Fire and war from the waters of the Levant

(To Gino Lanzara)
06/07/22

The Mediterranean once again lends itself to being the ideal backdrop for those who intend to shift attention away from Ukraine; now it is the - belated - search for alternative energy sources to the Russian ones that leads us to consider it as the main topic resources hidden in the Levantine seabed.

The gas fields of Tamar and Leviathan in Israeli waters, those of Zohr in the Egyptian area, and finally Calypso and Aphrodite in Cypriot waters, have allowed the US Geological Survey to estimate gas reserves in the region totaling no less than 286.2 trillion ft3. This is where the idea comes from EastMed, underwater pipeline of about 2000 km with significant technical-political problems; this is where the revisions of the EEZs take shape which, in exchange for pervasive military support in favor of Tripoli, facilitate the Mavi vatan of Ankara.

Set theEastMed, a development which, even if devoid of American support, allows Israel and Cyprus to take hold1 and Greece to sign a functional agreement for shared energy development.

The Russian invasion leads Anthony Blinken to give new chances to the realization of EastMed, but without dispelling the doubts about its feasibility: there remains the risk of finding oneself with an asset that is not very usable and very expensive, also given the assertive posture of Ankara that aspires to the palm of regional energy hub; position disputed by Cairo, which makes use of the solution offered by gas pipelines that can be connected from the cultivation fields already operational, to its own liquefaction facilities, in order to send the gas to Europe by sea, with costs and times lower than EastMed.

Despite the technical-economic problems, the most prudent Mediterranean countries are pushing for a solution to be reached and Israel proposes itself as start up nation. Israel is the land of Unicorns2, strong of a Green Deal able to offer useful opportunities both for the development of research and innovation capacities, and for the management of energy sources together with Egypt, Jordan, and Gaza.

The black swan is now the most impracticable state, or perhaps the most suitable one now, given its situation: Lebanon, a failed political entity heterodirected by the Ayatollahs of Tehran. The Lebanese-Israeli dispute centers on the offshore field Karish3, first demanded by Beirut, then object of renunciation in exchange for the Qana reserve (quid pro quo Clarice ..)4; it is a pity that Jerusalem considers Karish part of its waters, an aspect that could make the mission of the American envoy Amos Hochstein useless, aiming at maintaining a stability made impossible in large part by the choices made by the star-striped foreign policy of the last 20 years ; Hochstein, the envoy who suspended the negotiations at the end of 2021 due to the intervention of Hezbollah and the indecisions of Beirut regarding the delimitation of the Lebanese and Israeli EEZs.

The EEZs follow traits that are not easy to interpret: line 1, dating back to the early 2000s, has long been abandoned; line 23, adopted in 2011 by the Lebanese government which grants Beirut 860 sq km more than line 1 and is contested by Israel; there Hof line5, which leaves Lebanon with 60% of the 860 sq km that fall within the Israeli contested area; line 29, of 2022, which assigns 1.430 sq km to Lebanon, instead of the 860 sq km of 23.

At the moment Beirut has sent to the UN Security Council only an official letter, insufficient in terms of law, which pushes away the moment of confrontation with Israel, while President Aoun seems to have re-launched, only verbally, fearing the intervention of Hezbollah, the compromise hypothesis of the maritime border on line 23. In all of this, the UN Borders Committee shared the Israeli position.

Water doesn't make it easy to establish limit, least of all if agitated. It is useless to have unfounded illusions: first of all Israel will never (after good reason) give up a part of (rich) sovereign territory, secondly, who to deal with in a country hostage to Hezbollah, a formation defined by many as a terrorist? A party that, although it belongs to God, certainly did not facilitate the granting of loans and aid to be requested (perhaps) from the IMF alone. While the president halved Aoun threatens on the one hand and flatters Jerusalem on the other, Hezbollah launches missiles and drones: can there be room for negotiation?

Another neglected point is the Israeli political will which, although reaching for the umpteenth round of elections in November, will hardly give in on the fundamentals especially towards a country, Lebanon, with which it has been officially at war since 1948. What is certain is whereas the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, remain ready to defend Karish, some 50 kilometers from the Haifa coastline; According to Kan, an Israeli broadcaster, the Tel Aviv Navy has long deployed ships and submarines, also keeping the naval version of the Iron Dome missile system ready.

Meanwhile, Beirut press sources have attacked the Lebanese ruling class for the failure to defend national energy interests, focusing attention on Hezbollah, which has never backed down from the threat of retaliation in the event that Israel tries to exploit the resources in the area in question, areas where marine structures do not follow border demarcations or according to agreed EEZs.

On the other hand, is it possible to hypothesize political stability in a country like Lebanon where ethnic religious fragmentation conditions politics? 15 years of civil war cannot be erased with a swipe of a sponge; the fragility of a government system subject to continuous vetoes, with weak currencies, corruption, very high public debt have favored policies aimed at the clientelist donation of public employment, subsidies, pensions, having in the background a judicial system often hostage to the extremisms that prevent to at least restore peace to the 214 dead of the explosion of 4 August 2020: it is difficult to have both peace and justice. At this moment in Lebanon no one can compete with Hezbollah, state within state, not even theArmy.

