UNITED NATIONS – The next flashpoint in the Middle East could be the gas fields off Israel’s Mediterranean coast, where the discovery of large cashes of natural gas is raising homes that Israel could soon become energy-self-sufficient but where a dispute with Lebanon could be ignited.

The Iran-influenced Beirut government is threatening to defend its maritime “rights” and is complaining about Israel’s explorations. Lebanon’s appeals for international intervention begun last summer, immediately after Israel’s off shore gas explorations showed signs of positive results. Now that years of exploration have yielded what some energy experts estimate to be the world’s largest deepwater gas discovery in a decade, Beirut is raising the tone of its demands.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Ali Shami, in a letter to Secretary General Ban, demanded the United Nations assure that “Israel does not exploit Lebanon’s marine and oil wealth, which lies within its exclusive economic zone.” Last June a Shiite politician with ties to Hezbollah, Nabih Berri, speaker of the parliament at Beirut, asserted that Israel’s newly-discovered gas was actually found in Lebanon’s territorial waters.

The United Nations is to date unwilling to intervene, but today it added to the confusion by saying Israel “unilaterally” delineated its maritime border with Lebanon. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky also said that Mr. Shami’s letter has not yet arrived here. But, as is often the case, the contents of letters addressed to U.N. entities are released to the press before they actually get to Turtle Bay.

The line of buoys in the area of Lebanon’s southernmost coastal town of Ras Naqura “was installed unilaterally by Israel following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000,” a U.N. spokesman, Farghan Haq, told The New York Sun. “The line has not been recognized by the Lebanese government, and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon does not have a mandate to monitor the line.” The “maritime boundary in the area was never established,” Mr. Haq added, stressing that Unifil “has no mandate to delineate a maritime boundary.”

According to an Israeli official, the whole issue is moot, as none of the five major gas discoveries to date are close enough to the Lebanese border to be seriously in dispute. Jerusalem would gladly demarcate the maritime border with Lebanon as part of a comprehensive peace deal, he added, pointing out that Israel recently demarcated its maritime border with another neighbor, Cyprus, specifically to assure that gas exploration rights of all parties in the Mediterranean are maintained.

But Lebanon has never agreed to negotiate directly with Israel, which it considers an enemy. In 2000, Israel made a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanese sliver of territory it had previously held as a “security buffer” to avert attacks on its northern towns. At the time, the government of Prime Minister Barak asked the United Nations to affirm that Israel indeed has withdrawn from all of Lebanon’s territory. The U.N. made the affirmation after establishing the “blue line,” as the Israeli-Lebanese border came to be known.

Beirut at the time agreed to abide by the blue line agreement. One of the objects of the border demarcation was to assure that Hezbollah could no longer claim that it arms itself to the teeth only for the purpose of “liberating” Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation. Since then, Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have raised new territorial claims. For example, Beirut, along with Syria, asserted that an ill-defined area known as Shaba Farms is Lebanese territory occupied by Israel, justifying Hezbollah’s belligerence.

A Houston-based company, Noble Energy, which is responsible for the Mediterranean gas explorations in partnership with one of Israel’s largest energy concerns, Delek, estimated on December 29 that the most recently-explored area, Leviathan, contains at least 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Another area, Tamar, discovered in January 2009, contains 8.4 trillion cubic feet, and three other, smaller ones, Dalit, Noa and Mari, add up to a promising gas source that could turn Israel into an energy exporter for the first time in its history.

Several Beirut officials had said that they would start searching for gas near their shores soon, but as of yet no serious finds were reported along the Lebanese coastal line.