Lebanon Wants U.S. Envoy in Beirut 'As Soon as Possible' Over Israeli Rig Near Disputed Waters

The invitation of the U.S. envoy comes after Lebanese leaders accused Israel of 'violating its territorial sovereignty' by setting up a drilling rig in the gas-rich contested maritime zone. Israel maintains that the rig is further south

Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun.Credit: Dalati Nohra/Reuters

Lebanon's leaders said on Monday they've agreed to invite the American mediator in talks with Israel over a disputed maritime zone, a day after accusing Israel of violating Lebanon's sovereignty with a gas-drilling rig.

In a statement issued by Najib Mikati's office, the caretaker prime minister said he met with President Michel Aoun on Monday morning to discuss "steps to counter" the Israeli move, which they say complicate negotiations on the maritime border between the two neighboring countries.

Israel has not responded officially to the Lebanese claims, and at this time have no plans to do so, in order to avoid legitimizing the claim that the area is indeed disputed.

Israeli maps show the rig further south of the area claimed by Lebanon, but Haaretz had no way of verifying its exact location.

The contested territory between Israel and Lebanon

Since the year 2000, there have been intermittent, U.S.-mediated negotiations over the zone, though Israel claims the location of the rig is not in dispute. According to sources in Jerusalem, even by the standards of Lebanon's plan, the area of the rig is not in question, as it sits south of the maritime border that Lebanon proposes.

Mikati and Aoun would like to see U.S. envoy Amos Hocshtein in Beirut for talks on "completing negotiations over demarcating the southern maritime border… as soon as possible," the statement said, adding that it was necessary in order to "prevent an escalation" that would jeopardize "regional stability."

There was no immediate comment from Hochstein or the State Department.

Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz concurred that everything related to the disputed maritime zone "will be solved in the framework of U.S.-mediated negotiations," though he noted that the area where Israel sent the rig "is not under dispute."

On Sunday, the British-Greek energy firm Energean, which holds the rights to the Karish gas fields since 2016, set up the rig Sunday, some 80 km west of Haifa. In the coming days, workers will connect the rig to gas deposits. The rig is expected to become operational in the next three months.

Israel's navy has been securing the rig since it left the Suez Canal. Last week, the Knesset’s Economy Committee approved regulations prohibiting maritime traffic in a radius around the rig — as is customary with operational rigs. Lebanon claims that Israeli naval battleships are already on location protecting the rig, even before it is connected to gas deposits.

Gantz reiterated on Monday that "this is a civilian matter and the defense establishment has no involvement in the issue other than securing the rig and the area."

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