US said to redouble efforts for Israel-Lebanon maritime talks after Beirut blast

Axios report says major point of contention is who will mediate talks, with Israel wanting Washington alone, while Beirut looks for UN oversight

A view of the Leviathan natural gas processing rig from Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, January 1, 2020. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Israel's Leviathan natural gas gas processing rig from Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, January 1, 2020 (Flash90)

Washington has renewed efforts to launch direct negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over their disputed maritime border, and hopes to reach a breakthrough before November’s US election, Axios reported Friday, amid disputes over who should mediate the talks.

Israeli officials told the website that the administration decided to make a new push for progress in the wake of the Beirut port explosion and amid Lebanon’s economic and civil crisis.

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.

Axios reported that Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker has shuttled between Jerusalem and Beirut in recent weeks to try to achieve results.

The Israeli officials cited by the report said one of the last issues of disagreement was who would mediate the talks, with Lebanon seeking mediation by both the US and UN, while Israel wants the UN to act as host only, with no active role.

Schenker told Lebanese journalists earlier this month that “incremental progress” was being made, and later told a Brookings Institute video conference that “the sticking point is… absurd.”

It is not known whether he was referring to the issue of mediation, as reported by Axios.

Schenker also said of Lebanon’s incentive: “We’re talking about free money for a state that is in a financial crisis.”

David Schenker, US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, in Beirut, Lebanon, on September 9, 2019. (Hussein Malla/AP)

But an Israeli official who spoke to the news site said: “There is progress. We see willingness on the Lebanese side to move and settle this dispute. We are ready to start talks immediately and we hope it can happen before the end of the year.”

The Israeli government in May 2019 said it had agreed to enter US-mediated talks with Lebanon to resolve the maritime border dispute. However, pressure from Hezbollah is reported to have caused Beirut to back out.

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.

AFP contributed to this report.

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