Putting Out to Sea: What the History of Lebanese-Israeli Negotiations Can Tell Us About Current Negotiations Over a Maritime Boundary
On Oct. 14, Lebanese and Israeli officials began talks over their common maritime border, which has drawn attention in recent years after the discovery of significant amounts of oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean. The two countries have long disagreed over questions such as what country owns the Shebaa farms, whether Hizballah should be allowed to maintain arms, and if Israeli military aircraft should be allowed to fly over Lebanese air space. After Israel signed a maritime agreement laying out the boundaries of its exclusive economic zone with Cyprus in 2010, Lebanon protested the arrangement and declared its own boundary, creating an area of disputed territory of around 860 square kilometers. It took the two countries 10 years to come to the table, but in September American mediators finally brokered a so-called “framework agreement” governing how the negotiations would proceed.
Given that Israel has recently opened diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and seems likely to do so with Sudan, some are asking whether these talks mean that Lebanon might be next. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that the negotiations “might be a first sign for peace,” while cautioning that “there will be no peace with Lebanon as long as Hizballah is in control of it.” Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hizballah ally, has declared that peace may be possible under the right circumstances, including the resolution of all outstanding disputes between the two countries, presumably including the sea border. Aoun’s daughter has stated even more clearly that resolving outstanding disputes would make peace possible.
Officials from all sides have been attempting to manage expectations that these negotiations will resolve all of the issues between the two countries. Indeed, at the talks, the two sides have been sitting in the same room, but the Lebanese side refused to address the Israelis directly, insisting that all communications be delivered by U.S. or U.N. mediators. In such an atmosphere, what exactly can the various parties hope to achieve?
A look at the history of negotiations between Israel and Lebanon suggests some lessons. For both governments, the prospect of reaching pragmatic, mutually beneficial agreements has often seemed enticing, but mistrust and skepticism about the willingness and ability of the other to deliver on promises mean that these agreements frequently fall apart. However, negotiations have proved likely to succeed, and agreement most likely to endure, when they have narrowly focused on technical issues, included third parties as monitors, and enjoyed support both from a majority of the Lebanese population and from other regional powers.
The First Truce
If physical geography were the only relevant factor, the Lebanese town of Naqoura might barely register in the country’s popular consciousness. Still a small fishing village in the early 20th century, its rocky beaches and jagged cliffs would have drawn appreciation but otherwise little notice from those travelling up and down the coast. As it happens, a twist of fate gave the town an important role in the contemporary history of the Middle East: A French proposal in June 1920, consolidated as part of a 1923 Anglo-British agreement, left the town as the southern-most Lebanese coastal city, steps from the northern border of the British Mandate of Palestine.
After Lebanese independence in 1943 and the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, Naqoura became known as something more: the site of major negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. Since that time, the two countries have yet to recognize each other. There have probably been more years with violent incidents along the border than without. Despite these inauspicious conditions, or perhaps because of them, Israeli and Lebanese military and civilian leaders have often met in Naqoura to discuss issues of mutual interest.
The first meaningful negotiations took place in the aftermath of Lebanon’s short involvement in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Lebanon’s army actively participated in the hostilities, but its involvement in the war was less intense than that of other Arab states. This may in part have been due to the history of secret contacts between Israeli and Lebanese Maronite leaders, each of whom saw the other as a potential ally. Contacts extended to other religious groups inside Lebanon, too. Indeed, even as the war continued, in January 1949 Israeli representatives intimated to American officials that they had “secretly approached [the Sunni Muslim] Lebanon Prime Minister on [a] political level and are hopeful” about the chances of signing an early armistice.
U.N.-brokered negotiations in 1949, which took place in customs houses in Naqoura in Lebanon and Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli side, led Lebanon to become the second Arab state to sign an armistice with Israel. While the talks were cordial, the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory and Israel’s desire to maintain strategic positions on Lebanese land made a resolution initially difficult to reach. Israeli negotiators at one point wanted to condition their withdrawal from Lebanon on the signing of an armistice with Syria. This caused U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche to threaten to inform the U.N. Security Council about the Israeli condition. Eventually, Israel caved and backed out beyond the international border.
