BEIRUT: Amos Hochstein, US special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, on Monday expressed optimism that Lebanon and Israel could move toward a maritime border deal to settle competing claims over offshore gas fields.
“I remain optimistic that we can make continuous progress, as we have over the last several weeks, and I look forward to coming back to the region and being able to make the final arrangements,” Hochstein said.
This came after his second visit to Beirut in less than two months, carrying an Israeli proposal in response to a demarcation offer made by Lebanon.
On Monday, he met with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon Nabih Berri at the presidential palace.
I remain optimistic that we can make continuous progress, as we have over the last several weeks, and I look forward to coming back to the region and being able to make the final arrangements.
Amos Hochstein, US special envoy
He also met separately with caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, who called the progress made in talks “potentially exceptional.”
Leaked information suggested Hochstein informed the political leaders of the Israeli response to the Lebanese position that adheres to the demarcation of the border on the basis of Line 23, with Lebanon obtaining the entire Qana field, resulting in a zigzagged demarcation line, without including the Karish gas field.
Hochstein reportedly conveyed an Israeli proposal to include parts of an area north of Block No. 8, based on calculating the median line between Lebanon and Cyprus, which was rejected.
Lebanese optimism over progress was evident in President Aoun’s speech to a Lebanese military delegation he met later that day for the Army Day celebrations.
“There is no room for despair in light of the harsh conditions we live in, and God willing, something positive will come out of the maritime border demarcation issue,” he said.
Bou Habib said that Hochstein had pointed out that the Lebanese position was largely unified.
“There is tremendous and remarkable progress, and the negotiations have not ended yet, but they are progressing,” he said, stressing that without an agreement, no one could extract gas in the area.
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Elias Bou Saab was also present at the meeting with Hochstein, as was the Director General of the Lebanese General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, considered close to Hezbollah.
However, Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun did not attend the meeting.
A technical team from the army adheres to the demarcation of the border according to Line 29, based on British documents, which, if approved, gives Lebanon part of the Karish field.
But Lebanon has not amended its border demarcation decree, submitted to the UN years ago, which relies on Line 23, as President Aoun believes that Line 29 “remains subject to negotiations.”
Bou Saab said after the meeting: “The atmosphere is positive and everyone is satisfied with the meeting. Hochstein did not suggest that we share the wealth, and Lebanon renewed its demand for its entire blocks.”
It was also leaked that the Lebanese side proposed that it could start the process of exploration of the Qana field provided Israel acknowledged Lebanon’s right to it, but Hochstein replied that he would discuss it with the Israelis and come back with an answer.
The Amal Movement, headed by Berri, said in a statement after the Hochstein meeting: “It is necessary for the government to ask exploration companies not to delay and carry out their operations.”
Prior to their meeting with Hochstein, President Aoun, Berri and Mikati took part in Monday’s 77th Lebanese Army Day celebration and the graduation ceremony of officers from the defense and security services.
A total of 95 officer cadets graduated from the Military College with the rank of lieutenant in the naval, air, and land forces, including a very remarkable number of female officers, eight officers from the Internal Security Forces with the rank of lieutenant, and six officers from State Security and others from General Security.
During his speech at the ceremony, his last before his term ends in October, Aoun said: “Despite the betting that the parliamentary elections will not happen, Lebanon has a new parliament.”
Aoun added: “Unfortunately, some are betting again on a presidential vacuum. Out of respect for my constitutional responsibilities, I reiterate that, as I was committed to holding the parliamentary elections, I will work with all my strength to provide the appropriate conditions to elect a new president who will continue the arduous reform process that we have begun.
“This can only be achieved if Parliament — speaker and MPs — assume their responsibilities in choosing the right man for the job.”
Aoun added: “The failure to form a government is caused by the lack of the necessary factors and criteria that make it an effective government, able to carry out its responsibilities, present, and future.
“Failure to form a government exposes the country to further turmoil and deepens economic and financial difficulties. The responsibility of those concerned is essential in preventing the country from being exposed to further deterioration.”