US Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield with Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Beirut, May 28, 2019
Even as tension surged this spring towards possible military confrontation between the US and Iran, negotiations have started over a disputed maritime border between Israel and Lebanon.
Joe Macaron’s article, written for the Arab Center Washington, was posted a week before Thursday’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which have added to concerns that conflict rather than quiet dialogue is on the way.
On 13 May, as The New York Times reported that the White House was reviewing military plans to attack Iran, a plane carrying the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, quietly landed in Beirut on an unannounced trip.
Heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran did not prevent the US official from rushing to seize a breakthrough, as the Iran-backed Hezbollah finally endorsed the Lebanese Government’s entry into direct negotiations to settle a border dispute with Israel.
These negotiations are expected to begin in the coming weeks as the US and Iran may explore direct talks for the first time since Donald Trump took office in 2017.
Oil and A Maritime Border
Since 2012, the US has been mediating a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel over a triangular area of 860 square km (330 square miles) off the Mediterranean coast where gas was discovered in 2009.
Last year, a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s ENI, and Russia’s Novatek was awarded a contract to start drilling in two blocks off the Lebanese coast, including the disputed block 9. This led to tensions between Lebanon and Israel.
While preparing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Beirut on March 22-23, Assistant Secretary Satterfield held a tense meeting on March 5 with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who plays a key role in Lebanon regarding the border dispute.
The Trump Administration wanted Berri to join President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri in agreeing on talks with Israel so “Lebanese leaders reach a consensus position on a path forward on boundary negotiations”.
On April 6, a news report floated the idea that Washington might sanction Berri’s inner circle in a clear message to the Amal Movement’s leader, who is a close ally of Hezbollah.
The breakthrough came when Berri, with the obvious consent of Hezbollah, shifted position on April 23. He told Major Stefano Del Col, head of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in South Lebanon:
We are ready to draw Lebanon’s maritime borders and those of the Exclusive Economic Zone using the same procedure that was used to draw the Blue Line [the land border drawn after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000] under the supervision of the United Nations.
The next day, al-Akhbar leaked diplomatic cables sent from the Lebanese Embassy in Washington to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, which detailed a March 15 meeting that Satterfield had in Washington with visiting Lebanese officials. The Trump administration official reportedly warned that Lebanon can take or leave the US offer to “find another party capable of mediating”.
The Lebanese Initiative and The Sticking Points
On May 9, President Aoun formally presented an initiative to US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard. It had two main components: 1) forming a military committee to hold meetings at the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura, South Lebanon, under UN sponsorship with the US as the de facto mediator; and 2) negotiating the land and maritime borders simultaneously.
Signalling preliminary acceptance of this initiative, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said the talks on May 27 were “for the good of both countries’ interests in developing natural gas reserves and oil”.
Israel responded via Satterfield with a counter-offer of expanding the military committee to diplomats, luring the Lebanese side into substantial negotiations to normalize bilateral talks.
Beirut conceded on the necessity of negotiating with Israel, instead of letting the United Nations unilaterally demarcate the maritime border based on international maps that prove Lebanon’s ownership.
The American and Israeli view is that maritime demarcation does not fall within the UN mandate. While largely skeptical of the UN role, Israel conceded on the organization’s logistical role in the negotiations.
Another contentious issue was whether to discuss the maritime and land borders in parallel, as Lebanon offered, or to restrict the talks to the maritime border as Israel suggests. The US maintained that in international law there is no correlation between land and maritime demarcation. It is not clear yet how Lebanon will respond.
Both Lebanon and Israel want to set these parameters — most notably the timeframe and the framework — before beginning negotiations in Naqoura.
Israel is seeking a six-month deadline for these talks; however, Lebanon insists on open-ended negotiations until an agreement is reached, arguing that the Israelis might procrastinate if a time frame were set.
The framework revolves around the role of both the UN and the US during the negotiations.
