Israeli and Lebanese negotiators have met three times since October in a bid to demarcate their maritime border in the Mediterranean Sea, which is rich in gas deposits, among other natural resources.
The negotiations, which have unfolded in the southern Lebanese town of Ras Naqoura under U.S. and United Nations auspices, have been blandly described as “productive” by the mediators.
In fact, the talks are stalemated and could lead to a dead end, as Israel has correctly warned.
The reason for the impasse is clear. As Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has said, the Lebanese side has changed its position no less than seven times.
This is no way to negotiate.
Israel and Lebanon are embroiled in a dispute over a contested area of 860-square kilometers, according to a United Nations map. The two countries launched negotiations on the basis of that map. But now Lebanon is demanding an additional 1,430 square kilometres further south, which runs into a gas field claimed by Israel.
With this demand, Lebanon is unilaterally changing the rules of the game in mid-course, which is not only unreasonable but out of the question.
One can only speculate why the Lebanese government is playing fast and loose with the standard norms of negotiation. What comes to mind immediately is that it is under pressure from Hezbollah — Israel’s arch enemy and a political and military force to be reckoned with in Lebanon — to play hardball in the hope of forcing the Israeli government to accede to Lebanon’s maximalist demand.
If this is indeed the case, Lebanon’s reckless strategy is doomed to fail.
Israel already has discovered vast deposits of gas off its coast, but financially-strapped Lebanon has yet to exploit its gas fields. Lebanon cannot even begin to resolve its severe economic problems unless it exploits its resources. Yet Lebanon will not be able to do so unless it reaches an agreement with Israel. It was this compelling rationale that impelled Lebanon to negotiate with the Israeli government in the first place.
Tellingly enough, Lebanese negotiators have refused to negotiate directly with their Israeli counterparts, as if Israel does not exist. Lebanon has been in a technical state of war with Israel since its creation in 1948, but that’s not a valid reason for insisting on indirect talks through American and United Nations mediators.
Lest Lebanon forgets, the precedent for direct Israeli-Lebanese talks was established during the 1949 armistice negotiations and in 1983, when both sides signed what turned out to be a misbegotten non-belligerency pact.
During the 1990s, Israel negotiated directly with Syria, even if these talks yielded nothing. And in the late 1970s, Israeli and Egyptian negotiators hammered out the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. More recently, Israel signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan after fairly lengthy direct negotiations.
With these precedents presumably in mind, Steinitz recently urged Lebanese President Michel Aoun to agree to direct high-level negotiations over the maritime border.
“I am of the belief that if we were able to meet face to face … to conduct open or secret negotiations, we would have a good opportunity to resolve our differences over the maritime borders once and for all,” said Steinitz. “In doing so, we will contribute to strengthening the economic future and well-being of the two peoples.”
Aoun, who is close to Hezbollah, did not even have the decency to reply. Instead, he robotically set out Lebanon’s latest position on the issue.
If Lebanon is sincere about resolving this maritime border dispute, it will finalize its demands and agree to direct negotiations with Israel. Failing that, these talks will go nowhere, leaving Lebanon all the poorer.