Written by Piero Dal Poz
On October 13th an historical deal was signed between Israel and Lebanon in regard to the disputed maritime borders (Kershner, 2022). What does this deal mean for the region, and what could be the consequences for the European Union?
Premises to the deal
Israel and Lebanon have been at war since the independence of Israel on May 14th 1948 (Marsi, 2022; Serra, 2022). Today Lebanon remains one of the few countries that maintains the state of war and refuses to have diplomatic relations with its neighbour. Israel meanwhile has militarily invaded Lebanon three times, first in 1978 and last in 2006 (UNIFIL, 2022). In fact, a UN Peacekeeping force has been permanently stationed at the southern border of Lebanon since 1978 to prevent escalations (UNIFIL, 2022; Serra, 2022; Al Jazeera, 2022; Marsi, 2022).
In 2009, offshore gas fields were discovered in the Levantine Basin. While Israel has already begun to exploit some off-coast sites in its own territorial waters, two other major hydrocarbons gas fields have been inaccessible since the early 2010s due to a dispute over the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel (Krauss, 2022; Marsi, 2022; Serra, 2022; Kershner, 2022). The boundaries of the territorial waters (EEZ) of Israel and Lebanon were temporarily drawn by the UN in 2000, the so-called Blue Line. It was intended as a temporary measure, but, for the reasons listed above, the two countries never concluded an agreement to settle the issue. At the beginning of 2020, 860 square kilometres were disputed (Serra, 2022).
Lebanon always claimed sovereignty up to maritime Line 23 and partial ownership of the Qaana gas field. However, in October 2020, Beirut changed its position. The new proposed border, Line 29, entailed full Lebanese sovereignty on Qaana and claimed shared ownership of the Karish gas field, discovered in 2013 (Marsi, 2022; Serra, 2022). Tel Aviv, however, claimed its EEZ to extend up to Line 1, including the entire Karish field and a significant part of Qana, according to a treaty signed with Cyprus in 2010 (Marsi, 2022; Serra, 2022).
The deal and the outcomes
The deal, brokered by Amos Hochstein, envoy of President Joe Biden, defines the new border as being on Line 23. The agreement reached is that Israel will apply full sovereignty and exploitation rights on the site of Karish, worth 68 billion cubic metres of natural gas according to the latest evaluations, while Lebanon will retain full rights over the Qana gas field (Al Jazeera, 2022; Kershner, 2022; Ebrahim, 2022; Serra, 2022). Since the latter lies below Line 23, Israel will be awarded a percentage of the royalties obtained from the extractions of natural gas, as high as 17% (Schaer, 2022).
The agreement primarily benefits the stability of a very delicate and fragile regional peace. The dispute had several times threatened to erupt into another armed conflict, with aggressions coming both from the Lebanese and Israeli sides (Ebrahim, 2022; Ahronheim, Harkov, 2022; Marsi, 2022).
Furthermore, the Lebanese government placed great hopes in the inflow that the Qana field could generate. Careful estimates say that it could mean a net earning of $100 million to $200 million per year in royalties, a $3 billion total value (Schaer, 2022). However, this scenario appears to be quite unrealistic for the foreseeable future. In order to even start generating money, Qana requires further explorations and infrastructure; sector experts estimate that this process will not be completed before the end of the decade.
Israel meanwhile seems ready to boost its hydrocarbon production, ready to take advantage of a major shift in the energetic policies of the Western countries (Schaer, 2022). Hence why this diplomatic development in the Middle East could influence the foreign policy of the European Union.
Israel as the new partner for Europe?
While it could take a decade or more for Lebanon to become a gas producer, Israel has already achieved this status, and it could build a new role thanks to this condition.
In fact, on October 26th, a day before the treaty was signed, gas extraction was to begin in the Karish gas field, now totally under Israeli sovereignty and secure from possible attacks (Berman, Siegal, 2022). Unlike Beirut, Tel Aviv owns the resources and the technology to rapidly exploit the 68 billion cubic metres that the site is estimated to be worth. Energean, the company responsible for the operations, declared that the gas sales would have begun a few days later and that, within six months, the plant would reach its maximum capacity (Berman, Siegal, 2022).
