Israel and Lebanon have reportedly made significant progress this week toward opening direct talks on demarcating the maritime border between the two countries, with the first round of direct negotiations now expected to take place in July.
US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield has shuttled between Israel and Lebanon in recent months to mediate in the border dispute, and in the past week achieved a breakthrough between Lebanese leadership and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, according to a Saturday report by Channel 13 news.
The marine border agreement would have an impact on offshore oil and gas exploration.
A senior Israeli official said that during Satterfield’s talks this week many of the issues that had delayed the negotiations were resolved. One of the roadblocks had been the schedule of the talks; Lebanon had demanded that the talks not be limited by any time frame, and Israel had wanted to finish all negotiations within six months.
At a Friday meeting, Satterfield and Steinitz agreed that the talks would not be strictly limited by time, but that the Americans would announce at the start of negotiations that they should be finished in six months.
Satterfield is set to return to Beirut on Monday to get a final response from Lebanon, then return to Jerusalem. According to Israel’s assessment, the two sides would likely reach an agreement next week, and that direct talks would commence sometime in July.
Earlier this month, an Israeli official told Reuters that the discussions would only deal with demarcating the maritime border and not the land border.
The talks could be held at a UN facility in Naqoura in southern Lebanon, the official said.
The official also said one proposal being discussed was to allow energy companies to carry out seismic surveys in both Israeli and Lebanese waters, which are believed to hold deposits of oil and natural gas.
An American official told the news agency that the US “stands ready to work towards solutions that are mutually agreeable to both parties” but would not comment on Satterfield’s meetings.
Last year, Lebanon signed its first contract to drill for oil and gas in its waters, including in a block disputed by Israel, with which it has fought several wars and has no diplomatic relations.
A consortium composed of energy giants Total, Eni and Novatek was awarded two of Lebanon’s 10 exploration blocks last year.
It is set to start drilling in block 4 in December, and later in the disputed block 9.
Last year, Total said it was aware of the border dispute in less than eight percent of block 9 and said it would drill away from that area.
In April, Lebanon invited international consortia to bid for five more blocks, which include two also adjacent to Israel’s waters.
Israel also produces natural gas from reserves off its coast in the Mediterranean.
Israel and Lebanon are still technically at war, though the last Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 after two decades of military presence.
Israel has fought two wars in Lebanon, one in 1982 against Palestinian terrorist groups, and another in 2006 against Hezbollah, as well as a number of smaller operations.