Israeli Official: Breakthrough in Maritime Border Talks With Lebanon Could Happen Soon

A possible compromise between Lebanon and Israel calls for the maritime border between to pass north of Israel's Karish gas site, but it also permits Lebanon to drill in the region where it is looking for gas deposits

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London-based Energean's drill ship drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel, in July.
London-based Energean's drill ship drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel, in July.Credit: Ari Rabinovitch/Reuters

Israeli officials expressed optimism on Sunday over the prospects for quickly wrapping up an agreement with Lebanon over the border between the two countries’ maritime economic zones.

One official expressed the belief that the current visit by U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein to the region could lead to a breakthrough in the talks in the coming week.

The agreement taking shape would constitute a compromise between Israel’s proposed solution to the maritime border dispute and what Lebanon has been demanding.

The compromise calls for a border running north of Israel’s Karish offshore natural gas site in the Mediterranean, but it would permit Lebanon to carry out offshore drilling at a site that it is developing and where it is exploring for natural gas. “In the apparent compromise, neither side will obtain its full desires,” an official said.

In recent days, senior American officials have also conveyed a sense of optimism to their Israeli counterparts. At the same time, officials in Lebanon, including the country’s foreign minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, have publicly expressed hope regarding the future of the talks.

In Israel, officials expressed the assessment that recent threats by the Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah militia movement are an indication that the group is beginning to understand that agreement is near on the maritime border. On Sunday, Hezbollah released a video, purportedly from Saturday, showing Israel’s Karish drilling rig in the crosshairs.

The video also featured a statement from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah translated into Hebrew in which he said that “playing for time won’t help.” The title of the video was “The rig in the range of Hezbollah fire up to a distance of 90 kilometers.”

In a speech on Sunday, Nasrallah said that the organization is not intervening in the negotiations on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon.

The decision on where to set the border, and the responsibility for it, rests with the Lebanese government, he said; Hezbollah merely seeks to strengthen the government’s bargaining position.

Nevertheless, he warned, Hezbollah will decide on its next steps based on the results of Hochstein’s visit to Beirut. “Tomorrow everything will become clear, and we’ll decide how to act,” he said.

Last week the Israel Defense Forces substantially boosted its forces protecting the rig against the backdrop of the threats. At the beginning of July, Hezbollah dispatched four drones toward the gas drilling site.

On Sunday, Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen television which is closely associated with Hezbollah, quoted Lebanese sources saying that Hochstein, the U.S. envoy, was seeking to reach an agreement by the end of the summer and was visiting Lebanon in a positive atmosphere. It was also reported that Hochstein had deemed Hezbollah’s release of its video as unhelpful and a move that might lead Israel to stiffen its stance in the talks.

Hochstein, who is in Lebanon for a series of meetings with the Lebanese leadership, is expected to arrive in Israel later in the week. Israel and the United States are seeking to wrap up the talks as soon as possible, in part over concern that Hezbollah might persist in its threats and attempt to attack the Karish site in September. If an understanding is reached now, it might lessen Hezbollah’s motivation to act against Israel.

Senior U.S. officials have made it clear to Israel that they are interested in having the IDF respond with restraint if Hezbollah attempts to attack the rig in the coming weeks. Israeli officials have refused to commit to that, however, and have said that the intensity of an Israeli response would depend upon the scope of any Hezbollah attack and its consequences.

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