The armistice focused on issues of security, requiring Israel’s withdrawal behind the international border line, the release of prisoners, and the establishment of a mixed armistice commission consisting of military representatives from each side and a U.N. representative to monitor the ceasefire. As Egypt had already signed such an agreement, and Syria and Jordan were in the process of negotiating one, other regional parties supported the principle of such armistices. The armistice itself also set important precedents for future negotiations. As only U.N. and military officials participated in the talks, and later in the mixed armistice commission, in the future including civilian representatives would be seen as a step towards mutual recognition.
Civil War and Failed Agreements
However, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and many others in the country’s leadership felt that little had been gained from the deal with Lebanon. Not for the first time, Israeli leaders saw the very idea of compromise with an Arab state as potentially signaling weakness. Lebanese leaders, on the other hand, were generally happy with the armistice, which allowed Lebanon and Israel to more or less ignore each other. The central authorities in Beirut at the time paid relatively little attention to their rural southern border region, which languished economically, while Israel was focused on its other borders, where security issues seemed more pressing. This allowed Lebanese politicians to pay lip service to Arab causes, including the fate of the Palestinian refugees from 1948, while doing relatively little about it.
As Palestinian militant groups, known as fedayeen, ascended in prominence throughout the Arab world, southern Lebanon became an appealing staging ground for attacks against Israel. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, the Lebanese army — a powerful influence in the country’s politics — and politicians with close ties to the military used a heavy hand to keep these groups from gaining a foothold in the south. However, following the defeat of Arab regimes in the 1967 war, which increased public support for the fedayeen throughout the Arab world, the militants began to establish bases in the region. The weakening of the military’s role within Lebanon after the presidential election of 1970 gave further free rein to these groups, who launched attacks into Israel with increasing frequency. The violence along the border polarized Lebanon, with some supporting freedom of action for the militants and others opposing it as a violation of sovereignty.
Yet, throughout this period, communications between Lebanon and Israel continued in different forums, though the understandings had mixed success. Through meetings of the mixed armistice commission, the Lebanese army in effect negotiated with the Israeli military over the steps that they were taking to control fedayeen activity. In some cases these amounted to little more than trading of threats, but attempts were made at coordination. For instance, in the late spring of 1970 the Lebanese and Israeli militaries attempted to negotiate the outlines of Israeli border patrols in southern Lebanon, offering what Israeli officials characterized to the United States as “ingenious” ideas. Other messages were brokered by third parties, including the United States and the Vatican, as well as informal emissaries, such as travelling priests. While these discussions were never effective at stopping violence, they nonetheless laid out at least some parameters for military activity along the border after the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.
In 1982, Israel launched a major invasion of Lebanon. Though the stated objective was to push the Palestinian militias 40 km north of the border, the goals soon expanded to include expelling the fedayeen from Lebanon entirely and establishing a reliable Lebanese government. Initially, their offensive seemed successful. American mediation led to the departure of the majority of Palestine Liberation Organization fighters under the eyes of a newly deployed multinational force consisting of American, British, French, and Italian troops, while Israeli pressure ushered in the selection of a right-wing Maronite leader, Bashir al-Gemayel, as president. Nevertheless, shortly after his appointment, Gemayel was assassinated, undermining whatever long-term plans Israel had for the country.
The United States once again set about mediating between Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and other parties to broker a withdrawal of all non-Lebanese militaries from the country. With Syria unwilling to participate, the United States focused on negotiations between Lebanon and Israel. In early 1983, the two sides sat down for their first high-level discussions involving civilian leaders. Indeed, these were the first face-to-face discussions outside of the U.N. framework. This time, notably, they took place in the southern suburbs of Beirut, rather than in the country’s south — a symbolic step that indicated how far they had departed from previous negotiations at Naqoura.
A security treaty ending the state of war, though not quite proclaiming peace, was finally signed in May 1983. To accomplish this, the U.S. mediators pressured Israel to relinquish demands that the treaty formally authorize an Israeli military presence in the south of the country. Lebanon had to commit to future talks towards the normalization of its relationship with Israel. Without the heavy hand of American diplomats, the agreement would have never been signed. As it was, however, key Arab states either opposed the agreement (Syria) or failed to give it overt support (Saudi Arabia). Many if not most in Lebanon opposed the agreement. In October, attacks on the U.S. and French military barracks killed hundreds, and the multinational force departed in the following March after the collapse of the reconstituted Lebanese army. Within a year, the Lebanese government unilaterally abrogated the agreement.
