The Lebanese-Israeli maritime border dispute
A comment made by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a Tel Aviv conference on January 31 sparked outrage in Lebanon, bringing the issue of the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel back into the spotlight and catching Washington’s attention once again.
The Obama administration started mediating between Lebanon and Israel to help contain the dispute in 2012, but little happened on this front after President Trump took office in 2017. It seemed to all parties that mediation was no longer a priority for the US. Then, in October, during Lebanon’s first oil and gas licensing round, a consortium of companies led by France’s Total bid on Block 9, which includes a disputed maritime area. The bid rekindled interest in the dispute, but the buzz was discreet, confined to experts and diplomatic circles, until it was thrust out in the open again when Liberman described Lebanon’s offshore tender as “very provocative” and urged international companies not to bid on it, about a month and a half after licenses were awarded (see timeline page 46).
The dispute goes back to December 2010, when Cyprus and Israel signed a maritime border agreement that was denounced by Lebanon because it encroached on parts of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On July 10, 2011, the Israeli cabinet approved a map of Israel’s northern maritime border, and two days later, the Israeli mission to the UN included a list of coordinates delimiting the northern end of Israel’s territorial sea and EEZ. Some of these coordinates overlapped with the Lebanese EEZ.
But to understand how we got here, we must go back to 2007. On January 17 of that year, Lebanon signed a maritime border agreement with Cyprus. It followed the standard procedure outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, marking a series of points that are equidistant from Cyprus and Lebanon known as the median line. Point 1 was used to mark the southernmost point along this line, while Point 6 marked its northernmost point. The agreement included a standard clause specifying that the coordinates of the first and last markers—in this case Points 1 and 6—may be adjusted in light of future delimitation of the EEZ with other neighboring states, since a bilateral agreement cannot define the
The dispute goes back to December 2010, when Cyprus and Israel signed a maritime border agreement that was denounced by Lebanon
borders of third states.
The agreement was never ratified by the Lebanese Parliament, largely because of pressure from Turkey, which denounces all maritime border
agreements signed by the Republic of Cyprus with its neighboring countries. As such, the agreement never entered into force.
It wasn’t until April 2009 that a Lebanese commission tasked with defining the coordinates of Lebanon’s EEZ completed its work, identifying Point 23—17 km south of Point 1—as the southernmost point of Lebanon’s EEZ. The coordinates were approved by the cabinet on May 13, 2009 and by Parliament on August 4, 2011. In accordance with UNCLOS, Lebanon submitted the relevant charts and lists of coordinates to the UN in July and October 2010 and in November 2011. Just like Israel’s 2011 submissions, these were unilateral determinations and do not amount to border delimitation.
The question is: Why did Lebanon sign a border agreement with Cyprus in 2007, more than two years before it had a precise definition of the borders of its EEZ?
While the Lebanon–Cyprus agreement was never ratified and did not reflect Lebanon’s final position on the southern boundary of its EEZ, it did provide Israel with an opening. In December 2010, Israel signed a similar offshore border agreement with Cyprus. This deal ignored the coordinates that had been declared by Lebanon and sent to the UN a few months prior, instead using Point 1—the southernmost marker referenced in the 2007 Lebanese–Cypriot agreement—as the northernmost marker in the Israeli–Cypriot agreement. It allowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say in July 2010 that “the outline that Lebanon submitted to the UN … conflicts with the line that we have agreed upon with Cyprus and—what is more significant in my eyes—it conflicts with the line that Lebanon itself agreed upon with Cyprus in 2007.”
While Israel objected to the southernmost coordinates submitted by Lebanon, less known is the fact that Syria also objected to the delineation provided by Lebanon. In a letter transmitted to the UN SecretaryGeneral on July 15, 2014, Syria stated that the delineation does not have “any binding legal effect on other states. It remains only a notification, and one to which the Syrian Arab Republic objects.” This could open Lebanon to similar dispute with Syria in the future.
While the Lebanon– Cyprus agreement was never ratified, it did provide Israel an opening
Satterfield’s shuttle diplomacy has so far not found solution to dispute.