Robert G. Rabil
Security, Middle East
If Jerusalem and Beirut were to reach an agreement on the demarcation of their borders, then that would be a significant foreign-policy achievement.
The Trump Administration Is Tackling One of the World's Most Dangerous Border Disputes
AS THE Trump administration presses Arab countries to sign off on President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century” amid growing Arab polarization and vocal pessimism, little attention has been given to another sensitive regional matter that the administration has been aptly and quietly tackling. This matter revolves around the demarcation of the Lebanon-Israel maritime and land borders, which have been the focal point of skirmishes, a devastating war in 2006, and rising regional tension involving Iran and Israel.
Since last year, the Trump administration has been pursuing quiet shuttle diplomacy between Beirut and Jerusalem to demarcate their borders, while at the same time pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran and Hezbollah. The accomplishments achieved thus far because of the administration’s efforts, led by acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, have been quite impressive. Even if their success is incomplete, these efforts could help the economies of both Lebanon and Israel. More importantly, it could decrease the risk of a devastating war with regional repercussions.
Satterfield has extracted some essential concessions from both sides. The negotiations over Israel-Lebanon’s borders are highly sensitive because they involve the exploration of energy in disputed maritime Mediterranean waters and a dispute over land borders, the latter of which has been the focus of armed conflicts and a focal point of national and regional conflicts.
THE DISCOVERY of enormous oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean has been auspicious for the economies of both Israel and Lebanon. The former is already producing gas from several gas fields, including Tamar and Dalit, and is preparing to produce gas from the Leviathan gas field, operated by the energy giant Noble Energy. Additionally, Israel is expanding its offshore exploration efforts via a second bid round, hoping to attract investment via exploration licenses in the country’s waters in the Mediterranean. Moreover, Israel and Cyprus have signed agreements delineating their maritime borders and are embracing further economic cooperation with assistance from Noble Energy.
The eagerness with which Israel would like to produce gas from these fields, especially Leviathan, and press ahead with its economic cooperation with Cyprus (with Greece to follow), is hedged by concerns about possible armed conflicts with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, due to disputes over the boundaries of these two countries’ exclusive economic zones. Lebanon and Israel both claim an area that is approximately 860 square kilometers in size. In fact, in 2011, the Obama administration’s special Middle East envoy, Frederic Hof, proposed what came to be known as the “Hof Line,” whereby Lebanon would have 550 square kilometers of the disputed area and Israel would take the rest. Lebanon rejected the proposal. In fact, last year Lebanon notably signed off on contracts with giants Total, Eni and Novatek to explore energy in its exclusive economic zone—including in a block disputed by Israel. Total expressed its awareness of the dispute and stated it will drill away from the disputed area, which consists of less than 8 percent of the block under its contract.
While the maritime border dispute may sound convoluted, it pales before the dispute over land borders. At the heart of this land border dispute are three areas: Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shouba Hills and Ghajar. The situation is complex and multi-faceted: there are disputes over the Lebanon-Israel border, the Israel-Syria border and Lebanon-Syria border. Additionally, there are inconsistencies in the Lebanon-Israel-Syria tri-border, which can be traced to the old British and French mandates over Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Finally, the gradual evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the changes in de facto territorial ownership as a result of the conflict, adds an additional dimension of complexity to the situation.
Following twenty-two years of occupying a swath of southern Lebanon, Israel decided in 2000 to withdraw from Lebanon in accordance with un Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426. Yet the withdrawal created a problem over the exact location of the border, since Israel withdrew from contiguous Lebanese-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese territories.
The Lebanon-Syria border was mapped by the French in 1920, but the exact boundary has not been delineated by Lebanon or Syria since their independence. The mapping of the Israel-Lebanon border followed the 1949 armistice agreement that corresponded with the British mandatory border. As for the border between Lebanon and Syria, there was no international boundary agreement between the two of them. As such, the un mapped the border relying on the separation lines of its troops in the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon. In his report to the un Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recognizing the lack of an international boundary agreement, recommended “to proceed on the basis of the line separating the areas of operation of unifil and undof [the un Forces in South Lebanon and the Golan Heights, respectively] along the relevant portions of the Lebanese-Syrian boundary…”
In short, following its own surveys of the region’s borders, the un simply drew the border demarcation, known as the Blue Line, and subsequently recognized the complete withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon as corresponding to the Blue Line. The Lebanese government and Hezbollah, with Syria’s consent, challenged the un position and declared that Israel’s withdrawal remains incomplete, since it still occupies the Lebanese Shebaa Farms. The un, adopting Israel’s position, emphasized that Shebaa Farms—located south of the Lebanese village of Shebaa, and comprising an area of 14 km in length and 2 km in width—are part of the Syrian Golan Heights.
