Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon agreed to the US’s call to resume mediation in the indirect maritime border talks, after a ship arrived in the disputed waters to produce gas for Israel.
President Michel Aoun and interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati met on Monday and agreed to invite Senior Energy Adviser and US mediator Amos Hochstein to visit Beirut.
Representative Elias Bou Saab, President Aoun’s advisor on international cooperation affairs, reportedly spoke to Hochstein after the meeting to plan a date for the visit.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said the dispute would be resolved through US mediation. There are no diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Israel and they are officially hostile.
A vessel operated by Energean arrived in disputed waters on Sunday to produce gas for Israel, angering Lebanese officials.
Israeli authorities say the area, known as the Karish field, falls within its exclusive economic zone. Lebanon says part of the field is within its claimed maritime territory under negotiation.
An earlier round of talks to resolve the decades-old conflict began in October 2020 at the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, but negotiations stalled within weeks.
Since then, Hochstein has resorted to shuttle diplomacy between Beirut and Tel Aviv in an attempt to break the deadlock, but to no avail.
Although tensions are now rising between the two countries, Israeli Energy Minister Karen Al-Harr dismissed concerns about a potential conflict and dismissed Lebanon’s claims to the area as “too far from reality.”
Meanwhile, senior Lebanese officials accused Israel of aggression over the disputed waters. Prime Minister Mikati said that Israel was imposing a “fait accompli” in an attempt to swing the negotiations in its favour.
A decade of missed opportunities
While Lebanon is rushing to halt Israeli preparations for gas production at the Karish site, experts have criticized senior Lebanese officials for not making their demands for the maximum possible sea space.
Lebanon in 2011 issued Decree No. 6433 to the United Nations regarding its claims to offshore lands in the Mediterranean, called Line 23, which does not intersect with the Karish field.
However, studies by the British Hydrographic Office and later the Lebanese Army indicated that Lebanon could claim an additional 1,430 square kilometers (889 square miles), which cuts through the Karish field. It is referred to as line 29, but Lebanon never amended Decree 6433.
“The army has conducted extensive studies on Line 29, and it has valid technical and legal considerations,” Mark Ayoub, associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“We’ve missed a decade of opportunities to get to a point where we miss our chance [economic] rights.”
The Lebanese government has struggled to keep its institutions functioning, as prospects for economic reform and recovery are hampered by political bickering between ruling elites and the systematic mismanagement of resources.
In April 2021, then interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab approved a draft decree to amend Decree 6433 that would expand Lebanon’s claims, but President Michel Aoun has yet to sign the document.
“He said that the reason for this was that the draft decree came from a caretaker government and because negotiations with the United States had already begun,” Ayoub said.
Some deputies responded to the recent developments, calling on the government and the president to amend the decree. Representative Hassan Murad, who is allied with Hezbollah, submitted a bill to the House of Representatives on Monday to amend Decree 6433 to expand Lebanon’s claims to line 29.
Meanwhile, 13 anti-establishment lawmakers, referred to locally as the Forces for Change, at a press conference called on the government and the president to hand over amended Decree 6433 to the United Nations, send a warning letter to Energean, and file a complaint against Israel. to the UN Security Council.
“According to public international law and international conventions, we have the legitimacy to impose this matter,” said Melhem Khalaf, an MP from the bloc.
Representative Mark Daou from the same bloc told Al-Jazeera that there are no excuses for President Aoun and the government not to sign an amended decree.
“There is nothing stopping them,” he says. Lebanon should do what it should have done from day one. Sending an updated map to identify Line 29 as the sovereign line of Lebanon.”
There is no uniform position
Parliament is due to meet on Tuesday, but Decree 6433 is not on the agenda.
The office of interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, nor did Interim Energy Minister Walid Fayyad.
Member of Parliament Alain Aoun, a senior lawmaker in President Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, said the situation is not as clear as critics claim.
“It’s more complicated than just signing [the decree]Aoun told Al Jazeera without revealing further details.
Since late 2019, Lebanon has been experiencing a financial and economic collapse. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the US dollar and 80 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty.
While the nascent oil and gas industry will not be enough to pay off its ballooning debts and repay the millions whose savings were trapped in the country’s banks, experts say Lebanon is missing out on an economic opportunity to bolster its coffers.
“Weak governance and the inability to develop a strategy and implement a vision for the sector have hampered Lebanon’s development prospects for an oil and gas industry that would, at the very least, meet the country’s domestic energy needs or even position it as a potential source for Europe,” said Sibyl Rizk, Director of Public Policy at Jama’a Advocacy. The Lebanese We Are All Will, told Al Jazeera, “which is looking for alternatives to Russian gas.”
But in the meantime, as Lebanon rushes to put the indirect talks back on track, Rizk expressed concern that the lack of a unified position among the Lebanese political leadership could lead to a diplomatic debate.
Is it line 23 or line 29? Rizk said that the Lebanese army and the Naqoura delegation had made a strong argument for line 29, but the official position is still on line 23.
“This lack of clarity leaves the door open to all kinds of foreign interference and political bargaining that could benefit some stakeholders, but certainly not the collective interest of the Lebanese people.”
Talks are underway between Lebanese officials. Following Aoun’s talks with Mikati, the Minister of Business Administration, Abdullah Bou Habib, met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
But it is not clear whether an agreement is likely, nor whether the authorities will amend Decree 6433.
When a reporter asked Bouhabib why President Aoun had not yet signed the decree, he told him, “Go and ask at the presidential palace.”