US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Sunday to push talks to resolve an increasingly tense maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel over Mediterranean waters with offshore gas fields, days after a Lebanese minister expressed high hopes for a deal.
“Reaching a resolution is both necessary and possible, but can only be done through negotiations and diplomacy,” the US State Department said in a statement ahead of the visit by Hochstein, Washington’s envoy for global infrastructure and investment.
During his visit to the Lebanese capital, Hochstein met with the country’s Energy Minister Walid Fayyad, and was scheduled to meet with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Monday.
The talks center around some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, thought to contain vast reserves of natural gas and claimed by both countries as within their exclusive economic zones. Because they are technically in a state of war, no maritime border has ever been negotiated between them.
“Hochstein brings a new proposal to the Lebanese officials, and he told me that it was positive and denied any rumors about joint excavations between Lebanon and Israel,” Fayyad said following the meeting according to the Lebanese Akhbar al-Yawm.
Reports ahead of the meeting indicated that Hochstein would be bringing Israel’s answer to a Lebanese proposal for full control of the Qana gas field, which straddles the zones and is called Sidon in Hebrew, in exchange for dropping its claims on the Karish field, where Israel recently set up a rig, spiking tensions with the Hezbollah terror group.
An Israeli official on Sunday called Hochstein’s latest visit a “moment of truth” and said Israel’s offer was a “compromise to both sides.”
“The offer we presented is one that would enable Lebanon to develop the reservoir that is in the disputed area,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The goal of the offer is to allow the Lebanese to develop it, while safeguarding Israel’s economic and other interests,” the official added, referring to “the Sidon reservoir,” known as the Qana field in Lebanon.
Ahead of the meeting, Israel’s Channel 12 news had claimed, without a source, that Israel and Lebanon were exploring an arrangement allowing them to share control of drilling in the Qana field, similar to an arrangement Israel has with Cyprus in the Aphrodite gas field.
On Friday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said he was more bullish than ever on negotiations over the offshore fields.
“Bou Habib added that he is optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement between Lebanon and Israel… noting that there has never been optimism to the extent that there is today,” the Lebanese Foreign Ministry said in a tweet.
Hochstein has repeatedly traveled to Lebanon over the years in a bid to resolve the border dispute. In recent weeks, the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah has made increasingly threatening statements and carried out increasingly threatening actions against Israel related to the gas fields.
In its boldest move, Hezbollah sent four drones toward the Karish platform several weeks ago, all of which were intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces.
On Sunday, shortly before Hochstein arrived, Hezbollah published another video threatening the gas extraction infrastructure at the Israeli offshore field.
Footage and the coordinates of the Arendal Spirit platform, Energean’s floating production system, and Stena’s Icemax drill, are presented in between clips of an apparent naval missile system being readied.
Some clips of the gas extraction sites are dated July 30.
While Hezbollah maintains some popular support, Lebanese leaders criticized the terror group for launching the drones, saying it was an unnecessarily risky action.
In his meeting with Fayyad on Sunday, Hochstein reportedly told the Lebanese minister that Hezbollah’s video was “neither constructive nor helpful,” particularly as Israel was in the midst of elections season, which would hard its positions further, according to Lebanon’s MTV news outlet.
Israel maintains sovereignty over the Karish gas field and has been seeking to develop it as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe, seeing the move as having not only major economic consequences, but strategic significance as well.
Earlier this month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that the drones sent to the Karish field were “only the beginning,” and that his group would go to war over the field.
Israeli leaders have countered that the country’s military will act against any threat, and have called on Lebanon to reach a deal so it can begin extracting gas and pulling itself out of its current economic tailspin. Israel has also issued stern warnings to Hezbollah through diplomatic and military channels.