Lebanese officials want UN involvement as any agreement would be immediately formalized and recorded by the international organisation; they also expect Washington to pressure the Israeli side when needed.
Satterfield sees the US role as “a facilitator” without being overly involved in the talks. The Trump administration wants to avoid previous failed US mediation efforts, as in 2012 when Ambassador Frederic Hof drew a maritime line giving Lebanon 60% of the disputed area.
Motivations and Calculations
Despite the diplomatic and military escalation last month between Washington and Tehran, the Lebanon-Israel border dispute could offers a unique model for defusing tensions.
The Iranian flexibility in Lebanon is indicated by Hezbollah no longer imposing a veto on negotiations with Israel to settle border issues. Its head Hassan Nasrallah said on May 31, “We stand behind the state and we trust the officials tackling this issue [border dispute] and we do not interfere.”
sraeli officials and media have been largely silent on the breakthrough while Lebanese officials and media leaks dominate the air waves and drivie the coverage of Satterfield’s shuttle diplomacy.
While both the Lebanese and Israeli governments are in a rush to begin the reaping of benefits from gas exploration, Lebanon has three other motivations.
First, there is the concern that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, enabled by Trump, might unilaterally define Israel’s maritime border with Lebanon. Second is the US pressure on the Lebanese Government, evident in Pompeo’s trip to Beirut in March. Third, Lebanon is facing an acute economic crisis and is in dire need of gas revenues.
The Lebanese intended to begin drilling gas in the disputed block 9 in January 2020. They opened the door in April 2018 for bidders on the five remaining blocks, including two adjacent to the Israeli coast.
It is also in Israel’s interest to have a safe environment for foreign companies drilling for gas in the Mediterranean. The resignation of the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman from Israel’s Defense Ministry last November helped mitigate the tensions as the negotiation portfolio was fully moved to Energy Minister Steinitz.
Meanwhile, US pressure before Pompeo’s visit to Beirut last March led to changes in the Lebanese Government’s position on Hezbollah’s weapons and the negotiations with Israel.
On April 26, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab said President Aoun would soon call for a national dialogue to discuss “a national defense strategy to restrict weapons only in the hands of the Lebanese army”. Three weeks later, Aoun asked the US “to help increase stability along the border with Israel by drawing permanent borders”.
But Berri has pushed back, saying through sources on May 29 that Lebanon “looks forward to the completion of the negotiation process with Israel, provided that the issue of Hezbollah’s arms would not be linked to the demarcation file”.
Nasrallah asserted two days later that border disputes should not be linked to Hezbollah’s precision guided missiles.
There are obstacles that may impede the US mediation and the negotiation process down the road. As Netanyahu prepares for a re-run of inconclusive Israeli elections, expected in September, he may be less likely to approve a border agreement that could be used against him in the campaign.
Political tensions have recently grown in Lebanon and if they reach a level of paralyzing the government, this might affect the current unified stance between Aoun, Berri, and Hariri.
And Satterfield may soon take on a new position as US Ambassador to Turkey. His successor as Assistant Secretary of State, David Schenker, will have to familiarize himself with the major interlocutors if he is selected to continue Satterfield’s mediation.
These talks will also be overshadowed by what may happen between Washington and Tehran in the near future.
A Delicate Balance
The US seems reluctant to be involved directly in initiating ideas to resolve the dispute, which may constrain a mediation whether side will unilaterally concede.
The challenge for Washington is to maintain a balanced approach. Last December Pompeo rejected an Israeli request to sanction Lebanon over the discovery of Hezbollah’s weapons, which helped build some confidence between the Trump Administration and Lebanese leaders.
Settling the border dispute will allow the Lebanese government to begin gas exploration against the background of deeply-rooted governance and fiscal crises. But any attempt by the US or Iran to use the issue to impose new regional alliances on Lebanon will weaken the already-fragile Lebanese political system. The United States should continue to intensify its mediation efforts by keeping both sides on the path of resolving their border dispute through negotiations.