US mediator notes progress, but says Lebanon-Israel maritime deal needs more work

After meeting in Beirut with Lebanese leadership, visiting energy envoy Amos Hochstein says he’s ‘hopeful’ given what he’s heard regarding disputed offshore gas fields

US energy envoy Amos Hochstein meets with Lebanon's Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, in the capital Beirut, on September 9, 2022. (Photo by AFP)
US energy envoy Amos Hochstein meets with Lebanon's Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, in the capital Beirut, on September 9, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

BEIRUT — US mediator Amos Hochstein on Friday noted progress in indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel over a maritime border dispute, but said more work was needed for a final agreement.

The dispute which involves competing claims over offshore gas fields escalated in June after Israel moved a production vessel near the Karish offshore field, which is partly claimed by its northern neighbor.

Energean, the London-listed company licensed by Israel to extract gas from Karish, said on Thursday that gas would begin flowing within weeks, despite the disagreement.

“I really feel that were making progress these last few several weeks,” Hochstein said at Beirut airport after meetings with Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker.

“I am hopeful with what I heard today and with what we discussed today but still more work needs to be done,” he told reporters at the end of his third visit to Lebanon since June.

Hochstein was in Israel on Thursday where he met with National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata and Foreign Ministry director Alon Ushpiz.

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

Lebanon and Israel, whose border is UN-patrolled, have no diplomatic relations.

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) in the disputed maritime area but then asked for an additional 1,430 square kilometers, including part of the Karish field.

Israel claims the field lies in its waters and is not part of the disputed area subject to ongoing negotiations.

A Lebanese official in mid-June said Beirut had made a new offer to Hochstein, holding back on demands for territory where Israel planned to imminently extract gas.

Beirut was pushing for the country’s maritime border to exclude Karish and include the nearby “Sidon reservoir,” known as the Qana field, instead, the official told AFP at the time.

In a statement on Thursday, Energean said the “Karish project is on track to start production within weeks.”

A sea-based Iron Dome air defense system is seen on a Navy ship, guarding the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which launched drones towards the Karish gas field in July, had threatened attacks if Israel proceeds with gas extraction in the disputed area.

Referring to Karish, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in early August that “the hand that reaches for any of this wealth will be severed.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said late last month that any attack on its gas assets could reignite war between the two sides.

US President Joe Biden discussed the dispute with Prime Minister Yair Lapid in late August, when he “emphasized the importance of concluding the maritime boundary negotiations between Israel and Lebanon in the coming weeks,” according to the White House.

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