US envoy makes unannounced visit to Israel after Lebanon talks on maritime dispute

Amos Hochstein reportedly meets with Lapid and will sit down with other Israeli officials in ongoing indirect talks to resolve disagreement centered on Karish offshore gas field

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

US Senior Adviser for Energy Security Amos Hochstein arrives at at meeting in Beirut on July 31, 2022. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)
US Senior Adviser for Energy Security Amos Hochstein arrives at at meeting in Beirut on July 31, 2022. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)

US envoy Amos Hochstein has arrived in Israel for an unannounced visit following meetings in Lebanon as Jerusalem and Beirut continue indirect talks to solve an ongoing maritime dispute.

Hochstein’s arrival in Israel late Monday was first reported by the Walla news site on Tuesday morning.

The special envoy on energy has been helping broker talks on the dispute — which centers on offshore areas claimed by both countries believed to hold natural gas — for more than a year. The situation has escalated in recent months after Israel moved a production vessel near the Karish offshore gas field, which is partly claimed by Lebanon.

Walla, citing two unnamed sources, said Hochstein would be meeting with Israeli officials in the Energy Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council. The Kan public broadcaster said he had already met with Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Sunday and met with senior Lebanese officials. While the State Department on Saturday confirmed that Hochstein would be traveling to Lebanon, the announcement did not include any mention of a stop in Israel.

On Sunday, Lebanese Energy Minister Walid Fayyad reportedly said that Hochstein brought “a new proposal to the Lebanese officials, and he told me that it was positive and denied any rumors about joint excavations between Lebanon and Israel.”

Reports ahead of the meeting indicated that Hochstein would be bringing Israel’s answer to a Lebanese proposal for full control of the Qana gas field, which straddles the zones and is called Sidon in Hebrew, in exchange for dropping its claims on the Karish field.

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

At a US State Department briefing on Thursday, spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on any upcoming travel for Hochstein, but stated that the special envoy has “remained in close contact with Israeli counterparts as well as with Lebanese counterparts.”

Such efforts “have been able to help facilitate some progress, and that continued engagement with both parties is part of an effort to see to it that that momentum continues,” Price added. “And I suspect that he will remain in close touch with both governments going forward.”

In comments to reporters in Beirut on Monday following a meeting with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and speaker Nabih Berri, Hochstein expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached.

“I remain optimistic that we can make continuous progress as we have over the last several weeks and I look forward to coming back to the region and being able to make the final arrangements,” Hochstein told reporters.

Hochstein visited both Lebanon and Israel in mid-June, carrying messages and proposals between the sides, who do not have any diplomatic relations.

Lebanon’s Shiite terror group Hezbollah escalated its rhetoric and actions over the border dispute after Israel moved the gas drilling vessel into the Karish field. In its boldest move, Hezbollah recently sent four drones toward the platform a month ago, all of which were intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces.

Hezbollah supporters wave portraits of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and their group flags, during an election campaign, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, May 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Over the past month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened Israel over the dispute a number of times, most recently last week, when he warned all Israeli land and sea “targets” are within the range of his terror group’s missiles.

Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations and are separated by a UN-patrolled border. They had resumed maritime border negotiations in 2020 but the process was stalled by Beirut’s claim that the map used by the United Nations in the talks needed modifying.

Lebanon initially demanded 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of territory in the disputed maritime area but then asked for an additional 1,430 square kilometers, including part of the Karish field.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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