Lebanon issued an offshore oil and gas exploration tender on the country’s maritime border on Wednesday, prompting a war of words with Israel, which has laid claim to one of the fields in question.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called the move “very provocative” and suggested that Lebanon had put out a tender to international groups for a gas field “that is by all accounts ours.”
His comments drew sharp condemnation from Hezbollah and Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who described the statement as a “blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects.”
He said Lieberman’s claim was “invalid in form and substance” and that the Lebanese government would follow the tender up “with the competent international parties to assert its legitimate right to act in its territorial waters.”
Lebanon last year approved the licenses for an international consortium led by France’s Total, Italy’s ENI and Russia’s Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of five blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, including one known as Block 9 that is disputed in part with Israel.
Lebanese officials say the country will start exploratory offshore drilling in 2019 and say Lebanon wants to assert its resource rights along the length of its maritime territories.
A major find in Lebanon’s southernmost waters could raise the possibility of a dispute with Israel, which is developing a number of offshore gas deposits, with one large field, Tamar, already producing gas, and the larger Leviathan field set to go online next year.
There are over 300 square miles of waters claimed by both countries, which are technically in a state of conflict. Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group fought a month-long war in 2006.
Hezbollah, in a statement, said Lieberman’s remarks offered new proof of Israel’s ambitions to steal Lebanon’s resources and said it would confront any aggression against the country’s rights.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, also rejected Lieberman’s statements.
“Comments by Lieberman about Block 9 are a threat to Lebanon and its right to sovereignty over its territorial waters,” he said in a statement released by his office.
‘One giant missile site’
Wednesday’s exchange came amid an already escalating war of words between Lebanon and Israel, which has repeatedly warned of Iran’s increasing efforts to turn the country into “one giant missile site.” Hinting at the possibility of war, Israel’s chief military spokesman this week said it was “prepared for all the scenarios.”
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah wields enormous political and military influence in Lebanon. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said the Shiite militant group does not seek to provoke a war with Israel but would respond with crushing force should Israel attack Lebanon.
Speaking at an annual conference held by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies on Wednesday, Liberman said that the state Lebanon will be held to account in a future war because, led by Hezbollah, it had “sacrificed its national interests by subjugating fully to Iran.”
Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles and a fighting force of some 50,000 soldiers, including reservists.
Over the past year, Israel has often warned of a growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, with Liberman telling United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in August that Iran is “working to set up factories to manufacture accurate weapons within Lebanon itself.”
In a rare Arabic op-ed published Sunday in Lebanese news outlets, the IDF spokesman accused Iran of turning Lebanon into “one big missile factory.” In the piece, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Iran’s extensive support for Hezbollah had turned the country into a “branch” of the Islamic Republic.
“It is no longer just the transfer of weapons, money and advice. Iran has de facto opened a new branch — ‘the Lebanon Branch.’ Iran is here,” Manelis wrote.
In his Wednesday speech, the defense minister said that this time, as opposed to 2006, a war with Lebanon would also likely involve Syria.