Trou­bled wa­ters

The Le­banese-Is­raeli mar­itime bor­der dis­pute

Executive Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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