Indirect talks over a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel made some progress on Tuesday, according to American mediator Amos Hochstein, U.S. special envoy and coordinator for International Energy Affairs.
Hochstein reported that Lebanese negotiators said Beirut would drop its partial claim to the offshore Israeli gas field, Karish, in exchange for full control over a second gas field, Qana. He expressed optimism, saying this offer “will enable the negotiations to go forward” after a year-long pause and told the U.S.-funded Alhurra TV station that the Lebanese suggestion is “a very strong step forward.”
Without providing specifics, he said the offer reflects “what kind of a compromise can be reached that the Israelis can agree to and not feel that it is being pushed into something against their interest, while still preserving the most important part of Lebanon’s interest.”
The Lebanese government invited Hochstein for talks in Beirut to prevent any escalation, after Israel decided to move a gas production ship into the Karish gas field last week. Whereas Lebanon insists that the Israeli gas exploration plan crossed into the disputed area, Israel claims it is part of its exclusive economic zone recognized by the United Nations.
“Any exploration, drilling or extraction carried out by Israel in the disputed areas constitutes a provocation and an act of aggression,” read the statement from Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has also warned Israel against drilling at Karish, stressing that “any action or activity in the disputed area represents a provocation and a hostile act.”
Such rhetoric from Lebanese leaders raised concern in Israel, that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah may use the maritime border dispute as a pretext for a potential attack.
Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett blasted Lebanese leaders for fighting over Karish rather than drilling in order to start producing gas that can save the nation’s ailing economy.
“It is a pity that the leadership in Lebanon is dealing with unnecessary disputes instead of producing gas for the benefit of its citizens,” he said. “I suggest the Lebanese government seize the opportunity to improve its economy and build a better future for the Lebanese people.”
Earlier in the week, Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar dismissed the Lebanese claims to the gas field.
“It’s not even (above) the southern line that Lebanon submitted to the United Nations. Even according to the United Nations, it’s not in Lebanon,” she said.
Following the resumption of the talks, the U.S. envoy said he intends to submit the new Lebanese offer to Israel and relay the reply to Beirut.