by Joe Macaron
On May 13, while The New York Times reported that the White House was reviewing military plans to attack Iran, a plane carrying the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield quietly landed in Beirut on an unannounced trip. Heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran did not prevent the US official from rushing to seize a breakthrough as the Iran-backed Hezbollah finally endorsed the Lebanese government’s stance to enter direct negotiations to settle the border dispute with Israel. These negotiations are expected to begin in the coming weeks as the United States and Iran may explore direct talks for the first time since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
Since 2012, the United States has been mediating a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel over a triangular area of 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) off the Mediterranean coast where gas was discovered in 2009. Last year, a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s ENI, and Russia’s Novatek was awarded a contract to start drilling in two blocks off the Lebanese coast, including the disputed block 9. This led to tensions between the two countries. There was no breakthrough in those talks until last month.
While preparing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Beirut on March 22-23, Satterfield held a tense meeting on March 5 with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who plays a key role in Lebanon regarding the border dispute with Israel. The Trump Administration wanted Berri to join President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri in agreeing on talks with Israel so “Lebanese leaders reach a consensus position on a path forward on boundary negotiations.” On April 6, a news report floated the idea that Washington might sanction Berri’s inner circle in a clear message to the Amal Movement’s leader, who is a close ally of Hezbollah.
The breakthrough came when Berri, with the obvious consent of Hezbollah, shifted position on April 23. He told Major Stefano Del Col, head of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in South Lebanon: “We are ready to draw Lebanon’s maritime borders and those of the Exclusive Economic Zone using the same procedure that was used to draw the Blue Line under the supervision of the United Nations.” The Blue Line is the land border that was drawn after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Incidentally, the next day, al-Akhbar leaked diplomatic cables sent from the Lebanese embassy in Washington to the Lebanese foreign ministry, which detailed a March 15 meeting Satterfield had in Washington with visiting Lebanese officials. The Trump Administration official reportedly warned that Lebanon can take or leave the US offer to “find another party capable of mediating.”
The Lebanese Initiative and the Sticking Points
On May 9, President Michel Aoun formally presented an initiative to US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard. It had two main components: 1) forming a military committee to hold meetings at the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura, South Lebanon, under UN sponsorship with the United States as the de facto mediator; and 2) negotiating the land and maritime borders simultaneously. In a sign of preliminary acceptance of this initiative, on May 27 Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, said these talks are “for the good of both countries’ interests in developing natural gas reserves and oil.” Israel, however, responded via Satterfield with a counter offer of expanding the military committee to diplomats as it seems interested in luring the Lebanese side into substantial negotiations that normalize bilateral talks.
Beirut conceded on the necessity of negotiating with Israel instead of letting the United Nations unilaterally demarcate the maritime border based on international maps that prove Lebanon’s ownership. The American and Israeli view was that maritime demarcation does not fall within the UN mandate. While largely skeptical of the UN role, Israel conceded on its logistical role in the negotiations. Another contentious issue was that whether to discuss the maritime and land borders in parallel, as Lebanon offered in the initiative, or restrict the talks to the maritime border as Israel is suggesting. The United States maintained that in international law there is no correlation between land and maritime demarcation. While Israel has hinted it will only discuss the maritime border, it is not clear yet how Lebanon will respond.
Both Lebanon and Israel want to set these parameters—most notably the time frame and the framework—before beginning negotiations in Naqoura. Israel is seeking to set a six-month deadline for these talks; however, the Lebanese side insists on open-ended negotiations until an agreement is reached, arguing that Israel might procrastinate if a time frame were set. The framework revolves around deciding the role of both the United Nations and the United States during these negotiations. Lebanese officials want the UN cover as any agreement would be immediately formalized and recorded by the international organization; they also expect Washington to pressure the Israeli side when needed. Satterfield sees the US role as “a facilitator” without being overly involved in these talks. The Trump Administration seems not to be willing to repeat previous failed US mediation efforts, when in 2012, Ambassador Frederic Hof drew a maritime line giving Lebanon 60 percent of the disputed area, which became known as the “Hof line” and left the United States at the center of these difficult talks.
