US envoy ‘optimistic’ that Lebanon and Israel can settle maritime dispute

Amos Hochstein meets Lebanese leaders in bid to ink agreement as Hezbollah threatens escalation with Israel over Karish offshore gas field

Lebanon's caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayad (R) meets with US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein (C) in the presence of US ambassador Dorothy Shea, in Beirut on July 31, 2022. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)
Lebanon's caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayad (R) meets with US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein (C) in the presence of US ambassador Dorothy Shea, in Beirut on July 31, 2022. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)

An American envoy on Monday expressed optimism that Lebanon and Israel could move toward a maritime border deal to settle competing claims over offshore gas fields.

The ongoing maritime border dispute between the neighbors escalated in early June after Israel moved a production vessel near the Karish offshore field, which is partly claimed by Lebanon.

The move prompted Beirut to call for the resumption of US-mediated negotiations on the demarcation dispute.

“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,” Amos Hochstein told reporters after meeting Lebanon’s top leaders.

Hochstein was carrying an Israeli proposal in response to a demarcation offer made by Lebanon last June.

This was the envoy’s second visit to the region in less than two months.

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

On Monday, he met with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace.

Lebanon is looking to clinch “a deal that preserves its rights and its wealth and that could provide, as soon negotiations are over, an opportunity to revitalize the economy,” Aoun said before Monday’s meeting.

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.

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.

Hezbollah fighters raise their hands as their leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link during a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, April 29, 2022. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

According to a Channel 12 news report, Israel passed a message via the US and France warning the terror group that any action taken against the offshore Karish gas field would provoke a strong IDF response.

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.

Israel maintains sovereignty over the Karish gas field and has been seeking to develop it as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe

In June, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union signed a memorandum of understanding in Cairo that will see Israel export its natural gas to the bloc for the first time.

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