The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The recurrent pattern of asking for more and more – reminiscent of the folk tale about the fisherman’s greedy wife – has made a mockery of the ongoing attempt to diplomatically resolve the Israeli-Lebanese EEZ dispute. The negotiations have continued for years, and some in Lebanon understand the need for a negotiated outcome: but Hezbollah might yet again scuttle the deal.

As US energy envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday, it appears that while some of the powers that be in Lebanon may understand the need for a compromise, they still stand the risk of staking out, again, under Hezbollah’s pressure, outrageous demands regarding the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) delineation with Israel.

Despite their recent electoral setback, Hezbollah and its allies still have a firm grip on most of the levers of power in the country.

Lebanon has already objected to the arrival of a vessel operated by London-based (but Greek-owned) corporation Energean on June 5 to work on Israel’s Karish gas field. Lebanon now claims Karish as part of its EEZ. Greece, in response, warned Lebanon against any harm coming to Greek citizens.

Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that Lebanon will once again reject any reasonable, even generous, compromise that could help extricate the country from its economic misery. The Lebanese people should be aware of the consequences of Hezbollah’s conduct and may voice their displeasure with such an outcome.

A Pattern of Asking for More

In 1835, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin rendered in verse an old folk tale about a fisherman who spared the life of a magical golden fish and then was pressed by his wife to ask it for more and more – a palace, untold riches, royal status.

Demands kept escalating until she took one step beyond the threshold and asked to rule the sea and the magical fish with it. No answer came, and the fisherman went home to find his old wife as poor as she had ever been.

The painful lesson applies to the pattern of ever-growing Lebanese demands and claims regarding control of the sea – or rather, the delineation of the EEZ boundary between Lebanon and Israel. Negotiations went nowhere last year after Lebanon inexplicably abandoned its previous claim based on “Line 23” along the Cypriot EEZ line and demanded to expand its claim southwards to “Line 29.”

The recurrent pattern of asking for more and more has made a mockery of the ongoing attempt to resolve the problem diplomatically. The negotiations, long-dormant due to Lebanese internal paralysis, were recently revived by the United States.

What is at Stake Now?

As he did a decade ago, Hochstein is trying again to find a reasonable middle way between the Lebanese and Israeli positions.

Gas finds have changed the region’s trajectory. The Lebanese reviewed their position under the law of the sea, finding new legal interpretations of the coastal contours to gain additional territory, adding around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) rather than 860 Square km (332 square miles) south of where Israel claimed, historically, that the EEZ line should be. By doing so, Lebanon claimed the Israeli Karish gas field, part of Israel’s EEZ.

Israel’s initial response in 2011 could have been to point out that Lebanon’s original boundary was already drawn. Indeed, Israel would have been within its rights to insist on it.

But soon enough, the key players on the Israeli side – including Avigdor Liberman, who was serving as Foreign Minister at the time, and whose first instinct was to take a firm nationalist line – came to see the situation as a potential win-win proposition: Israel would offer a generous compromise, and both sides could then submit bids on their respective blocks, generating an incentive for stability and drawing potential investors.

Israel thus consented to a division of the disputed area, most of which was offered to Lebanon. Israeli-born American Hochstein, then acting as a mediator, put forward creative ideas that would have enabled Lebanon to share in the prospective wealth of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Alas, the unsettled state of Lebanese politics – in which several factions constantly vie for their share of a dwindling amount of resources, make it impossible for Beirut to reach any decisions, and predictably Hochstein’s efforts came to naught. A decade later, amid the ever-deteriorating state of the Lebanese economy, former President Donald Trump restarted the negotiation effort toward the end of his term.

In October 2020, at the UNIFIL base in Naqoura, a Lebanese team led by a military officer (as if nothing has changed since 1949, the Lebanese government insists on maintaining the façade of military contacts only) met with an Israeli delegation led by the director of the Ministry of Energy. A US representative attended the meeting.

As it turned out, the Lebanese delegation did not talk about the resolution of the previous dispute but staked out a series of new unsubstantiated claims, unrelated to anything but the apparent expectation that they could once again blackmail Israel and the United States into further concessions.

Can Negotiations Still Succeed?

Hochstein’s willingness to return to Lebanon – despite Hezbollah’s openly anti-Semitic taunt that the country’s fate will not be in the hands of Hochstein “or any other Stein” – may indicate that he hopes to find a more receptive ear following the results of the election in May, which weakened Hezbollah and its allies.

The election demonstrated how the economy is now the main issue on the minds of many Lebanese.

Once again, however, the fisherman’s wife is at work: Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah saw fit to insinuate that Lebanon (i.e., Hezbollah) has the means to prevent Energean, whose Israeli offshoot wholly owns the Karish and Tanin fields, from operating the Singapore-built Floating Production Storage and Offloading ship which has recently passed through the Suez Canal.

A careful reading of Nasrallah’s words indicates that he is not unaware of the hopes in Lebanon that energy extraction may help save the country from financial collapse.

Therefore, he leaves open the prospect of using violence “only” if the negotiations – which will take place – fail to produce a satisfactory result. But the rhetoric that absurdly refers to the Karish-Tanin area as a Lebanese claim is bound to narrow the government’s options for a workable compromise at the negotiating table.

It should be made clear to the Lebanese leadership and people that such tactics will only consign their already bankrupt country to further misery. Israel’s willingness to compromise has been demonstrated, and rightly so.

It makes sense to offer Lebanon a real and workable stake in developing their gas fields. Israel has no interest in Lebanese economic collapse. Yet there is a limit beyond which no Israeli government can retreat in the face of ever more arrogant demands.

Choosing conflict will not deter the corporations which already have an established presence in Israel. It will, however, frighten away all who may still consider the prospect of investing in Lebanon’s gas fields. The voices of those in Lebanon who understand this need to prevail if the country is to have a chance of climbing out of the abyss.  

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo: Lebanese Energy Minister Walid Fayyad (R) meets with U.S. Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein in Beirut, Lebanon, on June 13, 2022. Photo credit: IMAGO / Xinhua / Bilal Jawich