Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, together with his defense and public works ministers on Monday signed a decree that expands his country’s claim in its maritime border dispute with Israel.
Outgoing minister of public works Michel Najjar told reporters the decree formally extended Lebanon’s claims by 550 square miles. Israel and the US are not likely to recognize Beirut’s extension of its rule over the disputed area. The Lebanese PM’s move suggests that he has embraced Hezbollah’s approach, according to which no issue should be discussed with Israel since such a discussion gives legitimacy to the Zionist entity.
Diab succeeded Saad Hariri following the 2019–20 Lebanese protests that had forced Hariri to resign. Diab received the support of 69 out of 128 Lebanese MPs that formed the Hezbollah-allied parliamentary blocs. Even though he is Sunni, Diab did not receive the support of parties from his own Sunni community. In the aftermath of the August 10, 2020, Beirut explosion that was blamed on Hezbollah, Diab resigned and remains in office until a new government is formed.
Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Monday warned that any unilateral Lebanese demarcation of the area would be met by “Israeli counter-steps.” Steinitz noted that “Lebanon prefers to torpedo the negotiations instead of attempting to reach solutions.”
In the disputed area there are several drilling sites for natural gas, which has been found in large quantities in other reservoirs in the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon had hoped to advance gas exploration in the area to create new sources of income to help solve its particularly difficult economic crisis.
But Steinitz pointed out that “this is not the first time in the past 20 years that the Lebanese have changed their maritime maps for propaganda purposes and to express a ‘patriotic stance,’ and with this, they are obstructing themselves one time after another.”
“At a time other countries in the region such as Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus have been developing their natural gas fields for several years to provide prosperity to their citizens, the Lebanese are staying behind and launching fiery statements that will achieve nothing,” Steinitz added.
Lebanon is also in the midst of a longtime maritime border dispute with Syria. Ignoring Lebanon’s claims, Syria has recently awarded an offshore exploration contract to the Russians.