportunity.