Tillerson Has Scant Hope of Resolving Israeli-Lebanese Gas Drilling Dispute

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Beirut on Thursday, Feb. 15, the highest-ranking visitor of the Trump administration, to try his hand at brokering two pressing disputes between the Lebanese government and Israel: The drilling rights in Block 9 of the Mediterranean gas and oil field, and the fence Israel is building along its border with Lebanon against Hizballah intrusions.

Tillerson expected to meet President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil – all in one day. Shortly before his arrival, Hariri called a cabinet meeting to line up a “unified stance” regarding the US officer to broker the oil field dispute.

Washington has reportedly proposed that, in order to extract oil and gas from the southern block, Lebanon should abide by the “Frederic Hof” line that was drawn by a US mediator in 2012 and gives Lebanon 60 percent of the offshore Block 9 and Israel 40 percent.

However, the Lebanese government last month published a tender for the exploration of Mediterranean gas in its waters, including the area assigned to Israel. On Jan. 31, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the area was in dispute and bidders would be ill-advised to respond. Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah countered with a threat to attack Israel’s Mediterranean gas rigs.

The maps in use by Lebanon and Israel for the past eight years showed the gap between the Lebanese and Israeli demarcations as covering an area of 850 square kilometers. Israel has consistently refrained from publishing tenders for this disputed patch of Mediterranean water and waited for the results of American mediation. But meanwhile, five years ago, the Lebanese Ministry of Energy issued its own map of the country’s economic maritime waters. The blocks shown on this map ignored the American compromise formula and appropriated all parts of Blocks 8,9 and 10, including the area assigned to Israel.

A year ago, on Feb. 2, Israel complained about Lebanon’s aggressive stance and reiterated “its openness to dialogue and cooperation with relevant neighbors on the northern limit of territorial limits of the economic waters concerned.” In December 2017, Israel complained again to the UN Secretary that Lebanon had granted concessions in Block 9 to European energy companies, without regard for Israel’s share or response to its offer of dialogue. The government in Jerusalem accordingly announced that it would not permit economic operations to go forward in the drilling area without mutual agreement.

On Jan. 26, Lebanon sent a note dismissing Israel’s arguments and declaring that it would not hesitate to exercise its “right to self-defense” by all appropriate means against an armed attack on its maritime operations.

David Satterfield, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East, visited Beirut in early February to prepare Secretary Tillerson’s mission. He tried his hand at mediating the dispute between Israel and Lebanon on two issues:

  1. A compromise on the Block 9 drilling rights against a US guarantee.
  2. Agreement on the 79-km border wall Israeli is building all the way from the Mediterranean up to the northernmost town of Metullah. This project was initiated in response to repeated Hizballah threats to surge across and capture parts of northern Israel. Lebanon claims that the Israeli wall encroaches on its territory at 13 points.

Tillerson hoped for two achievements in Beirut: (a)To ward off a flareup of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon and (b) To help the Lebanese government prove it is independent and is not bound by the will of Iran or Hizballah.

What chance does he have of pulling the two challenges off? Not much.

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