Conversely, Lebanese authorities asserted sovereignty over the Farms by producing land deeds, official documents that place the Farms within Lebanon and pre-1967 tax receipts related to the Farms. These receipts indicated that taxes were paid by residents of Shebaa village (and adjacent town Nukheila) to the Lebanese government. Meanwhile, in response to Lebanon’s claim that Israel’s withdrawal is incomplete, Hezbollah asserted its right to continue its muqawama (resistance) against Israel.
THE DISPUTE over the village of Ghajar, meanwhile, is the product of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and a vagueness as to where the exact border between Lebanon and Syria lies. Essentially, there are no definite maps placing the village either in Lebanon or Syria. However, most of the Ghajar’s residents are Alawis and have been in close contact with their coreligionists in the Golan Heights, though many of them acquired Lebanese citizenship. When Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967, Ghajar residents found themselves in a political no man’s land. They petitioned Israel to recognize them as residents of the Golan. Israel subsequently offered them citizenship when it formally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. Interestingly, Ghajar residents, unlike many residents of the Golan Heights, accepted Israel’s offer. During Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, Ghajar’s residents were able to travel unimpeded between Lebanon and Israel due to their dual citizenships.
When Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Ghajar was split between Lebanon and Israel in accordance with the Blue Line, which cut across the village. As a result, the village was divided, with a majority of it formally located in Lebanon to the north, while the southern portion remained in Israel. Besides its militarily strategic position along the Israel-Lebanon-Syria tri-border, Ghajar’s boundaries scrape the Wazzani River, which is the main spring of the Hasbani River. This has led to tumultuous instances of water politics: Lebanese authorities have consistently accused Israel of trying to steal the water of the Hasbani, while Israeli authorities have been constantly worried about Lebanon diverting the waters of the Hasbani River.
During the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel took control of the whole village. unsc Resolution 1701, which ended the war, called on Israel to withdraw from the northern section of Ghajar. Israel, however, has not obliged, citing security considerations: in 2005, Hezbollah tried to kidnap Israeli soldiers stationed in the southern section of the village, and in the 2006 war, Ghajar was a fiercely contested area. The occupation of the northern section of Ghajar by Israel has thus reinforced both Lebanon’s claim that Israel’s withdrawal is not complete and Hezbollah’s right of muqawamah.
LAST BUT not least, the village of Kfar Shouba and its hills are another point of contention between Israel and Lebanon. Located in Lebanon, next to the Shebaa Farms and the Golan Heights, the village commands a military strategic position due to its location overlooking northern Israel and the Bekaa Valley. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization used the village as a steppingstone to conduct sabotage activities in Israel. In response, Israel heavily shelled the village and its hills and carried out punitive military missions there. In 1972, Israel occupied the village for a short period of time. Then, during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon (1978–2000), the Israel Defense Forces and their proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, used the village as an important observation post. Subsequently, Israel withdrew from the village but kept occupying the hills and the lands of Kfar Shouba in proximity to Israel’s border for security reasons. In the 2006 war, most of the village’s homes were either destroyed or damaged. As was the case with Shebaa and Ghajar, Lebanon and Hezbollah have insisted on their right to resist Israel’s occupation until the hills of Kfar Shouba are retrieved.
Taking all of this under consideration, it is clear that the Trump administration’s mission of mediating between Israel and Lebanon so as to demarcate their maritime and land borders and pacify their tinderbox border is no small feat. Yet, in a painstaking and persistent manner, the administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Satterfield, has used the right dose of diplomacy, statecraft, and at times, pressure to bring the two antagonists to agree on an initial set of measures to address their longstanding grievances.
Satterfield, in a space of two weeks in May, was able to bring the two countries to tentatively agree to meet and hold negotiations at the unifil headquarters in Naqoura in south Lebanon. Reportedly, Lebanon and Israel are close to establishing a framework for negotiations under un auspices. Lebanon’s demands and Israel’s objections to hold the negotiations under the auspices of the un were met by having the United States act as an overseer. So as to avoid the public appearance of speaking to the enemy, the two sides are sending military officers to hold the negotiations. Similarly, Israel apparently sent a “positive” message with Satterfield to Lebanon: it will reconsider the demand that negotiations should be limited to six months instead of there being no limit at all.
