Beirut, Lebanon – As the United States and Iran face off against each other across the Gulf, the often-turbulent waters of the eastern Mediterranean were less choppy this week.
Lebanon, home to the Iran-backed armed group and political movement Hezbollah, agreed last week to a process to resolve a maritime dispute with Israel on the condition that negotiations are held under the watch of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Israel, historically critical of UNIFIL’s role in Lebanon, reluctantly accepted the condition as long as the US, its main international ally, was also involved. The details of the precise role to be played by UNIFIL and the US are still being worked out, Lebanese officials said.
The US has been mediating between Israel and Lebanon over the issue since 2011 and the latest breakthrough is being attributed to the shuttle diplomacy of David Satterfield, US undersecretary for the near east.
Once the framework for the talks is set, Lebanon and Israel will sit down to present their respective claims over 860-square kilometres of disputed waters rich in hydrocarbons, off the shore of south Lebanon. At least two gas fields have been discovered on the patch in recent years.
Lebanon has long held concerns that Israel may obstruct it from exploring the disputed blocks. Beirut has already awarded its first contracts for exploration to a consortium of French, Italian and Russian companies that are expected to start work later this year.
It has also accused Israel of accepting bids from companies to explore resources in the disputed waters and warned it against doing so, however.
Yassine Jaber, a Lebanese parliamentarian with the Amal Movement – a political party and Hezbollah’s Shia ally – said Lebanon wanted the presence of the UN as “an honest arbiter” to help resolve the dispute. UNIFIL has monitored the blue line, effectively the border between Israel and Lebanon, since their last war in 2006.
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“Israelis did not want the UN to be a part of it [the maritime negotiation] for a long time,” he said. “But now Americans told us that they do and that is a positive change.”
Eran Lerman, a former Israeli national security adviser, told Al Jazeera that Israel conceded “for the sake of greater economic prosperity in both Lebanon and Israel”.
Hydrocarbon exploration and any eventual extraction of resources could aid Lebanon’s ailing economy and provide an immediate boost to businesses in the country’s south, a stronghold of support for Hezbollah and Amal.
Beirut and Tel Aviv announced their decision just days after Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, reiterated one of his regular threats to Israel. In a speech last Saturday, he said if Israel prevented Lebanon from exploring energy resources, Hezbollah would confront it.
Hezbollah is now a key part – critics say the key part – of the Lebanese government. However, Lebanese MPs suggested to Al Jazeera that Nasrallah’s choice not to explicitly condemn the new agreement in his speech suggested Hezbollah was actually on board with the rest of the Lebanese government regarding the decision.
“Did Nasrallah impose any conditions on how to resolve the maritime dispute when he spoke? No,” said Jaber. “In his speech when Nasrallah said I support Lebanon’s government and that I trust them, he offered a complete endorsement.”
Alain Aoun, a legislator from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party, said: “Hezbollah is standing by the government on its decision on resolving maritime dispute, there is no question”.
Lebanon’s government has had to perform a balancing act. In a statement issued by Lebanon’s foreign ministry, the resolution to the maritime dispute was wrapped together with a controversial disagreement over the two countries’ land border.
Sami Nader, a Beirut-based Middle East analyst, said in the past Hezbollah and Amal had linked the resolution of one to the other. However, Lebanese and Israeli officials indicated while in principle both agreed to discuss the land dispute, that was merely a way of giving the Lebanese government political cover to go ahead with the process without being held back by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s declared raison d’etre as an armed group is to free land remaining under Israeli occupation. It cannot be seen, therefore, to be consenting to any talks which exclude that issue, something that might imply the land dispute is resolved.
The major land dispute between Lebanon and Israel is over the small border area popularly known as the Shebaa Farms, at the intersection of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. While Lebanon claims the area, so too does Syria, its neighbour and friend. Israel actually occupies it, and now claims sovereignty over the territory as part of the Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israel insists Lebanon has no claim over it and therefore there is no outstanding issue between the two.
Whatever their tacit understanding, so far Syria has not provided Lebanon with an official document recognising Lebanese sovereignty over the Shebaa, as requested by the UN.
Makram Rabah, a professor at the American University of Beirut, said for any discussion on the fate of Shebaa Farms, Lebanon first needed to knock on Syria’s door.
“The Lebanese government is just saying they will talk about the land dispute, but that is impossible without the Syrians,” he said. “The foreign ministry has added it in the statement as a face-saving measure for Amal and Hizbollah.”
Rabah added: “They have de-linked maritime from land, whatever they officially say, because the Shias of the south will be the first beneficiaries of oil exploration.”
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The US has its own motives for engagement in the issue, Nader told Al Jazeera, noting that the European market for gas is significant and geopolitically vital. Russia, a major supplier exploring hydrocarbons in Syria and now Lebanon, intends to keep the lion’s share of the European market, he added.
“US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is looking at curtailing Russian ambitions. He is keen on an EastMed pipeline project, envisaged to bring gas from Israeli and Cypriot-controlled gas fields to Greece and Italy, to clip Moscow’s wings,” Nader said.
In 2011, Frederic Hof, an Obama administration special Middle East envoy, proposed what came to be known as the “Hof Line” as a settlement to the long-running dispute, giving 550-square kilometres – just over 60 percent – of the disputed area to Lebanon and the rest to Israel.
Amal, and by implication Hezbollah, rejected the offer. Lebanon still claims all 860-square kilometres.
However, Pompeo raised the issue again on a visit to Lebanon in March. Nader, the political analyst, said: “He has shown that America is interested in hydrocarbon exploration and forming an alliance between Tel Aviv, Cyprus, and Greece.”
An agreement over the zone and even drilling does not end the threat Hezbollah can bring to bear, however. “If there is activity in the waters, if there are oil rigs, Hezbollah can still use its weapons,” Professor Rabah said. “In the end, it maintains its threat.”