The Border Dispute: Motivations and Calculations
Despite the diplomatic and military escalation last month between Washington and Tehran, it was telling how this breakthrough unfolded in the Lebanon-Israel border dispute, which offers a unique model for defusing tensions between the United States and Iran, and between Israel and Iran. The Iranian flexibility in Lebanon reflects the fact that Hezbollah is no longer imposing a veto on negotiations with Israel to settle border issues. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah noted in a speech on May 31 that “we stand behind the state and we trust the officials tackling this issue [border dispute] and we do not interfere.”
It is worth noting that Israeli officials and media have been largely silent on the breakthrough in this border dispute while Lebanese officials and media leaks were dominating the air waves and driving the coverage of Satterfield’s shuttle diplomacy. While both the Lebanese and Israeli governments are in a rush to begin benefiting from gas exploration, there are three main motivations behind the Lebanese initiative. First, a concern that Netanyahu, enabled by Trump, might unilaterally define Israel’s maritime border with Lebanon. Second, there is US pressure on the Lebanese government to embark on talks with Israel, which was evident in Pompeo’s trip to Beirut in March. Third, the Lebanese government is facing an acute economic crisis and is in dire need of gas revenues. Lebanon aims to begin drilling gas in the disputed block 9 (on the maritime border with Israel) in January 2020 and opened the door last April for bidders on the five remaining blocks, including two adjacent to the Israeli coast, which was an added motivation for Beirut to resolve this border dispute. It is also in Israel’s interest to have a safe environment for foreign companies drilling for gas in the Mediterranean. The resignation of the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman from Israel’s defense ministry last November helped mitigate the tensions as the negotiation portfolio fully moved to Minister of Energy Steinitz instead.
US pressure in the period leading to Pompeo’s visit to Beirut last March led to some changes in the Lebanese government’s views regarding negotiations with Israel and how to handle Hezbollah’s weapons. On April 26, Lebanese Minister of National Defense Elias Bou Saab noted7 that President Aoun would soon call for a national dialogue to discuss “a national defense strategy to restrict weapons only in the hands of the Lebanese army.” On May 16, President Aoun asked the United States “to help increase stability along the border with Israel by drawing permanent borders.” However, these moves are meant to absorb US pressure rather than to spur a significant shift in Lebanon’s policy. The Trump Administration sees these Israeli-Lebanese talks as crucial for weakening Hezbollah’s argument about retaining its weapons while coming under increasing US financial pressure. Berri has pushed back on this issue and said through sources on May 29 that Lebanon “looks forward to the completion of the negotiation process with Israel, provided that the issue of Hezbollah’s arms would not be linked to the demarcation file.” In his May 31 speech, Nasrallah asserted that border disputes should not be linked to giving up Hezbollah’s precision guided missiles.
There are obstacles that might impede the US mediation and the negotiation process down the road. Netanyahu’s preparation for the next parliamentary elections, expected in September, might make him less likely to approve a border agreement that might be used against him as a weak point in his election campaign. Political tensions have also recently grown in Lebanon and if they reach a level of paralyzing the government, this might impact the current unified stance between Aoun, Berri, and Hariri. Moreover, Satterfield might soon have to take on a new position as US ambassador to Turkey, now that the nomination of his successor as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Schenker, was confirmed by the Senate. This might delay the negotiation process as Schenker will have to familiarize himself with the major interlocutors if he is selected to continue Satterfield’s mediation.
It is hard to see how both sides could reach a border agreement soon. The United States has pressured Lebanon to accept negotiations but forcing a border agreement might be counterproductive (as was the case when Beirut rejected the “Hof line”). These talks will also be overshadowed by what might happen between Washington and Tehran in the near future. Furthermore, the United States seems reluctant to be directly involved in initiating ideas to resolve this dispute, which might constrain its mediation as both sides will not unilaterally concede.
The challenge for Washington is to maintain a balanced approach in this mediation. For instance, last December Pompeo rejected an Israeli request to sanction Lebanon over the discovery of Hezbollah’s weapons, which helped build some confidence between the Trump Administration and Lebanese leaders. The expected output of Lebanese gas will barely cover domestic needs; settling this border dispute would allow the Lebanese government to begin gas exploration against the background of deeply rooted governance and fiscal crises. Using the gas exploration by either the United States or Iran to impose new regional alliances on Lebanon would weaken the already fragile Lebanese political system. The United States should continue to intensify its mediation efforts by keeping both sides on the path of resolving their border dispute through negotiations.
Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here. Reprinted, with permission, from Arab Center Washington DC.