US envoy reports progress on Israel-Lebanon maritime border talks
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US envoy reports progress on Israel-Lebanon maritime border talks

Territorial dispute centers on offshore oil and gas drilling rights in part of Mediterranean claimed by both countries

Illustrative: Israel's offshore Leviathan gas platform. (Albatross)
Illustrative: Israel's offshore Leviathan gas platform. (Albatross)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A US envoy said Tuesday that he hoped to sign a framework agreement in the coming weeks for Lebanon and Israel to start discussing their disputed maritime border.

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.

The Israeli government in May 2019 said it had agreed to enter US-mediated talks with Lebanon to resolve the maritime border dispute.

“I believe that we are making some incremental progress,” US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said.

“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.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, 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)

“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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