Israel and Lebanon aim to complete negotiations over their maritime border before natural gas starts being extracted from the Karish field next month, sources involved in the U.S.-mediated talks said on Wednesday.
"It's not something that's going to happen tomorrow," one of the sources cautioned. But Israeli officials say that a signed agreement by September would invalidate Hezbollah's claim that Israel was breaching Lebanon's sovereignty, and therefore make it highly unlikely for the Iran-backed group to attack the natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
Israeli ministers met on Wednesday with heads of several national security agencies to discuss the negotiations, after Prime Minister Yair Lapid met with U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein this week following the latter's visit to Beirut.
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A source involved in the negotiations said Israel sees September as a target date for having a final agreement due to the assessment that starting to extract gas at Karish may be seen by Hezbollah as a reason to attack it. This could trigger an Israeli response, potentially leading to a serious escalation.
U.S. officials who spoke on the matter with their Israeli counterparts in recent days sought to understand whether Israel plans to retaliate after such an attack by Hezbollah, and were told that it would depend on its outcome.
Both Israel and Lebanon claim that the area in question – a 330-square mile triangular area of the Mediterranean Sea that starts at the shared land border – is within their own exclusive economic zones.
The compromise that is taking shape between the two countries calls for drawing a border running north of the natural gas site in the Mediterranean – thereby declaring the area in dispute Israeli territory – but it also grants Lebanon the right to drill at a site that it is developing there.