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Lebanon reportedly ready to back down on some claims in maritime dispute with Israel

Officials tell Reuters Beirut will propose to US energy envoy that talks use more northerly line as starting point, excluding Israel’s Karish field

Lebanon's Electricity Minister Walid Fayad, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea in Beirut, Lebanon, June 13, 2022. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
Lebanon's Electricity Minister Walid Fayad, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea in Beirut, Lebanon, June 13, 2022. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Lebanon is reportedly prepared to offer a compromise in its maritime border dispute with Israel under which it will move the position it currently claims is the boundary between the two countries northward, to a point where it won’t include an Israeli natural gas field.

President Michel Aoun will pitch the proposal to visiting US energy envoy Amos Hochstein, who is in Beirut to try to resolve the issue, according to a Reuters report Monday that cited three officials with knowledge of the Lebanese government’s strategy.

Lebanon asked Hochstein to intervene after Israel earlier this month moved a natural gas exploration ship into its Karish offshore field. The arrival of the vessel, operated by London-based Energean, provoked anger from Lebanon, which claims Karish is in disputed waters, and the Hezbollah terror group threatened to attack it. Israel says the field is in its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone and that it will not be pumping natural gas from any areas that can be contested.

Indirect talks between the two countries, via US mediators including Hochstein, stalled last year when Lebanon changed its claim from a boundary known as Line 23 to a position further south at Line 29, increasing the area it wants by some 1,400 square kilometers and covering part of the Karish field.

The US sees Line 29 as a “non-starter,” Reuters reported, citing officials. They said that Aoun will instead offer Hochstein a plan of “Line 23, plus a little more.”

One of the officials explained that the extra area beyond Line 23 that Lebanon will claim does not include the Karish field.

Illustrative: Energean working in the Karish oil field, offshore Israel, in 2020. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Lebanese MP Mark Daou was among a group of independent lawmakers who met with Aoun on Monday. He told Reuters that Aoun conceded that Line 29 cannot be a starting point for negotiations.

“President Aoun told us that Lebanon does not have the technical foundations on which to construct a case for Line 29 because previous governments had failed to produce formal documentation to maintain this position,” Daou reported.

Aoun is scheduled to meet Hochstein on Tuesday and will demand that Israel stop work at Karish until negotiations resolve the dispute, two of the sources said. The Lebanese president will also seek the restarting of indirect talks as soon as possible.

Hochstein already met with caretaker energy minister Walid Fayad and deputy speaker of Lebanon’s parliament Elias Bou Saab, but did not make any public comments about the talks.

Hochstein has in the past suggested that the boundary be S-shaped rather than a straight line, but Lebanon did not officially accept the proposal, sources said.

Israel has been seeking to develop the Karish field as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi landed in Israel on Monday, with both leaders due to hold energy talks as the EU seeks to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel imports.

Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar and other officials have said the country could help meet EU demand if it can deliver gas from its offshore reserves estimated at nearly 1,000 billion cubic meters.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, February 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

Lebanon and Israel — which have no diplomatic relations and consider each other enemy states — have been holding indirect talks brokered by the US for close to two years to resolve the maritime border dispute.

Talks surrounding the disputed territory began in late 2020 but have been on hold since Lebanon called for control over an additional 1,430 square kilometers (552 square miles) of maritime territory currently under Israeli control. The two countries were originally negotiating the demarcation of 860 square kilometers (332 square miles) of maritime territory, which are officially registered as disputed according to a 2011 map filed with the United Nations.

Both Israel and Lebanon have economic interests in the territory, which contains lucrative natural gas. Lebanon, which has been mired in an economic crisis since late 2019, sees the resources as a potential road out.

Hochstein was appointed by US President Joe Biden to facilitate negotiations between the two countries last year. In November, he threatened to end talks if the countries could not reach a solution, and in February he said time was running out to make any deal.

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