UNITED NATIONS — A senior U.N. envoy urged Lebanon and Israel on Thursday to promote oil and gas exploration off their coasts despite a dispute over their maritime border.
Michael Williams, the U.N.'s special coordinator for Lebanon, told reporters after briefing the Security Council that maritime disputes are common and exploration companies will avoid the contested area.
Lebanon and Israel, longtime enemies, do not have diplomatic relations. Hezbollah, which dominates Lebanese politics and battled Israel in a monthlong war in 2006, has threatened to use force to protect Lebanon's natural wealth.
Nonetheless, Williams said, "the present issue should not stop both countries from going ahead in the exploitation of maritime resources."
Two large natural gas fields have already been discovered in uncontested waters off Israel's Mediterranean coast by Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. and its Israeli partners Delek Group. Production from the smaller Tamar field, discovered in 2009, is expected to begin next year.
Noble announced in late December that it made the biggest discovery in its history in the Leviathan field off Israel's coast — an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under 5,400 feet of water — which has the potential to make Israel a natural gas exporting nation.
Williams said Lebanon is about six to seven years behind Israel and needs to ratify a law which has already been discussed in Parliament to pave the way for companies to start exploring off its coast.
"I can't underline too much how I would like to see companies — it doesn't matter whether they come from Paraguay or South Korea or wherever — working out there for the benefit of the Lebanese people," Williams said. "I believe that in itself would be a stabilizing factor."
Lebanon submitted its proposed maritime boundary with Israel to the United Nations over a year ago. Earlier this month, Israel set a maritime boundary with Lebanon and submitted the document to the United Nations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Lebanon's proposal would place the maritime border "significantly south" of Israel's line. What was more significant, he said, is that Lebanon's line conflicts with the boundary Lebanon agreed on with Cyprus in 2007.
Williams said maritime border disputes are often resolved under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea which includes provisions for an independent arbitration panel and settling differences at the International Court of Justice.
While Lebanon has ratified the convention, Israel has not, and because the countries don't have diplomatic relations Williams said "it's difficult for the U.N. to find a way forward here."
But Williams noted that both Israel and Lebanon have agreements with Cyprus, though Lebanon's has never been implemented.
"We're encouraging Lebanon to go forward with that because we hope that that can perhaps disentangle some of the overlaps between the two countries," he said.
Williams said maritime issues have also been raised in talks between Israeli and Lebanese military commanders hosted by the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, which was deployed after the Israeli-Hezbollah war to help the Lebanese army extend its authority in the south for the time in decades and create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters.
"The Lebanese came and said, OK, we would like to discuss a maritime security line which would go out to sea 12 miles to the limit of territorial waters," Williams said. "The Israelis did not rule this out completely but have said 'we want to discuss Maritime security issues'."
"The fact that neither party has ruled out the other's request gives some hope that we could see progress in this area," he said.
"So I think the possibility exists for a 'modus vivendi' to be worked out in which the peoples of both countries will enjoy the possible benefits of these maritime resources — which I would hope would contribute to a material improvement in their lives and in their societies and perhaps enable them to move forward on other issues," Williams said. (AP)