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The Israel-Lebanon maritime talks are a setback for Turkey

The Israel-Lebanon maritime talks are a setback for Turkey
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Israel and Lebanon are still formally at war. Not that Lebanon itself poses a major threat to Israel. It was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) domination of Lebanon in the 1970s that led to constant Israeli bombing of Lebanese targets, including the Beirut airport, and to all-out war in 1982

Similarly, Hezbollah’s outsized role in Lebanese politics, its domination of southern Lebanon in particular, and its harassment of Israeli forces over the past three decades led to Israeli offensives in 1993 and 1996; Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000; and all-out war in 2006. With increasingly longer-range rockets and missiles, Hezbollah is a far greater threat to Israeli security than the PLO ever was.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when, for the first time in 30 years, Lebanese and Israeli officials sat down on Oct. 14 to negotiate with each other, their meeting was termed “historic.” Actually, Lebanon has made it clear that it remains at war with Israel. It can do no less while Hezbollah retains its tight grip on the country’s political and economic system. 

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Indeed, in a manner harking back to Henry Kissinger’s mediation in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the negotiators did not address each other directly. Americans mediated the process, though Israelis and Lebanese did sit in the same large tent, located in a town just north of the Israel-Lebanon border.

The negotiation is, in fact, about far less than peace, much less normalization a la Israel’s Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. Instead, it is about settling a long-disputed maritime border, which would enable Lebanon to drill for gas and expand Israel’s own already significant gas exploration and production capacity. Lebanon clearly stands to benefit more from any such agreement, simply because, as Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s energy minister, has rightly pointed out: “The issue is important to us. It’s even more important to the other side. We already have gas reserves that provide for our local needs.”

It is noteworthy that Hezbollah did not seek to block the negotiations. A natural gas find in the Eastern Mediterranean would provide some relief to Lebanon’s economy, which is in dire straits. It is possible that, should Lebanon conclude a maritime boundary agreement with Israel, it might then be amenable to negotiating a border agreement that would resolve the ongoing dispute, and military confrontation, over the small area known as Shebaa Farms, which Israel and the United Nations argue belongs to Syria but Lebanon claims as its own territory. 

For the present, however, there is only the prospect of an agreement, but it would benefit both countries. Of equal consequence, however, it would represent a setback for Turkey in a region that it seeks to dominate. Ankara has bitterly opposed the Abraham Accords and is a vitriolic critic of Israel. 

Turkey seeks to expand its influence in Lebanon. It continues to maintain troops in Iraq and Syria. It has ongoing tensions with Egypt, Italy and France over its intervention in Libya and its maritime agreement with that country. It remains the only country to recognize the government of Northern Cyprus, which came into being in the aftermath of Turkey’s invasion of the island in 1974. It continues to stoke tensions by challenging Greek and Cypriot drilling rights and sending a survey ship to explore for gas in disputed waters. Ankara has become the region’s bully.

It will take some time before Israel and Lebanon reach an agreement on their maritime boundary. It will take even longer for them to progress to an arrangement that regularizes their land border. Nevertheless, any agreement, however minor, between Israel, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly despises, and Lebanon, whose polity he seeks to penetrate, works against his increasingly hegemonic vision for what is, in effect, an Ottoman restoration. And that, in and of itself, is a good thing in an increasingly unstable Eastern Mediterranean.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.