By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In recent months, tension has been slowly but surely rising between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon has threatened to open a new front against Israel, this time at sea.
In the Mediterranean Sea, Israel has been drilling for natural gas, which is in high demand in light of the European Union’s attempt to limit its energy purchases from Russia. However, Hezbollah argues that Israel has no right to drill for gas in this area.
Ultimately, the question to resolve in this dispute is: where does the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Israel end and Lebanon begin?
What Is an Exclusive Economic Zone?
The term Exclusive Economic Zone is a concept that comes from the 1982 Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It refers to a country’s jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in its adjacent section of the continental shelf. Typically, the EEZ extends 200 miles outward from a country’s shore.
The EEZ is an important part of modern economics. Countries use these maritime areas for fishing, mining, or drilling for oil or natural gas, which can be very lucrative.
As the students in my maritime law course (LSTD401) know, legal definitions that initially seem to be dry can make or break billion-dollar deals and raise tensions between opposing parties to a boiling point. In the case of Lebanon and Israel, this heated legal disagreement involves maritime law, economy, and international politics.
Defining the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border
The area in contention is in a triangular shape and involves 339 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea. According to Reuters, “Lebanon’s armed Hezbollah group issued a video on Sunday showing vessels involved in the Israeli offshore oil and gas industry and warned against ‘playing with time,’ underlining its threat of military escalation amid maritime border demarcation talks.”
Last month, Israel shot down Hezbollah drones flying next to an Israeli gas drilling rig. Israel will begin a major drilling operation soon in the Karish (“Shark” in Hebrew) natural gas field, which lies partially within the EEZ.
However, it seems that Lebanon hopes to find a reservoir of natural gas in the Qana gas field, which is also partially within the EEZ. If this natural gas is found, it will help the crippled Lebanese economy.
US Envoy Amos Hochstein Serving as Mediator Between Israel and Lebanon
The U.S. has been serving as mediator between Israel and Lebanon, and U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein has been traveling between Beirut and Jerusalem. According to the Jerusalem Post, both countries were close to an agreement in the past.
According to the Jerusalem Post, “Israel originally agreed to split the area 58% to 42% in favor of Lebanon. Talks broke down after four rounds of talks in 2021, when Lebanon sharply increased its demands to almost triple the disputed area to 2,300 sq.km. [square kilometers], abutting Israel’s Karish gas reservoir.”
Prior to Hochstein’s visit to Beirut, the Department of State was optimistic about the two countries reaching an agreement. According to the Times of Israel, the Department of State said, “Reaching a resolution is both necessary and possible, but can only be done through negotiations and diplomacy.”
The Times of Israel also reported that “Hochstein would be bringing Israel’s answer to a Lebanese proposal for full control of the Qana gas field, which straddles the zones and is called Sidon in Hebrew, in exchange for dropping its claims on the Karish field.”
Hochstein has a track record in brokering deals concerning energy from his time in the Obama administration. He was instrumental in the Israel-Jordan energy deal, shuttling 14 times between Jerusalem and Amman until he brought a $500 million deal to the finish line.
Could an Israel-Lebanon Agreement Lead to Other Positive Developments in the Middle East?
If Israel and Lebanon reach an agreement, could that lead to other positive developments in the Middle East? Perhaps the rationale of the Abraham Accords has potential in the Middle East. What is good for business is good for peace.
As long as Iran – through Hezbollah – continues to dominate Lebanon, we are unlikely to see positive changes. But an agreement through U.S. mediation will send a message to other Middle Eastern nations that deals that are mutually beneficial to everyone can be made.
In time, Sunni forces in the Middle East will see what is potentially achievable. While Iran and its terrorist organizations continue to threaten Sunni-led countries, it makes good geopolitical sense to create a bond with Israel.
Similarly, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, is aging. If Palestinian politics change after his eventual death, a new relationship between Sunni countries in the Middle East and Israel might prove very important in reshaping the Palestinian Authority. This deal between Israel and Lebanon is just another example that everything is possible in the Middle East.