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Israel-Lebanon Sea Border Dispute Heats Up

Lebanon’s line gives it a chunk of gas field, could also create conflict

Marc Tracy
July 11, 2011
The disputed borders.(menas borders)
The disputed borders.(menas borders)

Last summer, Mideast columnist Lee Smith predicted that the Leviathan natural gas field, newly discovered off Israel’s northern coast, might spark the long-dreaded) sequel to the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Since then, Lebanon passed a provocative oil law and Hezbollah only gained power, and yet the debate over whether Lebanese maritime jurisdiction includes parts of Leviathan—thought to hold tens of billions of dollars in energy—has largely taken place quietly through a U.S. mediator. That is, until the past few days. Amid growing rhetoric from both sides, on Sunday Israel’s cabinet approved a proposed border that it plans to submit to the United Nations. That border gives it larger maritime jurisdiction than Lebanon’s proposed border, which it submitted to the U.N. a few months ago. Lebanon’s energy minister labeled Israel’s move an act of “aggression,” and added, “Lebanon will not abandon its maritime border.”

Actually, though, to my admittedly untrained eye, it seems as though Lebanon already did (for a detailed discussion of the maritime borders, see here). The Times reports that Lebanon’s proposed line conflicts both with a line that Israel and Cyprus have agreed to as well as indeed with a line (also with Cyprus) that Lebanon itself agreed to in 2007—you know, before everyone knew there was gaseous gold under the sea. “We signed an agreement with Cyprus that is in keeping with its agreement with Lebanon,” explained Israeli minister of strategic affairs Moshe Ya’alon. “They decided to sketch a new border south of the line that was agreed to in talks between Lebanon and Cyprus, and basically entered our territory. It was done with premeditation in order to create conflict with us, just like the Sheba Farms.”

Well, hopefully it was done because Lebanon just wanted a piece of the natural gas pie, and if giving them said piece, however much it may rightfully belong to Israel, satisfied it, then a pragmatic supporter of Israel would feel inclined to see it as a small price to pay to forestall war. The problem is that Lebanon is not run by Lebanon, but rather by the Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Maybe it wants its border so that it can get in on the natural gas; but maybe it also wants, as Ya’alon suggests, to create a border dispute that can serve as a pretext for a war that Iran wants anyway.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.