A Lebanese demand for full control of two Israeli gas prospects in the Meditteranean Sea reportedly sparked a heated argument between the countries in maritime border talks, which are set to resume Thursday.
Lebanese representatives at the meeting Wednesday pushed for some 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles) to be part of their exclusive economic zone, according to reports in Israeli and Lebanese media. The area includes two gas fields, one of which is already being exploited via an Israeli lease.
Local media, including the English-language Daily Star, reported that the Lebanese side was adopting a “maximalist stance.” It said Lebanon was pushing for the additional square kilometers to be included in Lebanese territory on top of the already disputed 860 square kilometer (330 square mile) area of the Mediterranean Sea, which both side claims as within their own exclusive economic zones.
The local Al-Jadeed station called the talks serious and “very heated,” adding that there are “fundamental disputes on the starting point.”
According to Israel’s Channel 12 news, the demand for extra territory came from the commander of Lebanese Armed Forces, General Joseph Aoun.
Aoun reportedly argued that the maritime borders between the two nations must match the original borders drawn between imperial Britain and France, which controlled the region during the 1923 British mandate period.
The Lebanese also reportedly rejected the importance of the Israeli claim to a tiny, uninhabited rocky island running along the current border. Measuring just 70 meters long and 40 meters wide (230 by 120 ft.), the Lebanese said it should not affect the redrawing of the maritime border.
Israel and Lebanon are technically at war and have never come to an agreement on a border between the countries on land or sea. However, the recent discovery of a gas bonanza in the eastern Mediterranean has set off a race for countries to begin drilling, sparking a number of high-stakes disputes over the borders of their exclusive economic zones.
Lebanon, which began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocks, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
The fields now being demanded by Lebanon include one prospect known as Karish, Hebrew for shark, which contains 1.4 trillion cubic feet of proved and probable gas. The field is being developed by the Greek firm Energean, which expects to begin pumping gas to the Israeli domestic market next year.
The area also includes a prospect known as Block 72, a few kilometers east of the Karish field, which is thought to also contain large hydrocarbon deposits. In June 2019, the Israeli government gave US-based Noble Energy the go-ahead to carry out exploratory drilling there, though development of the field has reportedly been hampered by worries over its fate in the dispute with Lebanon.
Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press on with its offshore quest for oil and gas.
Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome an unprecedented economic and financial crisis and pay back its massive debt that stands at 170% of GDP, making it one of the highest in the world. The talks also come to the backdrop of US sanctions that recently included two influential former Cabinet ministers allied with the Hezbollah terror group.
Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighboring Egypt and Jordan.
The first round of talks between Israel and Lebanon was held on October 14. The US and UN said in a joint statement that the meeting was “productive.”
The second round of talks which began Wednesday were held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, guarded by army roadblocks and with UN helicopters circling above.
Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz released a statement Tuesday saying that Wednesday’s meeting would be attended by American diplomat and mediator John Desrocher. He said the Israeli delegation would examine the possibility of reaching an agreement on the determination of the maritime border between the countries in a way that will enable the development of natural resources in the region.
On Wednesday, his office said the Israeli team updated Steinitz, who instructed them to continue talks Thursday.
Lebanon insists the talks are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties. The Lebanese delegation speaks through UN and US officials to the Israelis.
The search for hydrocarbons has already heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean following repeated Turkish exploration and drilling operations in waters claimed by both Cyprus and Greece.
The Shiite Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, a major force in Lebanese politics, has criticized the maritime talks.
On Wednesday, Lebanese journalists covering the talks were forced out of the town by three men who also attacked a Lebanon state TV crew and destroyed their equipment.
One of the journalists in the area said the men introduced themselves as Hezbollah supporters but this could not be independently verified.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006, and both sides still exchange sporadic cross-border fire.
Agencies contributed to this report.