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Lebanon ‘more optimistic than ever’ on progress in Israel maritime border talks

Foreign minister gives upbeat assessment of negotiations over offshore gas plays, says US envoy expected back in region, amid saber-rattling over drilling in disputed zone

A Lebanese activist holds a placard in Arabic that reads "Thank you from the heart to the weapons of the resistance, protectors of the oil," as Lebanese soldiers stand guard during a protest in the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Saturday, June 11, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)
A Lebanese activist holds a placard in Arabic that reads "Thank you from the heart to the weapons of the resistance, protectors of the oil," as Lebanese soldiers stand guard during a protest in the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Saturday, June 11, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Lebanon indicated Friday that talks to resolve a maritime border dispute with Israel were advancing, with a US mediator expected back in the region next week as war drums between the countries beat in the background.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said he was more bullish than ever on negotiations over offshore gas fields claimed by both countries, which have been the focus of years of on-again, off-again talks aimed at demarcating an official maritime border between the two enemies.

“Bou Habib added that he is optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement between Lebanon and Israel… noting that there has never been optimism to the extent that there is today,” the Lebanese Foreign Ministry said in a tweet.

The comments were made in an interview with the BBC, the ministry said.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their exclusive economic zones.

Bou Habib noted that US energy envoy Amos Hochstein was expected back in Lebanon on Sunday to discuss Israel’s response to Lebanon’s last offer.

US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein with Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib, left, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Hochstein said last month that Lebanon had agreed to drop demands for control of part of the Karish field claimed by Israel, asking in exchange for full control of the Qana gas field that also straddles the countries’ offshore economic zones.

The US has not confirmed Hochstein’s reported travel plans.

The remarks came as Lebanon’s Shiite terror group Hezbollah has recently escalated its rhetoric and actions over the border dispute, after Israel moved a natural gas drilling vessel into the contested Karish field. In its boldest move, Hezbollah sent four drones toward the Karish platform a month ago, all of which were intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces.

Earlier this month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that the drones sent to the Karish field were “only the beginning,” and that his group would go to war over the field.

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

Israeli leaders have countered that the country’s military will act against any threat, and have called on Lebanon to reach a deal so it can begin extracting gas and pulling itself out of its current economic tailspin.

Israel was “ready to do a lot so that its neighbors will prosper, and is ready to act all the time to protect its citizens,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said during a tour of the northern border on July 19.

Israel maintains sovereignty over the Karish gas field and has been seeking to develop it as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe

In June, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union signed a memorandum of understanding in Cairo that will see Israel export its natural gas to the bloc for the first time.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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