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US says progress made toward elusive Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal

State Department says energy envoy’s recent talks with sides narrowed differences between them, adds US engagement will continue in coming weeks

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

An Israeli navy vessel is pictured 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)
An Israeli navy vessel is pictured 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)

The Biden administration said Monday that recent meetings held between its energy envoy and Israeli and Lebanese officials have resulted in progress toward resolving a long-held maritime border dispute between the neighboring countries.

US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein spoke with a negotiating team from Israel’s Energy Ministry over the weekend, discussing proposals he received from Lebanese leadership during a trip to Beirut earlier this month.

“The exchanges were productive and advanced the objective of narrowing differences between the two sides,” the State Department said in a statement Monday. “The United States will remain engaged with parties in the days and weeks ahead.”

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their exclusive economic zones.

The US has unsuccessfully sought to mediate between the sides for over a decade, with the last three administrations dispatching envoys to the region with the same task. The Israel-born Hochstein had the same role during the Obama administration.

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 situation.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib, left, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein in Beirut, Lebanon on June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Talks saw a breakthrough in late 2020 before again stalling after Lebanon called for control over an additional 1,430 square kilometers (552 square miles) of maritime territory currently under Israeli control.

However, Lebanese officials told Hochstein earlier this month that they would be willing to drop demands for control of part of a gas field claimed by Israel, but in exchange would seek full control of another gas field that also straddles the countries’ offshore economic zones.

The new offer would give Israel the Karish field and Lebanon the Qana field, officials familiar with the matter told the Associated Press. The latest proposal would see Lebanon build on its initial demand of 860 square kilometers to about 1,200 square kilometers but would be less than the 1,430 square kilometers it called for in late 2020.

In a statement after Hochstein’s meeting with Israeli negotiators, the Energy Ministry said it hoped the dispute would be resolved soon, without hinting whether Jerusalem would accept Beirut’s offer.

“The team heard an update on the mediator’s visit to Lebanon, and the parties discussed formulating a constructive direction so that negotiations can move forward while preserving Israel’s economic and security interests, with the intention of reaching an agreement on the issue in the near future,” the ministry said.

Tensions surrounding the dispute have risen in recent weeks, after a gas production vessel arrived in Israel to launch extraction operations in the Karish offshore field, drawing condemnation from Lebanon, which had laid claim to parts of it.

Israel says the field is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.

Israel has been seeking to develop the Karish field as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe.

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