Israeli soldiers
© REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Israeli soldiers take part in an exercise in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
While tensions are increasing between the US and Iran, Israel and Lebanon may finally be on the path toward diplomacy in order to reach an agreement over a hotly contested resource-rich maritime region.

The greatest fear of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and of course, Israel, is the formation of what has been dubbed for years the 'Shia Crescent' - a land bridge of predominantly Shia-led countries that connects Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond.

As Iran's influence grows in these countries, these nations become a problem for the US and its regional allies. Iran has been a thorn in Washington's backside ever since the Iranian people overthrew an American-backed dictator in the Islamic Revolution. Imagine how much more problematic it would become when Iran manages to maintain an influential footprint in a bridge of nations which can further advance its interests?

However, while the US typically relies on the brute force of its military to solve the issues that challenging nations such as Iran pose, in the case of Lebanon it has apparently attempted another tactful approach (which may just end up working).

A pathway to peace

US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield has been making numerous trips between Israel and Lebanon in recent months to mediate a longstanding maritime border dispute the two countries have faced for almost a decade. In the past month alone, Satterfield has reportedly made at least four visits to the two nations specifically on the issue of demarcating the maritime border between the two rivals.

Unlike Trump, Satterfield speaks fluent Arabic and is well familiar with regional dynamics, having served in the Middle East for approximately 40 years; not to mention his former post as ambassador to Lebanon from 1998 to 2001.

In February last year, Lebanon signed its first offshore oil and gas exploration and production agreements in a potential undersea reserve, the ownership of which is still disputed by Israel. An amalgamation of Total, Eni, and Novatek won two of Lebanon's 10 exploration blocks last year.

Just recently, Satterfield made a breakthrough between Lebanese leadership and Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. According to Reuters, any agreement will deal only with the maritime border dispute and not the land border dispute. At this stage, the two sides appear to have agreed that the talks over the maritime dispute will not be limited by time, pending a final response from Beirut. Direct talks are expected to take place in July.

You see, like most conflicts, the roots of the Israel-Lebanon dispute can be found in the treasures of natural gas and geopolitics. Lebanon shares the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean with Israel, Cyprus, and Syria. Unfortunately for Beirut, it has some catching up to do regarding the exploration and exploitation of the potential oil and gas reserves in the area.

While the media focuses on the disorderly pandemonium that is the Trump administration and its various ventures, foreign and energy ministers of Cyprus and Lebanon quietly met in Beirut in April, agreeing on negotiations to conclude a deal for the development of joint resources and the running of joint gas and oil fields. A Lebanese-Cypriot-Greek summit is also scheduled to take place this month.

Israel does not seem deterred by these warming developments, quite the contrary. In fact, some reports are speculating that if Lebanon were to reach an agreement with Israel, it could help create the perception that the Trump administration's proposed peace plan for Israel and Palestine is a success, by pressuring Beirut to give hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees Lebanese citizenship. The inclusion of large numbers of Sunni Muslims as full-blown Lebanese civilians would threaten the strength that Shia Hezbollah holds in the country, a development which will also be further embraced by Tel Aviv.

In this regard, Beirut may sooner or later have to make concessions to Washington in order to move forward. Sanctions on Iran, a paralysed tourism sector, and a pending bankruptcy in the face of $85 billion worth of debt will entail that Lebanon will be keen to move ahead as fast as possible with the hope of upgrading its energy economy. Allegedly, it is the burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war in Syria that has pushed even Hezbollah in this direction. Remember that Nasrallah once reportedly said that:
"I am against any reconciliation with Israel. I do not even recognize the presence of a state that is called 'Israel.' I consider its presence both unjust and unlawful. That is why if Lebanon concludes a peace agreement with Israel and brings that accord to the Parliament our deputies will reject it; Hezbollah refuses any conciliation with Israel in principle."
One proposal currently involves discussions over allowing energy companies to carry out seismic surveys in both Israeli and Lebanese waters. A genuine breakthrough agreement could avoid a disastrous war between the two nations.

Approximately two years ago, Israel attempted to secure its control over these disputed areas by proposing a "maritime areas law" that would establish Israel's sovereignty over the disputed places. Lebanon viewed the move as an act of war.

Reportedly, Israel barely has enough energy resources of its own to maintain even 50 percent of its exports. While barely talked about by the corporate media, this issue remains, in the background, one of Israel's main focuses.

"Firstly, zoom out and consider Israel's behaviour in regards to other territorial disputes with Lebanon, like the Shebaa farms, which they still occupy. Or maybe the Syrian Golan Heights. They do not have the incentive to leave, because nobody makes them do so, they can take areas whenever they like with impunity," an unnamed Lebanese Ministry of National Defense official reportedly told Al Jazeera over a year ago.

"The United States has also supported them in this and now they have the support of Trump. Secondly, we predict with certainty that there are approximately 865 million barrels of oil and 96 trillion cubic feet of gas in that area, this is something that Israel will fight tooth and nail for."

Drums of War still beating

Technically, Israel and Lebanon are still at war. And despite the movement towards diplomacy, backed by the United States, there are still many indications that both sides are preparing for war, just in case.

Just last week, Israel and Lebanon engaged in a war of words over recent developments. After a drone infiltrated Israeli airspace allegedly from Lebanon, the head of the IDF Northern Command, Major General Amir Baram, warned of both covert and overt action against Hezbollah, threatening to "exact a heavy price from this organization and those who give it backing."

At around the same time, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that his organisation has missiles that could "change the face of the region." He also warned against engaging Iran militarily, stating that all "US forces and interests in the region will be exterminated, and those who conspired will pay the price: first Israel, then al-Saud."

At the start of this month, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) revealed images of the inside of a tunnel which passed deep underground from Lebanon into northern Israel. In January, Nasrallah boasted that his personnel had been able to enter Israel for years.

For its part, Israel has simulated invasions of Lebanese territory to prepare for a ground war with Hezbollah multiple times over the last few years. Most importantly, according to Haaretz, the IDF is expected to launch a simulator that mimics a battle with Hezbollah (it already has one in respect of facing off against militants in Gaza).

In March of last year, Israel even simulated a multi-front war in which Russia stepped in to protect Syria from Israeli attacks. An IDF official also reportedly said "no one in Israel is confused about who the Russians are and who they are aligned with."

"The Russians are not our allies, to put it mildly," the official continued. "We have one ally, and that is the United States. The Russians are here for totally different objectives. They are supporting a regime that has an outspoken goal of annihilating Israel if it only could. The are also part of a coalition that supports Iran."

It would appear that at the end of the day, some geopolitical disputes are so valuable they are worth engaging nuclear powers on a catastrophic, multipolar battlefield simply to protect one's economic interests.
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region. He is fully qualified as a lawyer in two international jurisdictions.