However, gas production did not begin on October 26th. Karish is in fact the third of the offshore gas fields to be exploited. The first was Tamar, in 2013 (Reuters, 2013), then Leviathan, in 2019, which, with a reserve of 450 billion cubic metres, is the largest natural gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean (Bloomberg, 2019). Even if Israeli gas production rose constantly from 95,536 TJ in 2012 to 353,214 TJ, virtually all of it was used for domestic consumption; gas imports even rose from 2014 to 2020 (International Energy Agency, 2022). Nonetheless, as Clifford Krauss highlighted in The New York Times, the crucial year was 2022. In the first half of 2022, Israel increased its production by 22% compared to the same period in 2021, and exported 40% of its nationally produced gas (Krauss, 2022). That is because external factors, which will be analysed, favoured the new energetic policies of Tel Aviv.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU Member States found themselves in a condition of vulnerability. As they finally acknowledged the danger of being extremely dependent on the Russian Federation’s supplies of natural gas, the European Commission worked during the last year in order to reduce this liability and reset the energetic paradigm of the EU (Abnett, Buli, 2022). In the 9th week of 2022, around the beginning of the war, the whole European Union, along with the UK, imported more than 2,621 million cubic metres of gas from Russia; in the 44th week, the net import was 402 million cubic metres, whereas in 2021 it had been as high as 2,517 (McWilliams, Sgravatti, Zachmann, 2022). The effort was supported through a plan of rationing, put forward by Brussels (Cooban, 2022), and the diversification of suppliers. As Russia threatened to use the gas supplies as leverage against Europe many times, the Commission diversified its supplies: it reached out to old partners, such as Norway, Algeria, and Azerbaijan, to sign new contracts (Abnett, Buli, 2022), but it also started to build new relationships with other producers in order to cope with the disengagement from Russia.
It is the opinion of many that the now-available Karish gas field will be crucial to supply the European states searching for new sources (Ebrahim, 2022). As previously mentioned, the field is estimated to contain 68 billion cubic metres of gas, and, by 2025, it could produce up to 8 billion cubic metres, adding to the 22 billion that the whole Israeli gas industry would already be producing this year (Krauss, 2022). This convergence started even before the signing of the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal.
On June 15th, the EU, Egypt, and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding to boost the imports of natural gas from Israel. “The framework deal signed with the European Union will be the first to allow significant exports of Israeli gas to Europe”, Israel’s energy minister Karine Elharrar, said (El Safty, Rabinovich, 2022). The deal gives European companies a privileged position to participate in Israeli and Egyptian tenders. Significant amounts of gas extracted from the Leviathan field will be sent to the liquefaction plants in Egypt, to be then exported to Europe as Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), although some years are expected to pass before the effects can be seen (El Safty, Rabinovich, 2022). An Israel-Turkey-EU pipeline was also on the table, although it was not approved in the end (Coskun, Rabinovich, 2022).
Finally, on October 3rd 2022 the EU-Israel Association Council held a summit in Brussels. The Council was founded to foster the relationships between Brussels and Tel Aviv, but the previous meeting had taken place ten years ago (Press Office of the Council of the EU, 2022). The revitalization of this institution, presided over by Josep Borrell, the EU’s most senior diplomat, comes at a time when the EU is facing difficulties and Israel is beginning to see the outcomes of its investments.
The risks of moving forward
While Borrell was meeting Eleazar Stern, Minister of Intelligence and representative for Israel, and speaking to Prime Minister Yair Lapid in order to reinforce the ties between the two, many were the critical voices that raised the issue of human rights (Geddie, 2022; Human Rights Watch, 2022).
International and national organisations have been pointing out Israel’s human rights record for decades. Israel has been accused, as proved by tens of reports, enquiries and journalistic pieces, of illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank (Press Office of the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2022; Geddie, 2022), of the seizure of land from the Palestinian population (B’Tselem, 2018; Amnesty International, 2022), and of the unlawful detention of people under inhumane conditions (Press Office of the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2022). Furthermore, the Gaza Strip has been under a 15-year-long blockade which forces 80% of its population to live on humanitarian aid (Human Rights Watch, 2022). The latest violation of civil liberties regards the killing of Al Jazeera’s reporter Shireen Abu Akhleh, which several in-depth investigations concluded to be caused by the Israeli military (B’Tselem, 2022). On February 1st 2022, Amnesty International published a 280-page-long report titled “Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians. Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity”. The report analyses point-by-point the conditions of the lives of Palestinians and concludes that the occupation of the Palestinian territories can be compared to Apartheid (Amnesty International, 2022).
For years, international partners have overlooked these criticalities while prioritising political ties. Alon Liel, former Director-General of the Foreign Ministry of Israel, declared in an interview that “as long as the Europeans don’t take concrete measures on the diplomatic, security, and economic levels, Israel doesn’t give a damn. It feels very confident that this anti-human rights behaviour will have no cost politically in the international arena” (Lynfield, 2022).
Given the above, the new energetic policies of the EU could prove to be problematic. If Israel became a new crucial supplier of natural gas, it could acquire new leverage to force European states to choose between the defence of human rights and their energetic security. Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s EU Office, commented on this deepening of the ties: “By paying lip service to human rights while prioritising political relations and energy supplies, the EU risks further entrenching impunity for crimes under international law and Israel’s cruel system of oppression and domination against Palestinians, weakening its credibility to hold other rights-abusing governments across the globe to account” (Geddie, 2022).
The debate is still ongoing. The matter has also raised concerns among European politicians. An open letter, signed by 43 MEPs, was sent to Josep Borrell to express contrariety, on the basis of the issues listed above (Rodriguez, 2022). Nevertheless, a strong political direction seems to have been taken, albeit one that many may not like.