US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut, February 2018.
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Gas is big business and Lebanon wants to cash in. Prime Minister Saad Hariri told reporters in Beirut on February 15 that Lebanon was seeking to “finally exploit oil and gas” in the Mediterranean. The energy issue has become a new arrow in the quiver of aggressive rhetoric in Lebanon, accusing Israel of somehow encroaching on the country’s sovereignty.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel’s gas platforms, which he claimed his group could “halt within hours,” if asked to do so by the Lebanese defense council. The gas dispute risks becoming part of a whole series of clashes Israel has with Iran and its proxies across the region.
The quarrel over gas and oil rights in the Mediterranean region revolves around “block 9,” which is one of the ten blocks off Lebanon that constitute its exclusive economic zone. In March 2017 the government of President Michel Aoun published a tender for companies to explore the area for gas with the hopes that Lebanon could join in the bonanza that Israel has accessed by searching for natural resources off its coast.
The problem is that a part of block 9 is claimed by both Israel and Lebanon, and constitutes a triangle off the coast of around 860 sq. km. This dispute was mostly hypothetical until December 2017 when a consortium of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek received approval to explore in two of the blocks off the coast.
One of those blocks was the infamous Block 9.
“When they issue a tender on a gas field, including Block 9 – which by any standard is ours – this is very, very challenging and provocative conduct,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in late January, according to Reuters. Aoun, whose party is allied with Hezbollah, said that Liberman’s comments were a “threat to Lebanon and its right to sovereignty over its territorial waters.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has a long background in oil – having worked for Exxon for over 40 years and eventually becoming its CEO – sought compromise when he visited Beirut on February 15. He claimed that he had good discussions about an “offshore agreement,” in Beirut.
“This is an extremely important issue to Lebanon; it’s important to Israel as well – to come to some agreement so that private companies can go to work offshore and determine what, in fact, might be available in terms of natural resources development.”
Unfortunately Tillerson didn’t follow that up with a visit to Israel afterwards, so the substance of his discussions about the offshore gas issue didn’t seem to make it to Jerusalem.
This left the field open for Hezbollah to flex its muscles.
Over the last week there have been rallies and threats in Lebanon in the context of the tenth anniversary of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh’s death. “If Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council asks us to halt the work of Israel’s offshore oil and gas platforms, we could do so within hours.”
Nasrallah also threatened the US – whom he referred to as “devils” – with seeking to divide Lebanon. He claimed that the “greedy” Americans were thirsting for the natural resources and Hezbollah, of course, would defend them.
This is Hezbollah’s constant selling point. It is “defending” Lebanon and thus must remain a state within the state, an army within the army. It conducts its own policy, to the extent that its unclear where Hezbollah ends and Lebanon begins. It claims to be “defending” offshore oil interests, when in fact these interests could be submitted to international arbitration and the sliver of dispute within Block 9 divided between Israel and Lebanon.
Hezbollah seeks to grab onto the oil dispute as yet another portfolio it “owns” in Lebanon: The southern border; the war against “terror” in Syria; the oil and gas resources; threats against Israel for building a security fence along the border; the need to re-conquer the Sheba Farms.
Its real message was to Tillerson and the Americans: showing once again – even though Tillerson didn’t even mention Hezbollah but rather sought out the official leaders of the country – that Nasrallah seeks to be the power behind the throne.