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US Sides With Lebanon Over Maritime Border With Israel; Implications for Natural Gas Finds

Swinging away from the oil story for the moment and onto the natural gas story: Lebanon is attempting to lay claim to natural gas deposits under the Mediterranean by defining its maritime border with Israel and consequently defining its exclusive economic zone. Israel and Lebanon have never agreed where their maritime border lies, so this could get awkward — particularly as the US has apparently decided to avoid conflict by appeasing the Lebanese in advance.

Last summer, Lebanon submitted a “decision” to the UN defining the maritime border, a move that went unchallenged at the time by the Israelis. Lebanon has since hired a Norwegian firm to conduct seismic surveys in the area, causing the Israelis to at last wake up. The Lebanese are not attempting with their border proposal to lay claim to Leviathan or Tamar, the two enormous Israeli finds off Haifa, but the Israeli National Infrastructure Ministry says they are nevertheless claiming areas in Israeli territorial waters.

Haaretz puts the central legal question as follows:

The law of the sea defines an exclusive economic zone as an area in which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources. It stretches from the seaward edge of the state’s territory to 200 nautical miles from its coast. In casual usage, the term may also include a country’s territorial waters and even the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit. If there is more than one country with rights inside the 200-mile zone, the issue is supposed to be resolved through a procedure similar to arbitration in the UN.

But the exclusive economic zone usually applies to what is in the sea, such as fish, and not to what lies under the continental shelf. Thus problems may arise when a continental shelf is shared by more than one country, such as can occur in the Mediterranean.

Lebanon sent its document not only to the UN but also to the US, where it was reviewed by the diplomat Frederic Hof. Hof was responsible for Syria and Lebanon under former US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who resigned recently. According to Haaretz, a senior administration official defined Hof’s brief as the prevention of the border’s “becoming a source of tension between Israel and Lebanon, which could give Hezbollah a pretext for targeting Israeli gas installations.” Hof’s approach to the avoiding of tension is to give Lebanon’s claim an American imprimatur.

Israel, he contends, must cooperate if it’s to avoid the creation of an “underwater Shaba Farms” — a reference to a small area of still-disputed territory between the Golan Heights and Lebanon. He advised Israel to submit its own definition of the border and launch indirect talks with Lebanon at the UN. Israel agreed to the former and scoffed at the latter.

Lest you assume from this that Hof is a benighted, hopelessly biased diplomat, blind to the malignant influence of Hezbollah over Lebanon, consider the following quote, which comes from the Middle East Forum. Hof is speaking here about Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah:

[W]hether most Lebanese Shiites know it or not, [Nasrallah] and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I think this is an important consideration for diplomats of any country that would consider engaging Nasrallah and his inner circle. While I would not necessarily oppose engagement, I think I would keep in mind that the diplomatic center of gravity is located in Tehran, not in some bunker in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah also means something to me personally, and in the interests of fairness and full disclosure I think I should be perfectly open about it, and here I refer to the leadership – not to the thousands of decent Lebanese who have looked to this organization for social services and physical protection. In the late 1980s when I was serving as an army officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a friend of mine – Colonel Rich Higgins – was kidnapped by Hezbollah while he was serving as a UN military observer in Lebanon. I was part of a small team in the Pentagon that tried very hard, through many channels, to secure Rich’s release. As it turned out, he had been tortured and killed months before our efforts to free him finally ended. I am one of a small handful of Americans who knows the exact manner of Rich’s death. If I were to describe it to you now – which I will not – I can guarantee that a significant number of people in this room would become physically ill. When my former business partner Rich Armitage described Hezbollah a few years ago as the “A-Team” of international terrorism and suggested that there was a “blood debt” to be paid, he was referring to a leadership cadre that is steeped in blood and brutality. If Nasrallah and his closest associates come to a violent end in the current crisis you will not find me among the mourners.

I can’t say I support his move regarding the border dispute, but I’d be interested to hear what he has to say in its defense. I hope he speaks soon. If he does, I’ll pass it on.