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European official says maritime deal will likely be postponed, but not dead yet

Shortly after Lapid rejects Lebanese demands, official says accord now unlikely to happen soon; Israeli official downplays disagreement

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

An Israeli Sa'ar Class 4.5 missile boat guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli Sa'ar Class 4.5 missile boat guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

A deal on setting the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon is unlikely to come to fruition in the near term but is by no means off the table, a European diplomat told The Times of Israel on Thursday as disagreements emerged between the sides on the latest draft proposal.

“This is certainly a blow to a rapid closure of the negotiation but we don’t think it marks the death of it… yet,” said the diplomat, shortly after Prime Minister Yair Lapid rejected Lebanon’s requested modifications to the US-proposed maritime border deal.

“Both sides have shown their interest in finding a middle ground in the last weeks, and it would be a pity to witness the failure of negotiations given its recent progress,” the diplomat added.

An Israeli official, however, downplayed the extent of the disagreement, saying that the deal could still be wrapped up soon.

Meanwhile a top Lebanese negotiator said talks were at a crucial juncture.

Deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab told the Reuters news agency that the deal “is 90% done but the remaining 10% could make it or break it,” adding that the US-brokered negotiations were ongoing.

Only days ago, Israeli officials were speaking about the deal as if it were a foregone conclusion. But its chances now seem to be shrinking.

Contradicting earlier assertions by Western officials that Lebanon’s objections were minor, a senior Israeli official called Beirut’s demands “significant.”

Lapid emphasized that he would not compromise Israel’s economic and security interests, even if it meant that there would be no deal in the near term, according to the official.

The official also warned the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group against trying to strike the Karish gas field or threaten Israel, saying the talks would then “end permanently, and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah will have to explain to Lebanese civilians why they don’t have gas rigs or an economic future.”

Over the weekend, the Biden administration’s energy envoy Amos Hochstein presented what is believed to be a final proposal aimed at addressing competing claims over offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea — which initially seemed to be welcomed by both sides.

Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister said the deal with Israel would avert a war in the Middle East.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati speaks during a parliament session to confirm Lebanon’s new government at a Beirut theater known as the UNESCO palace, so that parliament members could observe social distancing measures imposed over the coronavirus pandemic, on September 20, 2021. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

“We are avoiding a definite war in the region,” Najib Mikati said Thursday he’d told Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during a meeting in Bkerké. “When we unite and our decision is one, we can reach what we all want.”

Israel’s high-level security cabinet was set to convene to discuss the terms of the US-proposed deal for a maritime border with Lebanon.

Earlier this week, Mikati said that the position of Lebanon’s three senior leaders — himself, President Michel Aoun, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – was unified.

Lebanon on Tuesday sent Washington its remarks on the proposal. No official details were provided on the contents of the Lebanese position.

Deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab said the issue was “now in the hands of the US mediator,” adding that the response included “modifications” to the US proposal.

Citing unnamed government officials Tuesday, the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar reported that Beirut did not agree to recognize Israel’s buoy-marked boundary — which Jerusalem unilaterally placed five kilometers off of the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra in 2000 — as an international border.

Lebanese protesters sail near an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration demanding Lebanon’s right to disputed maritime oil and gas fields, near Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP Photo/ Mohammed Zaatari)

The report claimed Beirut was also against the idea of demarcating a land border as part of the agreement, and insisted that the issue must instead be reserved for discussions with the United Nations.

Furthermore, it said Beirut wants the French Total Energy company to work with Lebanon independently from its work with Israel, likely taking issue with the reported compensation Israel will receive from energy companies in exchange for giving up rights to the Qana offshore gas field.

Finally, Lebanon reportedly objects to a proposed signing ceremony alongside Israeli officials in the Lebanese city of Naqoura. Instead, officials countered that a deal should be signed with officials from the two sides in separate rooms, since Israel and Lebanon do not have diplomatic relations and are technically at war.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas field on July 19, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Although full details of the proposed agreement have not been made public, diplomats familiar with the matter say that the proposal recognizes Israel’s buoy-marked border, and after that, the border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.

The deal is said to allow Lebanon to enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, while Israel will remain in control of the Karish gas field.

The deal has come under fire from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who labeled the agreement “illegal” and accused Lapid on Monday of giving up “sovereign territory of Israel,” vowing that a potential future coalition led by him “won’t be bound by it.”

Last month, Lapid’s office vowed Israel would go ahead and extract gas from Karish with or without any final deal on the maritime border dispute.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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