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Israel-Lebanon Border Negotiations: What Do They Mean?

U.S. policy in the Middle East has suffered some prominent reversals recently. The vaunted peace process proposal for Israel and the Palestinians was dead before its arrival and presentation in Bahrain. It remains quite unclear what exactly Washington seeks to accomplish regarding Iran or how. There are other unanswered questions, such as those regarding the future of Libya and Syria. 

Nevertheless, amid these difficulties Washington scored what could become a major achievement in its Middle Eastern and even European policies: The announcement, after American mediation, of the beginning of negotiations to demarcate Israeli and Lebanese land and maritime boundaries. Though the start of these talks has gone unheralded in U.S. media, these negotiations could lead to multiple gains for Washington and for the participants themselves regarding international cooperation and energy development.

The Potential for Peace and Prosperity

Border talks between Israel and Lebanon are fundamental prerequisites for negotiating a lasting peace treaty based on mutually accepted borders between these two states. A border agreement and peace treaty would themselves be considerable achievements for both Washington and the parties to the accords. Such agreements would also signify Israel’s growing legitimacy in the Middle East and formal recognition by Arab states. Indeed,  Gulf states formally sat down with Israel at the recent Bahrain conference to discuss the economic modalities of the U.S. “peace plan.”  Although the conference was abortive, this marked a major departure from the past. Similarly, the widespread talk of a Saudi-GCC-Israeli alliance against Iran or an Arab NATO reinforces this trend.

To begin these negotiations, Washington had to persuade Lebanon to overcome the opposition of Hezbollah’s formidable state-within-a-state that is a direct client of Iran and its threat to disrupt these negotiations — a threat that could easily involve the use of direct force. Thanks to U.S. sanctions, Tehran’s ability to subsidize Hezbollah has declined considerably, as has Hezbollah’s power inside Lebanon to thwart negotiations or to make war against Israel. Beirut’s agreement to begin negotiations with Israel reflects that decline. Clearly Lebanon has received some sort of U.S. offer of support. But entering these talks reflects Lebanon’s willingness to take the American option and defy Iran and Hezbollah’s opposition to any acknowledgement of Israel. Thus, this decision is a direct byproduct of U.S. pressure on Iran and should be seen as an American victory in its campaign against Iran, especially because Lebanon has signaled that it feels secure in relying upon Washington.

This may explain why Iran’s efforts to expand its military presence in Syria and Lebanon has taken on such an aggressive quality, as it may fear it is losing ground in Lebanon.  Since Israel has made clear that any Iranian military presence in these areas is unacceptable, this has led to an upsurge in strikes and counter strikes between Israel, Iran, and the latter’s proxy, Hezbollah. Iran may be trying to provoke a war to torpedo those negotiations.

If these talks lead to a peace treaty, it would open the way for Israel and Lebanon to increase their exploration and exploitation of the major gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, we could eventually see bilateral and mutual cooperation. We already see examples of cross investment by Israel and Egypt in each other’s gas fields; a similar process could occur after peace with Lebanon, probably with U.S. support. This cooperation would exemplify a larger pattern of Arab-Israeli cooperation that both Washington and Europe clearly want to see.

Demarcation of the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel will also accelerate the opening up of Lebanon’s offshore gas fields for exploration, as their title will now be secure. Presumably, U.S. firms will have a good position there in competition for tenders and contracts. This would give the United States an advantage over Russia, which has been trying to insert itself into these fields by also offering to mediate Lebanese talks with Israel.

Greater Regional Cooperation on Energy

If Israel and Lebanon can reach an agreement, it would open the way for Lebanon to join Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine in the U.S.-supported Eastern Mediterranean Gas Federation (EMGF). The EMGF’s purpose is to bring gas from the enormous reserves discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, especially through Greece and ultimately to Italy and Central Europe. Lebanon’s joining this group would not only strengthen cooperation among Middle Eastern governments, it also would open the way for more cooperation — in the energy sphere and beyond — between European and Middle Eastern states. 

The EMGF could bring Europe and the Middle East closer together around the question of a pipeline from the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece and then north to Central Europe through the Balkans. Turkey’s threatening or coercive policies toward Israel, Cyprus, and Greece — as recently expressed in its seizure of Cypriot fields in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone — has disqualified the idea of a pipeline to Turkey. Meanwhile, Greece is building two gas terminals to take gas from the EMGF members and bring it to Italy and the Balkans, provided a pipeline can be built from the Mediterranean to Greek territory. This pipeline is the immediate, paramount goal of the EMGF. Lebanese adhesion to the group would reduce the political obstacles and risks to building it and probably enhance the likelihood of its being built. Thus, these Middle Eastern negotiations could unleash a virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing and meaningful steps that would further European integration, a clear Western priority.

By increasing cooperation on energy projects, accords between Israel and Lebanon could help counter Russia’s play for leverage in the Levant. Moscow has long sought a foothold in Israeli, Egyptian, Cypriot, and Lebanese gas fields, and in the transshipment of Mediterranean gas to Europe. Therefore, anything facilitating the creation of an American-backed energy organization linking the Middle East and Europe could counter Moscow’s use of energy as a weapon in both regions. This outcome could also reduce Russia’s ability to influence Lebanon and other Middle Eastern energy producers. Moscow is playing a long-running game to gain permanent influence on OPEC and on Middle Eastern energy supplies coming into Europe. It has made some recent gains, as shown in its new accords with OPEC. Consequently, checking it here would offer Middle Eastern producers a sign that there are viable energy alternatives to Russia.

A Quiet Victory

Given the potential importance of this negotiation to the stimulation of all these positive trends, it is difficult to understand why the Trump administration — which is certainly not shy about announcing its achievements — and the media have ignored this story. This neglect is particularly puzzling because this achievement showcases some of the positive benefits of U.S. pressure on Iran. Indeed, the mere fact of the start of these negotiations is a significant diplomatic achievement, especially in light of the predictable failure of the initiative unveiled in Bahrain and the confusion that reigns in Washington’s Iran policy. 

Beyond Iran, this development also shows that, contrary to much anguished speculation, Washington has not left the Middle East. This development also shows what policy gains the United States could make from the administration’s focus on using energy as a way to support economic and geostrategic interests. 

Whatever the reasons for this uncharacteristic failure to proclaim a success, analysts should recognize that the start of these negotiations does portend a potentially large change in many aspects of Middle Eastern and European security that could substantially benefit both local governments and Washington.

Dr. Stephen Blank is an independent consultant and former professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers, and monographs – specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia, and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.