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As Israel moves to drill natural gas, Lebanon urges US envoy to end maritime dispute

Beirut sends invitation to Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at US State Department, who mediated 2021 indirect talks; Israel insists new rig is in undisputed area

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, February 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, February 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

BEIRUT — The Lebanese government on Monday invited a US envoy mediating between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime border to return to Beirut as soon as possible to work out an agreement amid rising tensions along the border.

The invitation for Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser for energy security at the US State Department, came a day after Israel set up an oil rig at its designated location at the Karish field, which Israel says is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone. Lebanon insists it is in a disputed area.

The US-mediated indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel have been stalled for months amid disagreement within Lebanon over how big the disputed area is.

Lebanon is home to the heavily armed Hezbollah terror group, which is backed by Iran and has fought several wars with Israel. Hezbollah has also warned it would use its weapons to protect Lebanon’s business rights.

On Sunday, Lebanon warned Israel not to start drilling in the Karish field and President Michel Aoun said maritime border negotiations have not ended, adding that any move by Israel will be considered “a provocation and hostile act.”

Aoun’s office said Lebanon formally informed the United Nations in February that Karish is part of the disputed area and that the UN Security Council should prevent Israel from drilling there in order “to avoid steps that could form a threat to international peace and security.”

The Israeli Energy Ministry confirmed that the oil rig arrived Sunday, after a five-week sail from Singapore. The ministry said that the Karish field is projected to provide half of Israel’s demand for natural gas and will allow greater exports to neighboring Egypt and Jordan.

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said in an interview on Monday with Army Radio that the field was “entirely in undisputed territory” and called on Lebanon to return to indirect negotiations.

“It’s not even (above) the southern line that Lebanon submitted to the United Nations. Even according to the United Nations, it’s not in Lebanon,” she said. Elharrar added that the Defense Ministry is taking the necessary steps to protect the rig, without elaborating further.

A picture taken on June 6, 2022, from the southernmost area of the Lebanese town of Naqura, shows an Israeli navy vessel patrolling the waters offshore. (MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP)

On Monday, the office of Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that he has agreed with Aoun to invite Hochstein to return to Beirut for talks on the border dispute and “to work on concluding them as soon as possible in order to prevent any escalation that will not serve the stability that the region is currently witnessing.”

Israel and Lebanon, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to unleash offshore oil and gas production as it grapples with an economic crisis.

Last year, the Lebanese delegation — a mix of army generals and professionals — offered a new map that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles).

An official at the office of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, “Karish is a natural gas reservoir within Israel’s UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said that the Lebanese themselves had recognized it as Israeli waters in the past.

Israel and Lebanon resumed negotiations over their maritime border in 2020 but the process was stalled by Beirut’s claim that the map used by the United Nations in the talks needed modifying.

A UNIFIL Navy ship patrols in the Mediterranean Sea next to a base of the UN peacekeeping force, while Lebanon and Israel resumed indirect talks over their disputed maritime border with U.S. mediation, off the southern town of Naqoura, Lebanon, May 4, 2021. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Lebanese officials themselves are divided over the demarcation line, and the state’s official position has looked inconsistent.

A demarcation known as Line 29 would give Lebanon more territory further south, including parts of the Karish gas field.

On Sunday, Lebanese officials said that any Israeli activity in disputed waters would constitute a “hostile act” and an “attack” on Lebanon’s natural resources.

The drilling ship, operated by London-listed Energean Plc, will immediately commence operations, Energean said in a statement the day it arrived.

Energean, which will operate Karish, said the first gas flows from the field should come in the third quarter of 2022.

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