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Israeli official confirms progress in Lebanon maritime talks, but says gaps remain

Beirut has indicated agreement is near; senior Israeli official vows Hezbollah threats won’t stop extraction at contested offshore gas field

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A diplomatic convoy carrying UN officials to attend the first round of talks between Lebanese and Israeli delegations on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries, which are still in a state of war, in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura on October 14, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT/AFP)
Illustrative: A diplomatic convoy carrying UN officials to attend the first round of talks between Lebanese and Israeli delegations on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries, which are still in a state of war, in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura on October 14, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT/AFP)

A senior Israeli official confirmed Sunday that slow-moving negotiations with Lebanon over the disputed maritime border between the countries were making progress, but asserted there was still significant work to be done.

The official’s assessment came a day after Lebanon’s foreign minister described the negotiations as close to completion.

“We are making progress, but there is a lot more work,” said the Israeli official, who spoke anonymously about the ongoing talks. “There are still things that are not finalized. The government of Lebanon must decide it wants to reach an agreement.

“We hope we can reach this important agreement,” the official added. “We hope that it happens soon.”

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib on Saturday said the negotiations were “95 percent complete.”

Bouhabib told the An-Nahar newspaper that both sides were interested in completing the agreement quickly. He added that he believed now was the best time to seal a deal, as a new government in Israel after the November election might have different interests.

“It is said that if Benjamin Netanyahu comes [into power], he may blow up the agreement,” he said. “Here [in Lebanon], a president with a different approach and vision may come. Therefore, the time is right for an agreement.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s term in office is set to end in October.

Energean’s floating production system (FPSO) at the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. (Energean)

The dispute, which involves competing claims over offshore gas fields, escalated in June after Israel moved a production vessel near the Karish offshore field, which is partly claimed by its northern neighbor.

The Israeli official vowed Sunday that natural gas extraction from the Karish field would go ahead despite threats by Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group.

The official emphasized that Israel was keeping a watchful eye on Hezbollah but noted, “We are planning on starting extraction the moment the work there finishes.

“When the [production vessel] company is ready, it will begin,” said the official.

The London-listed Energean company licensed by Israel to extract gas from the Karish field announced on Thursday that it would begin yielding output within weeks.

The “assets have outperformed our expectations and our flagship Karish project is on track to start production within weeks,” Energean said in a statement accompanying financial results.

Hezbollah, which launched drones toward the Karish gas field in July, has threatened attacks if Israel proceeds with gas extraction in the disputed area.

Referring to Karish, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in early August that “the hand that reaches for any of this wealth will be severed.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said late last month that any attack on Israel’s gas assets could reignite war between the two sides.

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

The Israel Defense Forces has assessed there is a “reasonable possibility” of confrontation with Hezbollah over the gas field, Channel 12 reported Saturday.

According to a document cited by the network, Nasrallah may go to war with Israel in order to regain popularity in Lebanon.

Israel says the Karish field is located entirely within its exclusive economic zone, but Lebanon insists that part of the field falls within its own waters.

The US has mediated in the dispute and its envoy for negotiations, Amos Hochstein, visited both countries last week.

Mediator Hochstein said Friday that there had been progress in talks but that more work was needed for a final agreement. He was in Israel on Thursday and met with National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata and Foreign Ministry director Alon Ushpiz.

AFP contributed to this report.

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