BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president has hailed progress in the dispute with Israel over its southern maritime border, saying that US-led mediation efforts were close to finding a solution.
Michel Aoun’s office said that the latest round of discussions had concluded and that Amos Hochstein, the lead US negotiator, was preparing a draft of a final agreement.
“Reaching an agreement on the demarcation of the southern maritime borders means the start of the process of exploration for oil and gas in the Lebanese fields located within the exclusive economic zone,” Aoun said.
He added that signing a deal would “mark the beginning of the economic recovery process.”
Hochstein told Aoun during a call on Sunday that the discussions had been wisely managed by Lebanon.
The presidential palace announced that Lebanon would carefully study the final version of Hochstein’s proposal.
The positive feedback comes days after Israel had rejected Lebanon’s revisions of the proposal.
A spokesman for the US State Department told Al-Arabiya on Monday that Hochstein was working to resolve outstanding differences, adding that “we believe that a sustainable agreement is both possible and within reach.”
On Sunday, the Israeli energy company Energean began pumping gas to its floating production facility in the offshore Karish gas field as part of reverse flow testing “to verify the safety of the pumps that will be used to extract natural gas from this field in the coming weeks, once the tests are completed.”
The US told Lebanon the tests were carried out within the framework of coordination and that actual gas production had not yet started.
Hezbollah had previously threatened to block Israel from extracting in the disputed fields before Lebanon obtained its full maritime rights.
In July, the group launched three drones toward Karish field, which Israel said it intercepted. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned: “Sending out the drones is a humble example of what we can do if things reach a negative conclusion.”
According to Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, pro-Iran hacker groups have disrupted the websites of Energean and the Israeli gas pipelines, which led to the suspension of the reverse flow testing.
The proposal by Hochstein adopted Line 23 to demarcate the Lebanese maritime borders, which would place the entire Karish field outside of Lebanese control.
Part of the Qana field would be within Lebanon’s borders, and areas outside will be subject to negotiations with the French energy giant Total — not Israel.
This solution annexes an area of about 5 sq. km from Lebanon to Israel, which Lebanon objects to, while Israel considers it “necessary for security purposes.”
Israel had placed and unilaterally adopted a line of buoys as its border when it withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Israel objected last week to the Lebanese reservations over its continued use as a demarcation line.
A Lebanese source said that the available data on the final version of the agreement seemed positive. Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem said on Monday that the group was “awaiting the results” of the latest round of negotiations.
Meanwhile, the mayor of the Lebanese town of Kafr Kila has denied claims that residents were receiving electricity from an Israeli settlement on the opposite side of the border.
Kila Hassan Sheet said: “Even if we have no access to electricity at all, we cannot accept electricity like this.”
Lebanese often use private electricity generators or solar power given the parlous state of the country’s grid.