Hezbollah's calculations in the maritime dispute with Israel
In the first week of July, Hezbollah reportedly flew four unarmed drones offshore the Mediterranean coast towards the disputed Karish gas field between Lebanon and Israel.
In a 13 July speech, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah then warned that the Karish gas field would become, if needed, a new front in the confrontation with Israel.
These unprecedented moves by Hezbollah in the near decade-long maritime dispute came at a critical make-or-break point in the US-led mediation. This soft display of power has also raised questions about Hezbollah’s calculations in a dispute that the Lebanese armed group has clearly made a top priority.
Israel is eager to start production in the Karish field in September and has used the lack of an agreement with Lebanon on the maritime dispute as a pretext. The Energean Power FPSO gas platform arrived on the 5th of June at its set location to begin drilling on behalf of the Israeli government.
"Hezbollah has been using its leverage in the political system and media to harden the position of the Lebanese government so Lebanese officials do not cave or rush a compromise"
After an initial period of inaction, last month Beirut summoned the leading US mediator, the senior advisor for energy security Amos Hochstein, and gave him an offer to resolve the dispute.
Hezbollah’s decision to fly the drones came nearly two weeks after Hochstein left Beirut carrying the Lebanese offer to the Israeli side.
The group said the drones were on a reconnaissance mission and the Israeli army announced that a fighter jet and a Navy missile ship had intercepted the UAVs.
Hezbollah has made the maritime dispute a top priority for multiple reasons. First, there is a domestic component.
The Lebanese public has rallied around the importance of preserving Lebanon’s rights in the maritime dispute even though they differ on the tactics of how to achieve this objective, which is linked to the debate on how the Lebanese view Hezbollah’s weapons.
Indeed, Hezbollah has been using the maritime dispute to validate the utility of preserving its weapons, since south Lebanon has largely been a quiet front since the July 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict. Both Hezbollah and Israel are satisfied with the rules of engagement set by United Nations Resolution 1701.
Moreover, Nasrallah in his speech has said that exploring gas is the most viable path to save the Lebanese state from economic collapse. However, Lebanon is unable to sell gas and the most it can achieve in this production process might be reaching some self-sustainability in electricity consumption.
Second, there is obviously a foreign component. Washington and Tehran are striving to renew the Iran nuclear deal and they have not only been avoiding mutual provocations in Lebanon but also making gestures as the Lebanese political system manages its economic collapse.
Iran has been facilitating via Hezbollah the US-led mediation on the maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel but there does not yet seem to be a green light to compromise and conclude the dispute.
The US did not take punitive measures against the shipment of Iranian gas and oil to Hezbollah via the Syrian-Lebanese border but has yet to certify that the signed deal to transfer Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Syria is in compliance with US sanctions on Damascus.
The US might be using the carrot of giving this waiver as leverage to incentivise Beirut to sign a deal that ends the maritime dispute with Israel.
In his 13 July speech, Nasrallah subtly linked the Lebanese-Israeli maritime dispute to the Russian-Ukraine conflict by arguing that the US is pushing for an agreement on the maritime dispute to have Eastern Mediterranean gas flow to Europe before the winter.
"Hezbollah has made the maritime dispute a top priority for multiple reasons"
However, recently the Lebanese side has been the one rushing a deal and European countries are not betting on the Karish field surviving the coming cold waves in the autumn. The overall production of the Eastern Mediterranean gas can only substitute up to 20% of Russian gas to Europe if the Turkish-Israeli pipeline project materialised.
Third, there is the context of the current state of US-led mediation. Hezbollah has publicly objected to any potential drilling in the disputed area, but both Lebanon and Israel obviously disagree on how to define this disputed area.
As the Israeli reaction to the Lebanese offer stalled, Hezbollah sent their drones to reinforce the Lebanese government’s position that any drilling might be halted until a resolution is reached to the maritime dispute.
Hezbollah has managed to an extent to set the pace of the negotiation through its influence in the Lebanese political system and its main allies who play a leading role in the US-led mediation, mainly President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Hezbollah has been using its leverage in the political system and media to harden the position of the Lebanese government so Lebanese officials do not cave or rush a compromise. Given the dire economic situation, Lebanese officials have few options to resist US pressure.
Lebanon’s economic collapse is restraining not only the Lebanese government but also Hezbollah’s ability to manoeuvre politically and militarily, hence the Lebanese armed group is not fully rejecting US pressure nor taking the risk of a maritime attack.
While the decision to fly these drones boosted the ‘resistance’ rhetoric, it has also masked Hezbollah’s subtle decision to support the Lebanese official position of negotiation with Israel either through the US or the United Nations (UN) channels.
Hezbollah has managed to set its own rules of negotiations, which included no direct talks between Lebanese and Israeli civilian officials (just military talks sponsored by the UN), hence vetoing any gestures that might hint at attempts to normalise relations between Lebanon and Israel.
On the other hand, the Israeli side also managed to prioritise the demarcation of the maritime line rather than combining both the maritime and land borders as Lebanese officials wanted. Hezbollah also had a preference for UN mediation while Israel has long insisted on US mediation.
Lebanese officials still await Hochstein’s return to Beirut with an Israeli response to the Lebanese offer, but this Israeli response does not seem to have materialised yet, most notably now that the Israeli government has resigned and yet another Israeli parliamentary election is expected in autumn.
The Lebanese side has recently lowered the asking price in these negotiations and offered to expand the maritime area belonging to Lebanon from the claimed 860 square meters to 1,200 square meters. However, this formula gives the full Karish gas field to Israel in return for the full Sidon-Qana gas field belonging to Lebanon, which avoids the scenario of having both sides share the same disputed gas blocks.
It is not clear what the full capacity is of the Sidon-Qana gas field, while the Karish gas field has been more promising.
"Lebanon's economic collapse is restraining not only the Lebanese government but also Hezbollah's ability to manoeuvre politically and militarily"
After Nasrallah’s speech, the US State Department released a statement on 15 July to hint that the Lebanese side should be patient and there are ongoing efforts to mediate the Lebanese offer.
The Israeli side appeared to request explicit public approval by Hezbollah of the deal that is currently being discussed. Nasrallah did not give this explicit approval in his latest speech nor did he go into the details of the negotiations, however, he fully endorsed reaching a conclusion to the maritime dispute to help the Lebanese economy.
Lebanon still has a long way to go because of the domestic constraints and political tensions that stalled the process at a time when Beirut lacks the basic infrastructure and technological know-how to coordinate, store, and integrate the gas.
The Total company, which leads the gas consortium on the Lebanese side, has yet to be given the green light to survey the Lebanese gas fields, while Israel is aiming to potentially begin gas production in Karish in September if tensions or the lack of an agreement with Lebanon do not prevent it.
The coming weeks are crucial for US-led mediation on a maritime dispute that is now largely dependent on volatile domestic politics in both Lebanon and Israel.
Joe Macaron is an independent consultant and research analyst primarily focusing on US strategy, conflict analysis, and international relations in the Middle East. His previous roles include the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies.
A former journalist, he also advised the International Monetary Fund on public engagement in the Middle East and served in different capacities in the United Nations system. He contributes his analysis widely to international print, online, and broadcast media.
Follow him on Twitter: @macaronjoe