BEIRUT: Lebanon has invited US mediator Amos Hochstein to return for maritime border talks with Israel, as it hopes to launch offshore oil and gas production amid its energy and economic crises.
President Michel Aoun on Monday met caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati against moves by the Energean Power FPSO (Floating Production Storage Offloading) vessel in the disputed maritime zone in southern Lebanon.
According to a statement from Mikati’s office, they “discussed the steps that should be taken to confront the Israeli enemy and prevent its attempts from raising the tension on the southern maritime borders.”
They decided to “undertake diplomatic contacts with the great powers and the United Nations to explain Lebanon’s stance and confirm its attachment to its maritime rights and wealth, and considered that any exploration, prospecting, or extraction activities carried out by Israel in the disputed zones constitute a provocation and an act of aggression that threatens international peace and security.”
The invitation to Hochstein is to discuss “the completion of the indirect Lebanese-Israeli negotiations to demarcate the maritime borders and end these negotiations as soon as possible, to prevent any escalation that would undermine stability in the region.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the British-Greek energy company Energean had installed a drilling machine on Sunday about 80 kilometers west of Haifa to start its digging operations within the next three months.
It said that Israel would consider any damage to the private gas rigs as “a declaration of war.”
The ship’s arrival in the Israeli oil field of Karish has reopened a divisive political issue in Lebanon, whether to adopt Line 29 or Line 23 in the demarcation of the country’s southern maritime borders.
According to those calling for the adoption of Line 29, Line 23 would mean Lebanon relinquishing 1,430 square kilometers of its maritime zone.
The ones calling for the adoption of Line 29 are technical experts from the Lebanese army and academics who have carried out legal studies saying the demarcation should follow Line 29.
These studies are supported by research from the British Hydrographic Office in 2011 done on behalf of the Lebanese government.
Decree 6433, issued in 2011, has not been amended to include the additional area of 1,430 square kilometers south of Line 23.
The government sent the decree to the UN claiming that Lebanon’s maritime borders were at Line 23.
In Oct. 2020, there were indirect peace negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate the maritime borders but they were hastily frozen by the Israeli side after the Lebanese delegation raised its demands.
The Israeli side at the time insisted on negotiating over a zone that was 860 square kilometers wide and lay between the Israeli demarcation line at Point 1 and the Lebanese demarcation line at Point 23, according to Decree 6433.
Legal expert Christina Abi Haidar told Arab News: “Lebanon did not do its homework. The government of Hassan Diab had already prepared in 2021 an amendment to the decree and asked President Aoun to approve it on the background that it is an urgent matter.
“However, Aoun did not respond for unknown reasons. When Najib Mikati’s government was formed, the issue was not discussed until we reached this point, and what is happening today is not a surprise. We did not preserve our rights, rather we neglected them.
“There are a lot of rumors that President Aoun is sticking to Line 23 to exchange it with lifting the sanctions on his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. However, it remained a rumor. Now, we need to amend the decree even if the government was a caretaker setup because this is an emergency and if there is an intention to amend the decree then it would be possible. We need action.
“If Lebanon preserves its rights at the UN, no exploration company would ever dare to risk starting explorations.”
If the Israeli side were to start explorations in the Karish gas field then, according to Line 29, it would be doing so in the disputed area.
A few days before May’s parliamentary elections, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah warned against energy exploration in the disputed zone: “No company in the world would dare to come to Karish or any other area in the disputed zone.”
Also on Monday, Aoun asked Lebanese Army Command to provide him with detailed official data while Mikati called on “the UN and all those concerned to take action and force the Israeli enemy to stop its provocations, and warned of the consequences of any faulty move before the completion of the US mediator whose resumption has become an urgent necessity.”