Nicosia — Negotiations led by the US and the UN regarding a common maritime border between Lebanon and Israel could be postponed indefinitely if Beirut proceeds to register new offshore coordinates with the UN for its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
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That step would boost Lebanon's claim by 1,430 sq km and increase the size of the area disputed by the two states from 860 sq km to 2,290 sq km, including part of the Karish gas field license area offshore Israel.
Lebanon has to date made no commercial gas finds in its offshore in stark contrast to Israel, which has developed a number of major fields, including the giant Leviathan and Tamar fields.
A Lebanese source involved in the country's hydrocarbon industry told S&P Global Platts that registering new EEZ coordinates with the UN could jeopardize the investments undertaken by UK-listed Energean to develop Karish.
It could also possibly oblige Energean to halt work on its project, due to come on stream with gas supplies to Israeli customers in Q4 2021.
Energean declined to comment on the negotiations or Lebanon's claim.
After years of diplomatic efforts to resolve the 860 sq km dispute, talks began last October at UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in Naquoura.
But negotiations were suspended after the fourth meeting in November when Lebanese delegates introduced Beirut's claim to more offshore territory.
In recent weeks, a brief paper and maps have been circulated, outlining Lebanon's new position on the maritime delimitation line between the two East Mediterranean countries.
The argument is based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Articles 15, 74 and 83, and refers to a 1993 international case law and the "three-steps rule" of equidistance, relevant circumstances, and disproportionality test.
The paper and maps, which have been acknowledged by a Lebanese official as the legal crux of Beirut's argument, identify a small, rocky outcrop a short distance offshore from the UN-established land border as the problem with current maritime border proposals.
"The strict equidistance line that was proposed by the US mediator Frederic Hof as a solution to the maritime delimitation dispute between Lebanon and Israel is controlled over almost the entirety of its course by a small feature known as 'Tekhelet Island'," the paper states.
Citing examples of other maritime border disputes settled by international case law, the paper notes that Tekhelet and "other Israeli features" are small, uninhabited and lack significant vegetation.
"This indicates that the proper maritime delimitation between Lebanon and Israel should follow the equidistance line that disregards the small Israel maritime features," the paper says.
Lebanon's new claim moves its maritime border south, where it dissects the Karish gas field.
According to a Lebanese source who asked not to be identified, Lebanon's Foreign Ministry is prepared to file the new offshore coordinate with the UN "when it is most suitable for Lebanon."
The source said the claim would become "inevitable in the event that the Israel side practices intentional maneuvering leading to unacceptable delays in the negotiating process."
The source said that once coordinates are registered with the UN, the new area would become a disputed area according to international law.
"Consequently, any contractor currently exploiting the Karish field has to take this new development into consideration and refrain from proceeding with the unilateral exploitation of the field subject to legal and enforcement actions in the event it doesn't," the source said.
The source added that Lebanon is reluctant to take this course, but would protect its sovereignty if necessary.
In response, the Israeli energy ministry said: "The State of Israel has clarified that negotiations to reach a compromise on the maritime border issue will only relate to the well-known disputed area between Israel and Lebanon, as emerged from the two countries' submission to the UN in 2010."
"Israel entered the negotiations with goodwill to resolve the controversy and unilateral actions might put an end to this effort."