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US envoy heading to Beirut to mediate Israel-Lebanon maritime gas dispute

Visit comes as Israel sends gas rig to disputed field and Hezbollah threatens to attack it if drilling begins before border disagreement is resolved

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)
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)

US envoy Amos Hochstein will travel to Lebanon next week in a bid to mediate a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel that is holding up oil and gas explorations, the White House said Friday.

Hochstein’s visit comes amid rising tensions over the disputed sites, with Israel moving to install a new drilling platform at the Karish site and the Hezbollah terror group threatening to attack it.

Hochstein will be in Lebanon on June 13-14 “to discuss sustainable solutions to Lebanon’s energy crisis,” the White House said.

“During his visit, Mr. Hochstein will underscore the Biden Administration’s hope that Lebanon and Israel can reach a decision on the delimitation of the maritime boundary,” the statement said.

“The Administration welcomes the consultative and open spirit of the parties to reach a final decision, which has the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for both Lebanon and Israel, as well as for the region,” it said.

On Thursday Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his organization would not “stand idly by” while Israel extracts gas from a contested offshore reserve, threatening that his organization is capable of preventing drilling, including by force.

Lebanon has fumed in recent days over a new drilling platform that arrived at the Karish gas field Sunday.

Israel says the site is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone and which Beirut insists is in the disputed area. The field may hold enough gas to help pull Beirut out of its economic tailspin. The countries have been holding rare talks to resolve the dispute under US mediation.

A UNIFIL Navy ship patrols in the Mediterranean Sea next to a base of the UN peacekeeping force, while Lebanon and Israel resumed indirect talks over their disputed maritime border with US mediation, off the southern town of Naqoura, Lebanon, May 4, 2021. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Israeli officials insisted earlier this week that the new rig will not pump from a disputed area with Lebanon and urged the resumption of talks to solve the issue.

In a televised address, Nasrallah said Israel should not begin drilling until talks are completed, but also appeared to ratchet up recent threats hinting at plans to attack the gas rig, which is expected to become operational in the next few months.

“The resistance cannot stand idly by in the face of the guzzling of Lebanon’s resources and the sole hope for Lebanon. It cannot stand idly by, nor will it, with God’s will,” he said.

“We pledge to the Lebanese people: the resistance is materially and militarily capable of preventing the enemy from extracting gas from the disputed Karish field. No steps taken by the enemy can protect this craft or this extraction operation.”

The comment was an apparent reference to Israeli plans to station a sea-borne missile defense system on the rig to protect it from potential attack.

The terror chief described the issue as no less important than Hezbollah’s war to push Israel out of southern Lebanon late last century.

“Our central goal must be preventing the enemy from extracting gas from the Karish field and preventing any activity that will begin there,” he said.

“The resistance has the logistical, security, intelligence, human and material capabilities to prevent the enemy from removing gas and fuel from Karish,” he added.

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

Responding to the terror chief’s comments, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said that “no one will dictate to us whether or not to extract gas from the economic waters of the State of Israel.”

“Israel is a sovereign state and will continue to make decisions solely in accordance with its interests without regard to the threats of terrorists. I suggest Nasrallah continue to hide in the bunker, his videos from there do not impress anyone,” he said.

An IDF report released Sunday said the military is preparing for a Hezbollah attack on the rig and is planning to deploy naval forces to the site, including a naval-adapted form of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

A senior IDF general also threatened Hezbollah military infrastructure on Lebanon’s border on Tuesday.

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.

Also, Friday the US said it was sending a senior diplomat to Israel and the West Bank for talks.

“Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara A. Leaf will travel to Israel and the West Bank June 11-14 to consult with Israeli and Palestinian partners on a range of priorities, including deepening bilateral US cooperation with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli-Palestinian relations and US support for a two-state solution, deterring Iran’s aggressive regional activities, and support for Israel’s integration into the broader Middle East region,” the US State Department said.

Leaf will be accompanied by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr and NSC Director for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Cynthia Cook.

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