Satterfield was apparently able to ensure from Lebanese president Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, a promise of his country’s “unified position” regarding linking the demarcation of both the maritime and land borders. In contrast to Hezbollah’s loud and bellicose rhetoric, President Aoun has reportedly stressed to Satterfield that, although Hezbollah is viewed as a legitimate resistance movement with popular support and representation in the government, demarcation of both the land and maritime borders with Israel is imperative to peace in the region. American and Israeli authorities have been concerned about Hezbollah taking a divergent stance regarding the talks. To be sure, reports from the president’s office indicate that Hezbollah’s view of maintaining the peace along the borders with Israel is at the heart of its tacit endorsement of the president’s “unified position.” Hezbollah’s main concern has been about Washington using its mediation of the border disputes as a condition to degrade the deterrence of Hezbollah’s missiles.
Evidently, Satterfield, along with members of his team, showed President Aoun, Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Army Commander General Joseph Aoun pictures of the missiles and their respective locations. But the U.S. delegation did not make a link between the issue of the missiles and that of border demarcation. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a recent fiery speech on Jerusalem Day (Also known as Quds Day, an event inaugurated by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to express solidarity with Palestinians and opposition to Zionism), admitted that Hezbollah does not have factories to develop precision missiles, but asserted that the “Americans have no business with this. It is our right to have weapons to defend our countries.”
Notwithstanding Hezbollah’s rhetoric, Lebanon would like to resolve its maritime border dispute with Israel in order to access nearby oil and gas resources. Beirut is already set to start drilling in December, with a later date in the disputed block with Israel. The country could certainly use the economic boost: Lebanon’s government is burdened with a heavy international debt estimated at more than $85 billion, comprising over 150 percent of its gdp. And its income from the tourism sector, a major component of the economy, is virtually in doubt, given the ongoing crisis in Syria and the heightening tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other. Meanwhile, many Lebanese across the communal divide have been deeply affected by the country’s weak economy and severe power shortages. No less significant is Hezbollah and its Shia partisans’ need for this potential new energy revenue. After all, the Hezbollah’s military wing has been fighting a costly war in Syria, while at home, U.S. sanctions have significantly reduced the organization’s revenue stream. Conversely, Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz’s office released a statement emphasizing that the talks could be “for the good of both countries’ interests in developing natural gas reserves and oil.”
IT BEHOOVES the Trump administration to separate this current Lebanon-Israel negotiation from the separate but also ongoing Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century.” Lebanese parties and groups across the political divide are worried that the Trump administration is seeking to put pressure on Lebanon to bring it on board with its proposed Israeli-Palestinian deal, namely via the suggestion that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon should be granted Lebanese citizenship. This central concern is intensified by the presence of approximately one million Syrian refugees and thousands of their Lebanese-born children whose repatriation to their homeland is not certain. The Shia, Christian and Druze communities will refuse any attempt to formally settle and/or nationalize Palestinian or Syrian refugees, since most of them are Sunnis. Doing so would result in the collapse of Lebanon’s delicate religious balance, and with it, its communal peace.
The United States has deftly capitalized on the rising tension in the region, the threat of war, and the delicate existing economic and political dynamics to pursue quietly a channel of diplomacy with Israel and Lebanon. During Satterfield’s recent July shuttle diplomacy though, a couple of problems have surfaced that have left both sides frustrated over the delay in launching the talks. According to Lebanese and Israeli reports, whereas Lebanon would like to have parallel land and maritime border talks, Israel will not sign off on a written commitment to simultaneously pursue these. Israel, for its part, would like the talks to focus solely on the maritime border. This is partly because Jerusalem worries that, since the un regards them as part of the Golan Heights tri-border dispute, including the Shebaa Farms in the negotiations would add a complicating Syrian dimension to the talks. Moreover, whereas Beirut insists that the un should sponsor the talks with U.S. mediation, Jerusalem has asserted the preeminent role of the United States in mediating the talks, partly because Israel is not a signatory of the un Convention for the Law of the Sea. Nevertheless, despite this frustration and these impediments, both capitals believe that it is in their interest to reach a compromise and launch the talks.
If the two countries were to reach an agreement on the demarcation of their borders, that would by itself be a significant foreign policy achievement, reducing the threat of a devastating war to a minimum. Pending the final framework and unfolding of the negotiations, an agreement over the disputed maritime borders could either promote a parallel agreement over the more complicated land borders or provide a critical incentive to keep the border quiet. This is extremely important for a region that is, according to an Arabic saying, “standing on the palm of Afrit (a malevolent supernatural being).”
Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). He is the author of numerous books, most recently White Heart (2018). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of FAU.