US envoy to hold maritime talks in Beirut as tensions flare over Israeli rig

Lebanon says Amos Hochstein due early next week; Hezbollah deputy chief threatens to use ‘force’ against Israel after platform arrives in contested waters

People sail past an Israeli navy vessel off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area at the border between Israel and Lebanon (Ras al-Naqura), on June 6, 2022. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)
People sail past an Israeli navy vessel off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area at the border between Israel and Lebanon (Ras al-Naqura), on June 6, 2022. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Senior US diplomat Amos Hochstein will travel to Beirut next week to discuss the country’s dispute with Israel over maritime drilling, a top Lebanese politician said Tuesday.

The announcement came a day after Lebanon requested US mediation as it protested Israel moving a gas production vessel into an offshore field partially claimed by Beirut.

Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament Nabih Berri told a parliamentary session on Tuesday that Hochstein is expected in the country on either Sunday or Monday next week.

Lebanon and Israel — who 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 a maritime border dispute.

Lebanon reacted angrily this week after a new gas rig arrived at the Karish offshore natural gas field, which Israel says is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone and which Beirut insists is in a disputed area.

Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem told Reuters on Monday that it is prepared to use force against Israel if Lebanon determines that its maritime borders have been breached.

In this photo released by Lebanese government, 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)

“When the Lebanese state says that the Israelis are assaulting our waters and our oil, then we are ready to do our part in terms of pressure, deterrence and use of appropriate means — including force,” Qassem said in comments to the wire agency.

“The issue requires a decisive decision from the Lebanese state,” he added, noting that Hezbollah, the heavily armed terrorist group in Lebanon backed by Iran, has “urged the government to hurry up, to set a deadline for itself.”

On Sunday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that Israeli action in the territory represents “a provocation and a hostile act.”

Deputy chief of Hezbollah, Sheikh Naim Qassem (C) arrives at the swearing-in ceremony of Iran’s newly elected president (not seen) at the parliament in Tehran, on August 5, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

An IDF report released Sunday said that 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. The rig is expected to begin operations within the next few months.

Talks surrounding the disputed territory began in late 2020 but have been on hold since Lebanon has 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 facing an economic crisis since late 2019, sees the resources offered as a potential road out of its current crisis.

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

Speaking on Monday, following Lebanon’s request, US State Department spokesman Ned Price would not confirm any upcoming travel for Hochstein, but said the White House is keen to resolve the ongoing issues as talks have largely stalled.

“I don’t have any travel to announce or to preview at this time, but as you’ve heard from us before, the Israel-Lebanon maritime border, that’s a decision for both Israel and Lebanon to make,” Price told reporters during a briefing. “We believe that a deal is possible if both sides negotiate in good faith and realize the benefit to both countries. To that end, we do strongly support efforts to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.”

Hochstein was appointed by US President Joe Biden to facilitate negotiations between the two countries last year.  Last 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.

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