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Lebanon’s president still hopeful maritime deal with Israel possible within days

‘Gaps were closed over the last week,’ Aoun says in Beirut; Arab paper claims agreement could be signed on October 20

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Lebanese president Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra via AP)
In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Lebanese president Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

Lebanese President Michel Aoun expressed optimism on Monday about finalizing a deal with Israel over a maritime border between the countries, following a troubled week for efforts to secure an agreement.

“We hope to complete all the arrangements related to marking the southern maritime border [with Israel] within days,” Aoun said during a meeting with clerics in Beirut.

“The negotiations went a long way and the gaps were closed over the last week,” he added, without providing additional information.

The Lebanese president touted the potential deal as the first crucial step in Lebanon’s recovery from an ongoing economic crisis that has paralyzed much of the country for over three years.

Aoun said Sunday following a phone call with US mediator Amos Hochstein that the Lebanese side would study the proposal carefully before announcing its response.

The optimism by the Lebanese side comes after days of intense disagreements and rising tensions between the sides over fresh demands made by the Lebanese side, which Israel has rejected.

The Hezbollah-linked Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Friday that a Lebanese official had told Hochstein that “Lebanon does not intend to retract” the changes it had sought on the maritime deal, despite reported pressure from the Biden administration to drop some of its demands.

Still, unidentified Lebanese officials cited by the Qatari-owned Al-Araby news outlet said Monday that preparations were already underway for an official announcement of the border’s demarcation. The officials estimated that both sides would meet to officially sign the US-brokered agreement at the UN headquarters in New York on October 20.

There was no outside confirmation of such claims.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra, Lebanon’s official government photographer, via AP)

Although the deal’s exact points of contention remain unconfirmed, Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that Beirut did not agree to recognize Israel’s buoy-marked boundary — which Jerusalem unilaterally placed five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra in 2000 — as an international border.

It was not immediately clear whether either side had dropped its demands on the issue.

Lebanon, however, seems to be keen to conclude a deal and begin extracting gas in hopes of pulling itself out of an economic tailspin, with even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appearing to back negotiations.

A deal would put to bed a long-running dispute over some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, covering the Karish and the Qana gas fields.

On Saturday, Israel’s security establishment gave Energean a green light to start testing the gas rig’s pipeline, with full operations slated to begin within weeks. Israel has insisted it will not wait for a deal, but has only allowed Energean to take preliminary steps thus far.

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

Israel and Lebanon never agreed to demarcate their border on land, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire line instead, and thus leaving their offshore exclusive economic zone disputed. The lack of a maritime border had not been a major issue until a decade ago, when a gas discovery bonanza began in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially reshaping the region’s economic future.

Following years of stagnation, Israel and Lebanon entered US-brokered talks in 2020 aimed at resolving the dispute.

Ash Obel contributed to this report. 

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