Throughout this period, negotiations and agreements between Israel and Lebanon largely failed. Attempts to work out a modus vivendi along the border enjoyed little support from Lebanon’s neighbors, and were so sensitive that they had to be kept secret from the Lebanese population, lest a backlash lead to the fall of the government. The Israeli-Lebanese security treaty was doomed from the start by its broad scope, lack of popular support, and opposition from other regional parties.
A Post-War Success: The 1996 Lebanon-Israel Ceasefire Agreement
After the Lebanese civil war finally ground to a halt in 1990, Israel and Syria continued to occupy the country. Hizballah was mounting an active resistance campaign in the south against Israel and its proxies. The George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations’ active diplomacy on Middle East issues — this was the era of the Oslo Accords and Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty — led to discussions between Lebanese and Israeli officials on terms of a peace deal during the Madrid talks. However, Syria’s effective control of Lebanese foreign policy meant that there was little chance of reaching a peace deal. After a flare-up of violence in southern Lebanon in 1993, informal mediation via the United States and other parties led to an oral agreement in which Hizballah committed to not launch missile attacks against settlements in the north of Israel, while Israel agreed not to target civilian villages in southern Lebanon. However, this failed again, and in April 1996, Israel launched the Grapes of Wrath campaign into southern Lebanon.
While this conflict was extremely damaging (more than 100 civilians were killed when Israel fired artillery at a U.N. compound in Qana), it did result in an agreement that had some staying power. As a result of U.S. and French mediation, the two sides reached a formal, written accord called the Lebanon-Israel Ceasefire Understanding. The accord was relatively limited in scope, banning armed groups in Lebanon from firing rockets into Israel, and Israel from targeting civilian structures in Lebanon. It also established a monitoring group with American, French, Israeli, Lebanese, and Syrian members to track violations of the ceasefire and file reports on the incidents. Notably, it did not fully call for a halt in fighting, nor require Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The limited nature of the agreement made it palatable to all sides, as did the fact that it was not officially signed by any of the parties, despite being a written accord.
The monitoring group was perhaps the most effective part of the arrangement, issuing some 103 reports over the course of its existence from 1996 until the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. When incidents arose, members from the respective countries would meet at the U.N. facilities in Naqoura to discuss what had happened. They negotiated over the content of reports issued, as well as measures to be taken to ensure compliance with the agreement. It has been praised as a model of international cooperation in a conflict zone. After Israel’s final withdrawal across the U.N.-demarcated border known as the “Blue Line,” the monitoring group ceased to exist, but the agreement was never officially abrogated.
The Maritime Border
Now, some 20 years later, a combination of factors has brought Israel and Lebanon to the negotiating table once again. While there has been a steady stream of discoveries of oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, it was Israel’s discovery of the Leviathan gas field in 2010 that really set off excitement over the possibility that there may be extensive gas resources in the region. Both sides have now not only declared their exclusive economic zones, but they have also divided them up into blocks, which are then licensed to international companies for exploration and, eventually, extraction.
Had natural gas been discovered elsewhere, the Lebanese government might well feel no pressure to negotiate with Israel. As it turns out, other blocks explored by private companies failed to prove lucrative, meaning that attention has turned to the south. One of the more promising areas is Block 9, which lies near the probable location of the Israeli-Lebanese line. However, for companies to do their work, the exact boundaries of the maritime zone need to be firmly established.
Domestic circumstances have made this even more pressing. Lebanon’s disastrous economic collapse has been accompanied by massive demonstrations against a corrupt political elite, and new sources of revenue are necessary to meet one of the world’s largest national debts per capita. The August explosion in the Beirut port that killed several hundred people, wounded thousands, and may have caused around $20 billion in economic damage further compounded this need, although the negotiations on the framework agreement were well underway by then. Additionally, some suspect that the negotiations are at least in part a bid for time, as Trump administration Middle East officials have imposed additional punishing financial sanctions on individuals and entities close to Hizballah. A Biden administration, so the thinking goes, may be less inclined to do so.
