Indirect negotiations to resolve a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel will be bolstered by a proposal Lebanese officials presented to a US mediator in Beirut, Washington's envoy says.
Lebanon’s president has presented suggestions related to the disputed maritime border with Israel to the US envoy mediating between the two countries, the president’s office said, and the envoy said the suggestions "will enable the negotiations to go forward."
President Michel Aoun's office released the statement on Tuesday following his meeting with Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser for energy security at the US State Department who has been mediating between the two neighbours.
Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday following an invitation by the Lebanese government and after Israel set up a gas rig at its designated location at the Karish field. Israel says the field is part of its UN-recognised exclusive economic zone, while Lebanon insists it is in a disputed area.
Hochstein's discussions with top Lebanese officials focused on ways to reach a solution amid rising tensions as Lebanon's Hezbollah group and Israel exchanged threats.
Hezbollah's leader last week warned he would strike the gas rig at Karish if drilling starts before an agreement is reached. Hezbollah, which has fought several wars with Israel, has repeatedly said in the past that it would use its weapons to protect Lebanon's economic rights.
Days later, Israel's army chief Aviv Kochavi threatened Lebanon with "unprecedented bombing" saying that a future war would be very large.
The US-mediated indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel have been stalled since last year amid disagreements within Lebanon over how big the disputed area is.
The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel's creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to unleash offshore oil and gas production as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
Last year, the Lebanese delegation in the talks — a mix of army generals and professionals — offered a new map that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometres as Lebanese territory.
Gas fields trade-off?
In Beirut, Hochstein met with Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other officials. He did not speak to reporters after the meetings.
Hochstein later told the US-funded Alhurra TV station that the Lebanese government took "a very strong step forward" by presenting a more united approach.
He refused to give details about the Lebanese suggestions, saying "it's about looking at what kind of a compromise can be reached that the Israelis can agree to and not feel that it is being pushed into something against their interest while still preserving the most important part of Lebanon’s interest."
"I think that it will enable the negotiations to go forward," he said.
A Lebanese official who attended the meetings told The Associated Press news agency that they focused on the disputed area of the Mediterranean and that the additional area Lebanon was pushing for — known in Lebanon as Line 29 — was shelved.
"The Israelis are totally refusing to talk about Line 29," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the negotiations with the media.
Lebanese media reported ahead of Tuesday's meetings that Aoun would put forward several proposals, including one which shows readiness to give Israel full control of Karish field in return for Lebanon getting the Qana field, part of which stretches deep into the disputed area.