The Karish gas rig is a strategic asset that the Israeli government will fight for, Israeli ministers said amid threats from Lebanese and Hezbollah officials.
Ruth Wasserman Lande, an Israeli diplomat, politician, and a member of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party said, “The Shark gas rig which will be connected in the coming months is not part of the negotiations with Lebanon. It has never been part of the controversy and never will be.”
Karish, which means shark in English, is located in a boundary area that has been the subject of complicated negotiations in recent years. Israel and Lebanon have a long-standing dispute over a wedge of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) measuring an 860-sq.km triangle in the Mediterranean Sea, which would be about 2% of Israel's economic water.
The dispute between the two countries started over a decade ago and efforts continued for years to find a reasonably satisfactory outcome. During talks in late 2020, the US brought Lebanese and Israeli officials to Nakoura, a city in southern Lebanon near Rosh Hanikra in Israel, for indirect negotiations over the maritime border. Israel entered the talks agreeing to split the area 58:42 in favor of Lebanon.
During the talks of 2020, Lebanon sought to expand its EEZ claim to the south by another 1,430 square kilometers, known as line 29 boundary claim, including half of the Karish field. For Israel, the matter is non-negotiable as Lebanon never filed a maritime claim to the area surrounding Karish with the United Nations.
In February 2022, the Lebanon government abandoned its previous claim based on ‘Line 23 along the Cypriot EEZ line and revived its demands to expand to ‘Line 29’ to the waters containing the Karish field, now that Israel is poised to develop it.
In a joint statement, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said that “The rig will not pump gas from the disputed territory However, the State of Israel prioritises the protection of its strategic assets, and is prepared to defend them and the security of its infrastructure, all in accordance with its rights”.
On June 5, Lebanon objected to the arrival of a vessel, Energen Power, to work on Israel’s Karish field. The Energen Power Corporation is London-based but Greek-owned. On June 12, Lebanese President Michel Aoun issued a strong warning claiming the vessel entered “the disputed maritime area with Israel” and threatened that, in Beirut’s view, “any action or activity in the disputed area represents a provocation and an aggressive action.”
It is important to point out that President Aoun still has not formally filed a decree demanding an amendment or lay claim to the Karish field. However, this has not stopped Hezbollah to take advantage of the situation and position itself as the defender of Lebanon and its interests.
On June 9, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel that Karish field is a “red line”. In a televised speech, he said “Everything is on the table for the resistance (…) we do not want a war, but we do not fear one. Israel must halt its activities in the Karish field and swiftly and immediately withdraw its ship from there.”
He continued that “the company that owns the drilling ship should swiftly withdraw, and it should be fully responsible for any losses, be they material or human (…) The Resistance surely has the financial, military, and security capabilities to prevent the enemy from extracting oil and gas from the Karish field.”
A careful reading of Nasrallah's speech shows that he sees the Karish field as part of Lebanon’s EEZ. Greece, in response, warned Lebanon against any harm coming to Greek citizens.
Ruth Wasserman Lande, who worked as an adviser to the late President Shimon Peres adds “Israel calls on Lebanon to return to negotiations. The economic and energy situation in Lebanon is very difficult. The residents enjoy only a few hours of electricity a day, and negotiations can offer them creative solutions.
Israel has always been willing to negotiate with Lebanon but with a clear demand to protect its security. Beyond that, Israel has nothing against the Lebanese people - on the contrary! And yet Hezbollah, acting on behalf of Iran, and against the good of the people in Lebanon, who are suffering greatly prevents any positive development in that direction”.
Going back a decade ago, to the first marathon of negotiations, we can see that Wasserman Lande’s words that “Israel has always been willing to negotiate with Lebanon” are evident. Back then, Avigdor Liberman was serving as Foreign Minister, Liberman who is well known for his ultra-nationalistic stand, he actually saw an opportunity in reaching a deal with the Lebanese government. At the time this was seen as a win-win situation both in terms of stability and of potential investments.
Israel has shown a willingness to negotiate and many in Lebanon understand the need for a compromise to take Lebanon out from its colossal miserable economic situation, where the majority of its people are struggling to make ends meet. But the question is, what Hezbollah wants and will decide.
LEBANON STILL IN THE GRIP OF HEZBOLLAH
Despite Hezbollah and its allies losing their parliamentary majority, they still have a firm grip on most of the levers of power in Lebanon. The lack of an outright election’s winner and Lebanon’s rigid power-sharing political structure means that the chance of significant change to the status quo is almost impossible.
Ten years ago US energy envoy Amos Hochstein sat with Israeli and Lebanese officials trying to work out a meet-me-halfway solution. A decade later, amid the ever-deteriorating state of the Lebanese economy, precisely June 2022, Hochstein is back again to Beirut, trying to bring both Israel and Lebanon to negotiate a compromise.
Hezbollah took credit for Hochstein’s arrival to Beirut, claiming The State Department is worried and rightly have taken Hezbollah’s threats of using force to stop the Israelis from developing the Karish field seriously. Hence why Hochstein was sent to Beirut.
The Lebanese election demonstrated that Lebanon's dire economic situation is the main focus of the voters. But with Hezbollah still in charge of Lebanon one can with certainty predict that the US-Hochstein mediation will fail even if Israel offer a generous compromise.
An attentive reading of Nasrallah’s words “as long as the Resistance remains in Lebanon, there is no chance that ‘Israel’ will ever come close to creating a reality in which they can exploit the Karish field, and soon Tel Aviv will realize that it has to give up its petty game”.
Nasrallah’s recent speeches indicate several points: he is aware that the Lebanese government desperately needs to drill gas to save the country from total financial ruin. Secondly, his assertiveness that ‘we in Hezbollah’ will use force if the negotiations fail, is a message to the Lebanese government as well as to Israel that ‘we in Hezbollah’ are still in charge’. Finally, crowning Karish Field as Lebanese is giving Israel no option of reaching a workable compromise.
Hezbollah’s continued aggressive stand will only harm Lebanon and will lead to further economic collapse. His aggressive rhetoric and actions stopped potential investors from investing in Lebanon’s gas fields and other sectors. His hatred towards Israel has resulted in millions of Lebanese struggling to live a dignified life.
Hezbollah’s backer, Iran will play the biggest role in which direction Amos Hochstein’s mediation will go. “The Iranian threat is common to all countries that wish to live in peace and stability in the region. Peace between Israel and other countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and with the help of God in the future - Saudi Arabia - is so important (…) For the future of our children, we must continue to strive for peace” says Ruth Wasserman Lande. This begs the final question, will Lebanon be free to decide the future of its children…