While the threat of sanctions may play a role, all signs indicate that Lebanese intentions to find a solution are serious and enjoy broad support. Under American mediation, the parties initially appear to have agreed in advance to split the disputed territory, with Israel acknowledging that Lebanon should receive a slightly larger share. On the Lebanese side, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri has led the talks. Berri’s Amal party is Hizballah’s partner in the so-called Thani’ Shi’i, or Shiite Duo, that controls the majority of Shia support and would likely have veto power over any arrangement reached. It is inconceivable that this would be done without the tacit consent of Hizballah, which in turn likely consulted Syria and Iran. Amal and Hizballah have protested the inclusion of civilian officials in the delegation as a violation of the spirit of the 1996 agreement with Israel, which calls for only military officials to participate. However, they did so just a few days before the talks began on Oct. 14, suggesting that their protests were mostly for show.
While the U.S. government and English-language media have often referred to the September “framework agreement” as concerning maritime discussions, it in fact refers to both land and sea borders. The text has not been released, but Berri seemed to read from it at a press conference on Oct. 1. The agreement invokes past precedents, including the 1949 armistice, the April 1996 agreement, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. Although Hizballah had long resisted the direct involvement of the United States in this issue, the agreement specifically indicates that the U.S. government will serve as a “mediator and facilitator,” while the United Nations will host the negotiations. It contains a reference to future efforts to delineate the land border between the two countries, which would have to include an agreement on the disputed Shebaa farms region.
Implications of a Possible Agreement
A deal on maritime boundaries would be a major step and could indeed reduce tensions between the two countries. It would set a precedent for future negotiations over land and strengthen those who envision the possibility of peace between Israel and Lebanon. Crucially, it could open up a pathway to the Lebanese government to access some much-needed funds. While such an agreement is highly unlikely to lead to peace anytime soon, it is entirely possible that it could join the short list of successful Lebanese-Israeli accords, and set the stage for further progress in the future. Earlier agreements have demonstrated that focusing narrowly on technical issues, including third party monitors, and enjoying support from the Lebanese public and other regional powers constitute key success factors for bilateral agreements between Lebanon and Israel.
While these factors seem to be present in 2020, a successful outcome is not guaranteed. Israel and Lebanon seem committed to focusing on technical issues, yet their actual demands are growing further apart as a “battle of the maps” seems to be breaking out. At the second meeting of the two parties, the Lebanese side presented a suggested border line that actually went significantly beyond the claim the country had previously advanced, and encompassed parts of the Karish gas field and zones already demarcated by Israel. The Lebanese government may have threatened to unilaterally issue a declaration of its zone if Israel did not negotiate on its basis. As one Lebanese newspaper put it, the logic seemed to be that in negotiations, the best defense is a good offense. By the third round of meetings on Nov. 11, Israel had responded with a line drawn north of their own original claim. Still, the situation remains flexible, as the parties are set to meet again on Dec. 2. The Lebanese and Israeli positions may in part be designed for domestic audiences, as both sides need to be seen to be taking a strong position vis-à-vis the other.
It’s dangerous to predict success, given the volatility of Israel and Lebanon, not to mention the rest of the region. However, should these technical issues be resolved, there is a strong chance that the agreement will succeed and endure. While there are few public displays of enthusiasm for the negotiations, there is also relatively little pushback against the idea of negotiations in their current form. No doubt, a current of opinion in Lebanon resists any form of agreement with Israel, but even the newspaper most vocally opposed to anything that could be interpreted as “normalization” appears to be offering advice to negotiators, rather than opposing the discussions as such (with one prominent exception). Other regional powers have not raised any objections, and indeed the trends towards normalization in the Arab world suggests that they will welcome any Lebanese move towards an agreement with Israel.
Natural gas alone will neither resolve economic problems in Lebanon nor bring about peace between Beirut and Jerusalem, but an agreement on this issue would be a small step in the right direction on both issues, and one that is likely to endure.
James R. Stocker is associate professor of international affairs at Trinity Washington University. He is the author of Spheres of Intervention: US Foreign Policy and the Collapse of Lebanon, 1967–1976 (Cornell University Press, 2016).
Image: Flickr (Photo by Chadica)