The US State Department energy envoy, Israel-born Amos Hochstein, will take over as mediator in US-sponsored talks between Israel and Lebanon to resolve a maritime border dispute over natural gas exploration, the Axios website reported Sunday.
Hochstein is expected to arrive on an initial visit to both Israel and Lebanon later this month, unnamed Israeli officials told the website.
Hochstein is considered a close confidant of US President Joe Biden and his appointment to handle the dispute is an indication of the importance the administration sees in resolving the matter, Axios assessed.
He will replace US diplomat John Desrocher, who has mediated indirect negotiations since they were started under the Trump administration in October 2020. Desrocher is moving to the United States embassy in Qatar where he will be the charge d’affaires, according to the report.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed the appointment to Axios, noting that Hochstein had previously been a mediator in the Israel-Lebanon maritime border dispute during the Obama administration.
“He looks to build upon the strong work done by Ambassador John Desrocher over the last year,” the spokesperson said.
The last round of talks between Israel and Lebanon on the matter were held in May.
Lebanon has sunk deep into an economic and financial crisis that started in late 2019 — a culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement by the political class.
The small Mediterranean country is eager to resolve the border dispute with Israel, paving the way for potential lucrative oil and gas deals.
The US has been involved in the issue for about a decade, but only late last year was a breakthrough reached on an agreement for a framework for US-mediated talks aimed at reaching a final agreement on the border. The talks began last October but stopped a few weeks later.
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 own exclusive economic zones.
Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to Egypt and Jordan.
Lebanon, which began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
Hochstein, who was born and raised in Israel by American parents, identifies as a modern Orthodox Jew. He has previously served as the US State Department’s special envoy for international energy affairs in 2014-2017, during which time he advised then-US vice president Biden on global energy issues.
In August, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Hochstein as the Senior Advisor for Energy Security. The same month, Axios reported that Biden had tapped Hochstein to lead negotiations on a major, but controversial, gas pipeline deal to Europe involving Germany and Russia.
The pipeline project allows Moscow to bypass Ukraine, Poland, and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe that collect transit fees on the energy.