White House energy security adviser Amos Hochtein is pushing negotiations between Jerusalem and Beirut to draw the boundary in eastern Mediterranean waters

Israel and Lebanon close to deal on delimiting territorial waters

photo_camera PHOTO/REUTERS - Exploitation of the gas field in Eastern Mediterranean waters

Israel and Lebanon are forcibly moving closer together to establish their maritime border. More than a decade after the outbreak of the dispute, an agreement to define the boundary in eastern Mediterranean waters has never been so close, according to the US State Department's senior energy security adviser, Amos Hochstein, an active mediator in the negotiations. At stake is a hydrocarbon-rich area stretching 860 square kilometres, and an additional 1,430 square kilometres. 

Washington is burning to resolve the dispute as soon as possible. The White House special envoy, who has already worked in the same area for the Obama administration, has visited Lebanon and Israel in recent hours. In Beirut, Hochstein met with President Michel Aoun, interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Energy Minister Walid Fayad. In Jerusalem, the US diplomat held discussions with senior officials from the energy and foreign ministries, as well as with acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid, according to the Hebrew news portal Walla. On the horizon, a draft that both would give the green light to. 

Before landing in the Lebanese capital on Sunday, Hochstein had already had a face-to-face meeting with Lapid on the sidelines of President Joe Biden's regional tour of the Middle East. According to Axios, the US mediator knew beforehand of Israel's updated proposal, which was in response to Lebanon's latest offer. On the table, Beirut was giving up its claims to the resource-rich Karish gas field in exchange for extending its control over the Qana field, known in Hebrew as Sidon. Reasonable maxims in Jerusalem's eyes.

Amos Hochtein

"I remain optimistic that we can make continued progress of the kind we have made in recent weeks," Hochstein said at the end of his hour-and-a-half meeting with Lebanon's nearly 90-year-old president, Michel Aoun. The US special envoy hopes to return to the region soon to finalise the last details of a negotiation that began in 2010, when Lebanon presented a border division plan to the United Nations using Naqoura, the Lebanese town that marks the land border with Israel, as a reference point. 

From then on, an irresolvable legal dispute began within the UN framework. The United States stepped in as mediator in 2012, and since then occasional talks have taken shape, although disagreements have been constant and no concrete results have materialised to date. On this occasion, veteran Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri and acting Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib echoed Hochstein's optimism. The former described the talks as "positive"; the latter spoke of major progress: "We are trying to establish things so that we can look for gas and so can they [the Israelis]". 

Intermittent talks resumed in early June, when Israel deployed drillships from the UK-based Greek company Energean to explore the Karish field, seeking energy reserves to bolster its position with a European Union hungry for new sources of hydrocarbons. This move led Lebanon to demand the resumption of negotiations with the usual US mediation.

Mapa Israel L铆bano

At the centre of the dispute are the larger Qana and smaller Karish gas fields, which are set to come online in the autumn. The Qana field lies to the north, closer to Lebanese waters, while the Karish field is divided. The demarcations, however, differ according to the line drawn from the coast. There are four proposals for the division: line 1, defended by Israel, which would encompass Karish and more than half of Qana; line H, which includes Karish and half of Qana; line 23, which leaves less than a third of Qana to Israel but cedes Karish to the Hebrews; and line 29, claimed by Lebanon, which would take over all of Qana and divide Karish. 

At present, the most plausible dividing line is line 23, which seems to satisfy both sides. The White House energy security adviser has moved in this direction, seeking consensus and filtering Washington's interests along the way, which would allow exploitation at Karish to begin on schedule. Until now, the ball has been in Lebanon's court, which is mired in a comprehensive crisis and mired in chronic political paralysis. The move by Hochstein, who has extensive experience in energy matters, including for the private sector, has served as a catalyst and has enabled Lebanon to unblock an agreement that it needs like water under the bridge. It is now up to Israel to decide.

Hizbul谩

According to Israeli media, the main concern of the incumbent government headed by Yair Lapid is time. The deal must be concluded by September. In Tuesday's surprise visit to Jerusalem from Beirut, Hochstein was tasked by the Hebrew prime minister to seal the demarcation before Hezbollah's threats expire. The 'Party of God' said in the words of its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, that "if they don't give us the rights that our state asks for, then we could overturn the table to the whole world". "If they want to reach a point where this country is forbidden to exploit [the fields], then no one will be able to extract gas or oil and no one will be able to sell gas or oil," the pro-Iranian militia's secretary general concluded. 

Three Hezbollah drones flew over the Karish gas field in early July in an action that angered interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who raised his voice against the terrorist organisation, which controls a parallel state within the Lebanese state. Despite being unarmed, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) decided to shoot down the drones in an action that prompted the Hebrew authorities to equip the Karish facility with missile defence systems in case of escalation with Hezbollah. 

Technically, Israel and Lebanon have been at war since the creation of the Jewish state more than seven decades ago. It is the UN that manages the shared border. Jerusalem's relations with Hezbollah, a militia aligned with Iran, Israel's regional nemesis, have not been much better since the outbreak of war in 2006. These are the stumbling blocks that have separated their positions on the issue of territorial water sharing for more than a decade. But never before have their positions been so close.

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