By Maddy Burt
Although technically still at war, Israel and Lebanon have agreed to open negotiations with each other over their disputed maritime border. The talks, scheduled to take place mid-way through October, will mark the first direct political negotiations between the two countries for three decades.
The disputed area is 330 square miles in the eastern Mediterranean, in close proximity to Israel’s natural gas fields. Both countries claim the area to be in their exclusive economic zone. By settling the border, both countries will be able to exploit any natural gas the area has to offer.
Israel already has several gas fields that generate billions for the country raised through contracts with Jordan and Egypt. Both Israel and Cyprus have recently started exploiting gas in the eastern Mediterranean.
Importantly, Lebanon will benefit enormously from being able to access such reserves as a means of generating revenue for a country in crisis. A recent explosion in the port of Beirut, leaving large-scale destruction, coupled with an economic crisis in which the currency has lost 80% of its value, has left the country in dire need of an economic boost. It already has a French energy company, Total SA, lined up to begin drilling around the contested area.
The movement towards negotiations is a promising development for the two countries who have historically poor relations with each other. The countries are still at war, dating back to the Arab-Israeli conflict 1948-1949. They are yet to reach a settled land border. For now, there is a ceasefire along the Blue Line which serves as a temporary boundary.
In 2000, Israel withdrew troops from Lebanon after a 22 year occupation. This followed Israel invading twice during Lebanon’s 15 year civil war, which ended in 1990, to try to uproot Palestinian militants. In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah (a Shia militant group) fought a month long war, which ended in a ceasefire arranged by the UN. The frontier is maintained by UN peacekeepers attempting to avoid future conflict.
There is hope that a move to direct interaction and conversation will lay the foundations to settling further disputes, such as the land border, and that the countries will begin working on better terms. This comes at a time when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have recently normalised relations with Israel, under American supervision.
Lebanon made clear that they are in desperate need of the revenue available from natural gas, with the crisis leading to the government finally accepting the prospect of negotiation with Israel. Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, stressed that the existence of oil and gas with a settled border “would be one of the reasons behind us paying our debts”. However, the government of Lebanon should not rely on such reserves as a means on reviving the country, with government reform the greatest necessity to unlocking foreign support.
Indeed, the greatest outcome of the negotiations would be for the nations to interact on speaking terms, cooperating for mutual gain and the advancement of both countries, as well as the surrounding area. Although not imminent, further negotiations between the countries would be in the best interest of all involved, and are made increasingly possible through these initial discussions.
Image: commensaFamily via Creative Commons