Lebanon, a country in default, is just a geographical expression in which Hezbollah takes no responsibility, especially in the south. The maritime dispute with Israel, which had remained dormant for a long time, resurfaced with the arrival of the Energean Power6, intended for the extraction and storage of Karish gas on behalf of Israel starting from September 20227, and the subject of direct communications by Nasr Allah.

While theEnergean Power, of the Greek English Energean plc, reached Karish, la Halliburton, owner of the ship, initiated contacts useful to avoid any possibility of clash between Israel and Lebanon, having in the background Hezbollah which, indoors, raised the alert level of its naval forces until the recent launch of drones shot down by Israel8; it is evident that the electoral weakening has not distracted Hezbollah from its policy, as opposed to that thawra9 of the 13 independent deputies unexpectedly elected to parliament, but against which the attention of the Hezbollah leadership has already been directed.

For Israel, facing threats brought against its installations is nothing new, and the response is entrusted to a deterrence that warns anyone to carefully weigh the weight of the inevitable retaliation.

The bloc of the Party of God, which lost its majority following elections tainted by the risk of buying and selling votes, no longer enjoys the majority with a political downsizing contextual to the rise of the far-right Lebanese Christian Forces, which can count on Saudi aid.

Faced with the possible economic benefits deriving from the Ukrainian conflict, the eastern Mediterranean exalts the instability and insecurity that are heading towards a confrontation between Israel and Lebanon. While Jerusalem will not take into consideration the threats of the fragile Lebanese executive, it will do well not to underestimate the warnings of Hezbollah. Despite the decline in Hezbollah's power in Lebanese politics, or perhaps because of it, Israel is never passive in the face of threats from Nasr Allah.

Regardless of the accuracy of Israeli intelligence on Hezbollah's intentions, the extreme tip of Tehran's Shiite crescent plays on political frailties and asymmetrical balances of power; if it is true that the dispute could be resolved through negotiation, it is equally true that the discovery of gas fields not only offers potential opportunities for economic revival, but also the increase in latent geopolitical tensions between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Israel , Lebanon.

Meanwhile in Egypt the EU, which needs 400 billion m3 of gas per year, concluded a Memorandum of Understanding that will allow Tel Aviv to sell gas to Europe through the LNG terminals in Cairo, to which Ursula von der Leyen has promised 100 million euros in aid to support food security.

While Beirut is in ruins, Egypt and Israel have long collaborated in the energy field; Israel has already increased exports to Egypt10 via Jordan e Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP).

The Ukrainian conflict has guaranteed profitable opportunities for the sale of gas to the old continent, so much so that it can ensure renewed opportunities for theEastMed Gas Forum11 as an international platform, in which Egypt will play a central role as a gas transit hub, and Israel will be able to relaunch further auctions for Oil & Gas licenses.

Modesto excluded the poor cousin, Lebanon, which will not be able to participate in the division of revenues due to the European diversification of imports, given the unsuccessful drilling operations carried out by Total, Eni and Novatek north of Beirut: gas is further south, in the shadow of the Star of David.

While Karish will increase Israel's strategic negotiating capacity towards Europe, Cyprus and Greece, with which it has also entered into a military alliance, Lebanon understands that it must try to escalate in an attempt to strengthen its position, a difficult operation given the plurality of subjects who are not only not institutionally authorized to speak (Hezbollah), but who do not even care about the consequences of the state of necessity determined by their own internal fickleness, consequences that certainly cannot fall on others.

In summary, the Lebanese pretext of reviewing the maritime border has no basis, just as Hezbollah's claim to replace the state in dealing with another political entity by means of blackmail has no justification.

The Israeli exercise of the right of retaliation, according to this one, as one cannot fail to estimate trends, the definitive and imminent dissolution of the Lebanese state.

Are the waters of the Levant interesting? Obviously, but only to those who can read all the meanings, from the most explicit to the most hidden, also because given the conformation of the Mediterranean basin, there is no country that can even think of call yourself out. The Mediterranean medium powers, given their history and geographical configuration, should be masters in the art of politics and diplomacy: nothing can be left to chance, especially in such a critical moment from the point of view of resources. It's a bit like the soccer, a a matter of centimeters... with a very low margin of error ... where not to go wrong it makes the difference between living and dying12. We should think about it (seriously) more often.

1 Nicosia has a gas resource potential of over 60 trillion ft3: the income deriving from taxes would give the possibility to re-emerge from the economic collapse; Cyprus has relations with the Texan Noble Energy who had collaborated with the Israeli Delek Drilling for Leviathan

2 Unicorns: term used to indicate private companies that have reached a value of more than one billion USD.

3 Shark in Hebrew

4 The silence of the lambs

5 From Frederic Hof, the American diplomat who negotiated it

6 Reserves of the field are lower than the estimated volumes in the other two Israeli fields of Leviathan and Tamar. Even before gas prices rose, Energean decided that the most profitable way to exploit the field is to link its development to two other fields in the area, Karish North and Tanin.

7 Energean Power can handle 8 billion cubic meters of gas per year.  

8 An Israeli F16 fighter and missile unit (Barak 8 maritime air defense system) intercepted 3 hostile UAVs from Lebanon on the Mediterranean that approached the airspace over sovereign waters on their way to Karish.

9 Revolutionary

10 Under a 2020 US $ 15 billion deal, Israel exports gas to Egypt, where it is liquefied and transported to European countries.

11 International organization formed by Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine

12 Every given sunday

Photo: US Navy / LAF