On Wednesday, officials from Israel and Lebanon – two neighbors still technically at war – met inside a tent for their first talks on a nonsecurity issue in three decades. The tent, which belongs to United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, was an apt metaphor. It symbolizes a widening tent for countries in the eastern Mediterranean to collaborate in tapping newly discovered oil and natural gas in their offshore seabed.
The talks between Lebanon and Israel were limited to resolving a maritime border dispute that is holding up petroleum exploration. Yet their main goal, said Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, is to create security and stability for the benefit of all the people in the region.
In different parts of the world, peace has often become a reality when longtime foes find a common interest such as sharing resources. Peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, for example, began in the early 1990s over a joint desire to resolve issues over water resources.
Israel and Lebanon are eager to tap the oil and gas off their shores mainly out of domestic pressures for prosperity. Over the past decade, other nearby countries have joined in this quest. In September, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority formed the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, an entity designed to allow friendly coordination in exploration and production.
The outlier has been Turkey. Under the legal norms of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, its options for offshore drilling are limited. In a belligerent move, it has sent exploration ships into waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus – often accompanied by warships. Greek and Turkish ships actually collided in August. Both the European Union and NATO are trying to calm the tensions caused by Turkey’s actions and extraterritorial claims.
This makes the Israel-Lebanon talks even more important. Formal peace talks between the two countries are not expected. Yet the talks do help widen the tent for regional cooperation.
What binds neighbors is often greater than what divides them. And supporting each other in tapping natural wealth is preferable to risking conflict.