Gas reserves on the eastern Mediterranean have sparked a major dispute between Lebanon and Israel. Talk of war is an exaggeration not only because the two countries stand to gain so much, but because global players would be party to the dispute.
Israeli-Lebanese tensions have flared recently over the maritime gas exploration areas in the Mediterranean Sea - one component of the broader clash between the two countries.
Since Israel began voicing its concerns regarding Iranian arms supplies to Hezbollah and the rising power of Hezbollah in Syria, the possibility of an Israeli attack on Lebanon has become a matter of public debate.
The exchange of threats between Hezbollah and Israeli figures, as well as Israeli strikes on convoys in Syria allegedly carrying Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, added further fuel to the discussions amongst experts and politicians regarding an approaching Lebanese-Israeli war.
The recent resurgence of the dispute happened because of Lebanon’s approval of gas production in the offshore maritime gas exploration blocks that are subject to a dispute between both states.
Even though it was seen by many as an additional reason for a direct confrontation between two parties, the possibility of a war is exagerrated because of the involvement of global transnational energy corporations and the prospective revenues of natural gas.
The dispute between Israel and Lebanon over their shared maritime border has been going on for years, with both countries claiming a specific area as part of their territory.
Lebanon’s decision to approve licenses for two offshore gas blocks that are part of a dispute with Israel has caused new swells in the stormy political waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Accordingly, in December 2017, Lebanon approved a bid from a consortium comprising of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek to establish the country’s first round of oil and gas offshore production. It was met with uproar on the Israeli side due to their claim over what they refer to as Block 9.
Out of a total area of 1,700 square kilometres, Lebanon and Israel are disputing over 145 to 148 squared kilometres - where both parties claim they have the right to extract oil and gas.
Upon Lebanon’s approval of the bid by the consortium of international companies, the border dispute came back to the fore after Israel urged international companies not to exploit potential Lebanese oil and gas reserves.
The hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman stated that international oil companies are involved in a "grave mistake" taking part in bids for explorations in territory that belongs to Israel, which "is contrary to all the rules".
Responding to Liberman, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Israel has an invalid claim and that Israel is “undermining the rights of others and threatening regional security."
Hezbollah urged Lebanese authorities to stand firm against Israel in the maritime borders dispute, stating that it could act against Israel.
The US stepped up to assume a position as mediator to prevent the emergence of another deep crisis between the two countries and US plan seem to be working for now.
The dispute does not seem likely to evolve into a larger confrontation for a number of reasons.
One of these reasons is that both countries have greater interests in gas production. Recently, Israel has shifted from being an energy importer to a natural gas exporter. It recently signed an agreement with Egypt to supply gas from the Israeli Leviathan and Tamar fields.
A second reason is that Lebanese authorities also seem willing to keep a low profile in the gas dispute and are instead relying on US mediation efforts. This demonstrates that Lebanon wants to be a part of the Mediterranean gas hub that it should have become a part of long ago.
According to Lebanese officials, there are around 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves in its waters, which are equivalent to Russia’s annual natural gas production.
The US is also putting pressure on Lebanon to commercialise its natural gas rather than getting involved in another open-ended dispute with Israel.
A third reason why the dispute should be seen out of the contentious framework of Israeli-Lebanese affairs is the involvement of a relatively big number of transnational companies in the designated gas production from Lebanese offshore areas.
One of the companies assuming a key role in the production is Russia’s Novatek. Obviously, its involvement also means Russian interference in the affair as the inclusion of Novatek in the Levant development consortium is seen as a clear message to regional actors, and to Israel in particular regarding Russian geo-economic interests.
Right after its involvement in the exploitation of natural gas, a military cooperation agreement was signed between Russia and Lebanon, pioneered by the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev.
A variety of factors point out to the obvious disadvantage of a military escalation between Lebanon and Israel, two countries who have recently transformed themselves into gas exporters.
The involvement of transnational actors is a diminishing factor regarding a potential escalation between the two. The scenario of an ever approaching “Israeli-Lebanese war” might not be an explanatory framework considering the rich maritime borders and gas production possibilities for both.
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