US envoy: Israel-Lebanon maritime talks held up by ‘absurd’ sticking point
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US envoy: Israel-Lebanon maritime talks held up by ‘absurd’ sticking point

Day after reporting ‘incremental progress,’ David Schenker says Beirut passing up ‘free money’ from gas exploration amid crippling economic crisis

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker on Wednesday said a framework agreement for Lebanon and Israel to start discussing their disputed maritime border is being held up by an “absurd” sticking point.

Schenker refused to divulge what the sticking point was, but hinted he may do so at some later point.

Schenker, who is involved in the negotiations, expressed frustration over the fact that Beirut has shown no urgency to find a way to start negotiating with Israel, with the talks only now getting back to the point where they were last year.

“For some inexplicable reason, there was no sense of urgency there. We’re talking about free money for a state that is in a financial crisis,” he said in a Brookings Institute video conference.

“I’m hoping we can get there [to an agreement] in the coming weeks, but it remains to be seen,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you what the sticking point is, but it’s really… absurd.”

Israel and Lebanon have competing claims on three Mediterranean gas prospects, thought to contain large amounts of the resource. The US is currently trying to broker a framework that will get the sides to begin negotiations on managing the leases.

A maritime map of the eastern Mediterranean showing Exclusive Economic Zone borders, including an area of dispute (marked 4) between Israel and Lebanon. (IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2012 – www.iemed.org/medyearbook)

Schenker also expressed hopes that Lebanon would pass a sovereign wealth fund law, in order to keep it out of the hands of corrupt officials.

Lebanon in 2018 signed its first contract to drill for oil and gas in its waters, including a block disputed by its southern neighbor Israel, with which it has fought several wars.

On Tuesday Schenker said: “I believe that we are making some incremental progress.

“I’m looking forward to finishing up with this framework agreement so you and the Israelis can… move on to actually negotiating about your borders,” he told Lebanese journalists during a telephone conference.

“I hope to be able to come over to Lebanon and sign this agreement in the coming weeks,” he added. “This will open the opportunity for both Lebanon and Israel to start to actually make some real progress.”

He refused to comment on obstacles towards reaching the deal, but said more than a year of US shuttling back and forth between both countries just to reach a preliminary understanding was “an unfortunate waste of time.”

In early August, Lebanon’s parliament speaker Nabih Berri told Lebanese newspaper Annahar that discussions with Washington over drawing the maritime border with Israel were “at their conclusion.”

Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war.

The issue of the shared maritime border is sensitive, mainly because of a dispute over coastal drilling rights.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean, for oil and gas, with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Lebanon in April said initial drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves.

Exploration of Block 9 has not started and is much more controversial, as Israel also claims ownership over part of it.

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