Recently discovered oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean may bring immense profits, but have so far become the latest point of tension in the Middle East.
There is a joke in Israel, which claims that when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, he took a wrong turn on his way to the Promised Land, bringing them to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil.
Now it seems the prophet may not have been wrong after all.
Reports from the giant Leviathan natural gas site, off the coast of the Israeli city of Haifa, point to a potential four billion barrels of black gold.
Back in 2009, Israel announced the first discovery of a major natural gas field off its coast in the Tamar area, containing some eight trillion cubic feet of resources.
“We will be able to base our future energy on gas,” said Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure, Uzi Landau. “It will be less expensive which is highly important. From a political point of view we will be less dependent on the import of foreign oil.”
However, it is not only Israel that is laying claim to the reserves. Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon also say the oil is theirs.
And while international law allows a country to drill in the continental shelf off its coast, the fact that Israel and Lebanon have never agreed on maritime boundaries makes it unclear where the demarcation line lies.
“Lebanon has its version of where it thinks the border line will pass if and when we negotiate. And Israel has its own claim of where the border is,” said Daniel Reisner, head of international law at Herzog, Fox and Neeman law firm. “But they are not in agreement on where that line is.”
As the two countries are enemy states, there is unlikely to be an agreement anytime soon.
Both have threatened to go to war over the issue.
“Obviously, this is an Israeli company and, as an Israeli company, it will not be allowed to enter Lebanese territory or will have any further connection with exploration of Lebanese gas,” explained political analyst Kamel Wazni.
Lebanon filed a complaint with the United Nations after Israel placed buoys extending two miles into the sea. Also weighing in on the conflict is Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah is the major political actor in Lebanon,” said Professor of Middle East studies Mordechai Nissan. “It is strongly supported from outside Lebanon by Syria and Iran. If we take Hezbollah’s statements and public positions seriously, which we ought to, they have an interest in fermenting activity, creating tension.”
For now, Israel has the upper hand. It has already struck a deal with Cyprus and is preparing to start extraction. In the meantime, Lebanon is still waiting to sort out the boundaries of its economic zone with Cyprus and Syria. And it may take years to prove that Israel’s fields extend into Lebanese territory.