As the Trump administration presses Arab countries to sign off on President Donald Trump's Israeli-Palestinian "deal of the century" amid growing Arab polarization and vocal pessimism, little attention has been given to another sensitive regional matter that the administration has been aptly and quietly tackling. This matter revolves around the demarcation of the Lebanon-Israel maritime and land borders, which have been the focal point of skirmishes, a devastating war in 2006, and rising regional tension involving Iran and Israel.
Since last year, the Trump administration has been pursuing quiet shuttle diplomacy between Beirut and Jerusalem to demarcate their borders, while at the same time pursuing a policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran and Hezbollah. The accomplishments achieved thus far because of the administration's efforts, led by acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, have been quite impressive. Even if their success is incomplete, these efforts could help the economies of both Lebanon and Israel. More importantly, it could decrease the risk of a devastating war with regional repercussions.
Satterfield has extracted some essential concessions from both sides. The negotiations over Israel-Lebanon's borders are highly sensitive because they involve the exploration of energy in disputed maritime Mediterranean waters and a dispute over land borders, the latter of which has been the focus of armed conflicts and a focal point of national and regional conflicts.
The discovery of enormous oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean has been auspicious for the economies of both Israel and Lebanon. The former is already producing gas from several gas fields, including Tamar and Dalit, and is preparing to produce gas from the Leviathan gas field, operated by the energy giant Noble Energy. Additionally, Israel is expanding its offshore exploration efforts via a second bid round, hoping to attract investment via exploration licenses in the country's waters in the Mediterranean. Moreover, Israel and Cyprus have signed agreements delineating their maritime borders and are embracing further economic cooperation with assistance from Noble Energy.
The eagerness with which Israel would like to produce gas from these fields, especially Leviathan, and press ahead with its economic cooperation with Cyprus (with Greece to follow), is hedged by concerns about possible armed conflicts with Lebanon's Hezbollah, due to disputes over the boundaries of these two countries' exclusive economic zones. Lebanon and Israel both claim an area that is approximately 860 square kilometers in size. In fact, in 2011, the Obama administration's special Middle East envoy, Frederic Hof, proposed what came to be known as the "Hof Line," whereby Lebanon would have 550 square kilometers of the disputed area and Israel would take the rest. Lebanon rejected the proposal. In fact, last year Lebanon notably signed off on contracts with giants Total, Eni and Novatek to explore energy in its exclusive economic zone--including in a block disputed by Israel. Total expressed its awareness of the dispute and stated it will drill away from the disputed area, which consists of less than 8 percent of the block under its contract.
While the maritime border dispute may sound convoluted, it pales before the dispute over land borders. At the heart of this land border dispute are three areas: Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shouba Hills and Ghajar. The situation is complex and multi-faceted: there are disputes over the Lebanon-Israel border, the Israel-Syria border and Lebanon-Syria border. Additionally, there...