BEIRUT: US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Sunday to push talks to resolve a bitter maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel over Mediterranean waters with offshore gas fields.
US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and embassy officials received him at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport upon his arrival.
Hochstein headed for the General Directorate of General Security, where he met Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim. He then met caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayyad and Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab. On Monday, he will meet President Michel Aoun and Lebanese officials.
The US State Department said: “Special Presidential Coordinator for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment Amos Hochstein will travel to Beirut July 31 to discuss sustainable solutions to Lebanon’s energy crisis, including the Biden Administration’s commitment to facilitating negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on the maritime boundary. Reaching a resolution is both necessary and possible, but can only be done through negotiations and diplomacy.”
Political observers in Lebanon agreed that time was running out for both countries and that there was no room for maneuvers. “Reaching a solution for the disputed maritime borders before September is the only way to avoid security implications,” they said.
Based on Hochstein’s proposal to Lebanon, the demarcation would start from Line 23 drawn in a zigzag form to give Lebanon the Qana field and Israel the Karish field.
Line 29 is considered a negotiating point that would increase 2,290 square kilometers of regional waters to Lebanon’s area, including part of the Karish gas oil that Israel plans to extract gas from in September.
On the evening of Hochstein’s visit, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri hoped that “going to Naqoura, under the flag of the UN, is better than going to another place.”
Naqoura is home to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
Berri expected that “a negotiating military delegation be formed as per the agreement” and that there would be “no unclear offers and suggestions, as the economic and security conditions do not allow any deferment.”
He stressed that there would be “no compromising or naturalization” under any circumstance and no matter the pressure.
Israeli media reported that there would be a proposal for French Total to extract gas and oil “for the interest of Lebanon and Israel, to avoid any problems related to coordination and to ensure a fair share of the gains in the disputed areas.”
An Israeli official said the US envoy would present a new suggestion concerning the demarcation of maritime borders with Lebanon.
On Sunday, according to a Reuters report, the Israeli official said: “Our new proposal would allow the Lebanese to develop the gas reserves in the disputed area while preserving Israel's commercial rights.”
Lebanon on Sunday renounced drone footage aired by Hezbollah of Israeli ships in the disputed waters ahead of Hochstein’s arrival.
Caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said: “It is the Lebanese government that decides on the demarcation of maritime borders, and the drone footage of gas field coordinates does not represent Lebanon. We do not have a problem with the resistance. Lebanese officials will take one position: Resuming negotiations in Naqoura.”
Hezbollah sent a message to Israel following the launching of three drones on July 2. A short video said: “Within reach. Playing with time is not useful.” It showed the Karish gas field and its coordinates.
Activists affiliated with Hezbollah had laid the groundwork for the video on social media platforms before it was aired.
The video showed new footage of Israeli ships in Karish and referred to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speech earlier in July: “There will be no oil extraction if Lebanon does not take its right; War is not inevitable, but war depends on the Israeli enemy’s action.”
Israeli media described Hezbollah’s video as “a clear warning message to Israel that comes in the context of psychological warfare,” after Israeli rumors circulated expressing optimism about an agreement with Lebanon.
Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharrar said: “Israel has submitted a new proposal, and this is the first proposal since we started the round of talks, ready for innovative solutions. The Lebanese government has the opportunity to end the conflict over the maritime borders and develop a gas field that serves the Lebanese economic interests.”