Will Lebanon and Israel go to war over their maritime border dispute?
Israel has announced its readiness for war with Lebanon, as the ongoing US-mediated maritime border demarcation talks head towards a dead end. The issue, however, is not just causing dispute between Beirut and Tel Aviv, but also becoming more prevalent within Israeli politics as it heads into another round of general elections.
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid rejected Lebanese amendments to a US-proposed maritime border demarcation agreement. The previous day, Israeli officials had reportedly been briefed on the deal, which was the cause of much optimism, with an unnamed source telling Axios news that Lapid “made it clear that Israel will not compromise on its security and economic interests, even if that means that there will be no agreement soon.”
Later on Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the military establishment to prepare for an armed confrontation with Lebanon. A four-hour cabinet meeting, which was said to have been attended by major Israeli security establishment figures, was then concluded with a public announcement that the prime minister and defense minister had been granted permission to strike Lebanon without further cabinet approval.
Why are Lebanon and Israel on the verge of war?
In early June, a ship owned by the gas company Energean arrived at the resource-rich Karish field in the Eastern Mediterranean to begin preparations for natural gas production for Israel. Lebanese President Michel Aoun condemned the arrival, warning Tel Aviv against taking any further “aggressive action.” The Karish field, as well as the nearby Qana field, have for years been central to on-off US-mediated negotiations between Lebanon and Israel. The two nations have still not come to any agreement on the demarcation of their maritime borders, with Beirut seeing Karish and Qana as vital to reviving its collapsing economy.
While Lebanon maintains, due to legal arguments put forth in previous negotiations, that the entire area is to be considered ‘disputed waters,’ Israel has maintained that all of the Karish field and the majority of the Qana field are within its own ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’. The Lebanese political and military party Hezbollah, which claims to have 100,000 battle-ready troops at its disposal, then weighed in on the debate, vowing to protect Lebanon’s rights to its oil and gas.
Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah declared that if no maritime border deal were reached and Lebanon is not able to secure its rights, then military action will be taken. Nasrallah vowed that the new reality would be “If we can’t have our resources, nobody can.” Hezbollah’s red line is Israeli extraction from the Karish field before any agreement is signed – if this happens, the group has threatened to strike not only Tel Aviv’s infrastructure at site, but every other Israeli oil and gas facility in the Mediterranean.
Israel has since responded with threats of its own, which have ranged from a vow to eliminate the entire densely populated Beirut suburb that serves as Hezbollah’s stronghold, to Benny Gantz’s recent warning that the whole of Lebanon would “pay a heavy price” for any military action by Hezbollah. Now that the negotiations have reached a “make or break” point, there are significant fears that military action will be taken, either by Israel or Hezbollah.
The most recent threats issued by the military and political leadership in Tel Aviv have caused panic among Israelis living near the Lebanese border. However, there is a significant possibility that the rhetoric is aimed at a domestic audience. Israel will enter into a new round of national elections in November and the demarcation of maritime borders has recently been weaponized against the current Israeli leadership, causing ministers to act in order to save face.
Israeli opposition leader and former long-time prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to lash out at interim-PM Yair Lapid back in September, releasing a video in which he claimed that Lapid had “totally folded in the face of Nasrallah’s threats” and that Hezbollah had forced him to delay extraction from the Karish field. Netanyahu has continued to heavily criticize his political opponents’ handling of the demarcation-line issue, with similar claims that Israel is backing down over the threats issued by Lebanese Hezbollah.
Netanyahu’s words ring true in that Lapid has clearly been forced to take the issue of demarcation of maritime borders very seriously and has conceded on positions held by Tel Aviv in the past. In addition to this, the extraction of gas from the Karish field has also been delayed, as Energean, which owns the rights to extract from the site, was initially prepared to begin operations in late September and has so far refrained from doing so. However, had Netanyahu remained as PM, he would hardly have had any other choice but to do the same.
The threats made by Hezbollah are very serious, and the group apparently has the capacity to follow through with them and destroy all of Israel’s oil and gas facilities. At this time, however, the Israeli far-right camp headed by Netanyahu is blaming the situation on Lapid’s weak governance, saying he is prepared to give away territory that belongs to Israel. For this reason, it is likely that Yair Lapid will attempt to delay extraction of gas from the Karish field in order to sideline the issue until after the elections.
The necessity of a deal for Lebanon
Lebanon sees the Karish and Qana issue as integral to its survival. Some UN experts put the percentage of Lebanese living in poverty at around 80%, while the country endures round-the-clock blackouts, a rising crime rate, and civil instability. Some people have even been spotted searching for food in garbage bins, as well as fighting over loaves of bread at bakeries. Getting its hands on a possible multi-billion-dollar oil and gas field is a matter of life or death for Beirut – but not for Tel Aviv, which enjoys far more economic stability.
The US mediator in the Lebanon-Israel talks, Amos Hochstein, gave an interview to the American owned al-Hurra TV in June, laughing when asked about the prospect of trading the Karish field for Qana. Months later, after Hezbollah upped its threats and the group’s leader, Nasrallah, stated that the Lebanese people would not be laughed at, this issue has become a rather grave one. The US, which has a clear pro-Israeli bias, is now being forced to take the talks much more seriously.
Earlier this year, as the European Union looked for alternative gas suppliers, a deal was inked between Tel Aviv and Brussels, under which Israel would send gas through pipelines to Europe via Egypt. This has encouraged Tel Aviv to announce its plans to double its gas output, and the Karish field is key to achieving this.
The Qana field, however, has not yet been explored and will take time to develop. Despite this, one of the key reasons for Israel’s rejection of the Lebanese proposal is that Beirut refuses to pay Tel Aviv royalties for the gas it would extract from the Qana field should it be handed to Lebanon. Beirut cannot commit itself to such an agreement, because this would mean normalizing ties with the Tel Aviv regime, which still occupies Shebaa farms – an area that Lebanon claims as its rightful territory.
Whether war happens will now boil down to whether bickering between Israeli political parties and individual officials will cause Tel Aviv to adopt a belligerent approach and push forward with gas production in the disputed fields before an agreement is reached. If it does, there can be little doubt that Hezbollah will open fire if its red line is crossed. Israel’s stake in the matter is additional energy revenues, while for Lebanon it is potentially a matter of life or death. Neither side wants war, but one has much to gain and the other has everything to lose.