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Lebanon ready to resume maritime border talks with Israel, president says

Negotiations have been on hold since May; US mediator Hochstein said set to visit Israel next week for meetings

An Israeli Navy Sa'ar 5 corvette defends a natural gas extraction platform off Israel's coast, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli Navy Sa'ar 5 corvette defends a natural gas extraction platform off Israel's coast, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Lebanon is ready to resume talks over a maritime border dispute with Israel, the country’s president, Michel Aoun, said on Wednesday.

Longtime foes 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.

The two countries started indirect negotiations through a US mediator in 2020 at a UN peacekeeping base in Lebanon’s Naqoura, but the talks have stalled several times. The last round of talks on the matter was held last May.

Lebanon has sunk deep into an economic and financial crisis that started in late 2019 — a culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement by the political class. The small Mediterranean country is eager to resolve its border dispute with Israel, paving the way for potential lucrative oil and gas deals.

Israel’s Energy Ministry said in response that it is ready to resume talks, with Israeli officials quoted by the Kan public broadcaster as saying, “For us, the negotiations never been stopped. But Lebanon must stop raising new demands.”

US envoy Amos Hochstein — appointed by President Joe Biden to oversee the talks — will arrive in Israel next week to meet with Energy Minister Karine Elharrar and other officials, the Walla news site reported Wednesday.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden (left) talks with State Department Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein during the Caribbean Energy Security Summit, at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 26, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In November, the Axios news site reported that Hochstein informed Israel and Lebanon that if they could not agree to a compromise, he would end his involvement in the talks.

He suggested to top Israeli officials during a visit to Israel that they need to get the deal done before the March 2022 parliamentary election in Lebanon, the report quoted Israeli officials as saying.

Hochstein was also in Beirut a month earlier as he continued his efforts to restart the stalled talks.

The Israel-born envoy also told officials that he was not planning to resume the joint talks held at a UN base on the border. Instead, he would meet with each side independently and then offer a bridging proposal.

“Hochstein told us he is not going to present a proposal that both sides like, but the opposite — that both won’t like. But if three to four months from now he sees the parties are not willing to take the deal, he would drop the whole thing and won’t deal with this anymore,” a senior Israeli official told Axios.

Hochstein was looking to get both sides to make serious compromises, officials said, noting that both countries wanted to resolve the dispute despite tensions between them.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks during a rally to mark Al-Quds day, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, August 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

In October, the leader of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah terror group, Hassan Nasrallah, warned Israel against unilaterally searching for natural gas in the disputed maritime region before any agreement is reached.

In a wide-ranging speech broadcast from an undisclosed location during a ceremony marking Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, Nasrallah said that while he would leave it up to the Lebanese government to negotiate an end to the dispute, his group would not tolerate Israeli searches in the disputed region.

Accusing Israel of casting a “greedy” eye over Lebanon’s natural resources, the terror leader said Israel was “mistaken if it thought it could extract these resources from the disputed area before negotiations are completed.”

“The resistance is capable of acting and will do so against any Israeli actions in the disputed zone,” Nasrallah said, accusing Israel of giving a company the go-ahead to begin explorations.

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