“There are no permanent conflicts, only permanent interests.” This quote is an apt summary of what we are witnessing as talks surrounding energy in the Eastern Mediterranean return to the forefront once again.
We are currently witnessing new, unexpected understandings emerging between Lebanon and Israel regarding gas fields due to the continuing conflict in Ukraine, which led to a severe shortage of gas supplies in Europe as the winter season approaches. A season that is expected to be harsh for Europeans in light of Russia reducing its supply of gas to the old continent in response to the sanctions imposed by the latter unless Europe finds an immediate alternative.
The conflict reached its climax to the extent that the demand for liquefied natural gas tankers increased sharply in the world in light of the energy crisis in Europe, as well as its price.
Tanker shipping costs have also risen dramatically, which has contributed to higher gas prices in Europe and Asia. Traders estimate that gas prices and LNG tanker shipping rates will rise further if China — which was forced to impose restrictions due to the coronavirus — returns to the market before winter arrives.
Egypt preceded everyone in implementing a number of agreements to discover gas and export the surplus, even before everyone in the Eastern Mediterranean region thought about investing seriously in this sector, which placed it on the list of suppliers to southern European countries.
But some parties are still so far seeking to compete with Egypt. After the failure of all Turkish attempts to explore the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel began to seek joining the list of suppliers. It seemed that there was an understanding prevailing between Tel Aviv and Beirut to settle the maritime border dispute, which would allow the two sides to extract quantities of gas and oil that would generate the financial revenues that Lebanon desperately needs. However, optimism is accompanied by Israeli warnings of a sudden escalation of Hezbollah that might lead to war.
Israeli media reports said that the border demarcation agreement between Lebanon and Israel will include an Israeli waiver of a section inside the sea in exchange for a Lebanese waiver of an area closer to the coast. It is well-known that Lebanon and Israel are quarrelling over a marine area rich in oil and gas in the Mediterranean with an area of 860 sqkm according to maps deposited by both parties to the United Nations, and the US is mediating in indirect negotiations to settle the dispute between them.
Despite the absence of any official peace agreement between the two countries, “indirect” negotiations started between Beirut and Tel Aviv in October 2020 under the auspices of the UN to demarcate the borders between the two sides. So far, five rounds of negotiations have been held, the last of which was in May 2021.
During one of the rounds of negotiations, the Lebanese delegation presented a new map confirming Lebanon’s right to an additional 1,430 km, increasing the size of the disputed area to 2,290 km, which was rejected by Israel and led to a halt in the negotiations.
However, what foretells the success of this agreement despite the obstacles in the negotiations is the occurrence of a similar previous agreement between Lebanon and Israel. This is where it is mentioned that when the Lebanese government relinquished Line 29, the Karish field became an entire Israeli field, which is the most that could have been offered in return for Israel’s recognition of Lebanon’s full sovereignty over the Qana field, which is located within Line 23.
Indeed, the potential current agreement would bring profits to the two countries from the gas reserves located in the disputed area, which would help Lebanon get rid of its unprecedented severe economic crisis, which led to the collapse of the value of its local currency and a scarcity of fuel, drugs, and basic commodities.
According to the current potential maritime agreement, international energy companies will obtain rights to explore and extract natural gas, and then the two parties will agree on an international intermediary that will determine the level of profits that each country will receive.
Initially, both the Lebanese and Israeli sides tried to resolve the issue by force, and the tension between the two sides escalated. But the unprecedented economic pressures, and the eagerness to try to fill the void caused by Russia’s exit — even temporarily — from supplying gas to the Europeans is what precipitated such understandings.
This is how pragmatism prevails in such events. Everyone is under an unprecedented global economic crisis, forcing everyone to coexist, regardless of historical grievances and current conflicts. All differences dissolve in the face of survival and interests. That is a universal truth.
* Hatem Sadek is a Professor at Helwan University