Sep 18, 2020 - World

Trump administration renews push for Israel-Lebanon talks on Mediterranean gas fields

The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea off the Israeli coast. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration has renewed its push for opening direct talks between Israel and Lebanon on the demarcation of their maritime borders in order to find a solution for the dispute between both countries over natural gas explorations in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Israeli and U.S. officials told me.

Why it matters: Israeli officials say the Trump administration hopes to launch Israeli-Lebanese diplomatic talks before November's election. There have been no such talks between the countries in 30 years, and renewing Israeli-Lebanese negotiations would be a big achievement for the White House.

The big picture: The last decade saw several significant natural gas discoveries off the coasts of the two countries.

  • The border dispute ultimately concerns revenues that could reach tens of billions of dollars — and it also halted natural gas exploration in the area that interested U.S. energy companies.

The backstory: In June 2019, Israel and Lebanon were close to launching negotiations.

  • U.S. mediator David Satterfield presented an agreement for launching direct Israeli-Lebanese negotiations with U.S. mediation under the auspices of the United Nations in a UN base on the border between Israel and Lebanon.
  • Both sides agreed — but, under pressure from Hezbollah, the Lebanese government backtracked.

What's happening: Israeli officials told me that, in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, Lebanon's economic crisis and ongoing domestic criticism of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the U.S. decided to renew its efforts to launch the talks.

  • Israeli officials said Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker visited Israel this week and discussed the issue with energy minister Yuval Steinitz and with foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
  • Schenker’s visit was part of American shuttle diplomacy between Beirut and Jerusalem, Israeli officials told me. Schenker was in Israel several weeks ago, then traveled to Beirut to meet government officials and returned to Israel this week for updates.
  • Schenker told reporters last week that he made progress during his talks in Beirut over the maritime border dispute.

The state of play: Israeli officials say that Schenker presented his Israeli interlocutors this week with an updated draft agreement for launching the negotiations.

  • Israeli officials say one of the last sticking points has to do with the mediation.
  • The Lebanese want both the U.S. and the UN to mediate — while Israel wants the U.S. as the only mediator, with the UN acting only as the host.

The bottom line: Officials said they feel there is more flexibility and readiness on the Lebanese side than before to enter talks with Israel.

  • A senior Israeli official told me: "There is progress. We see willingness on the Lebanese side to move and settle this dispute. We are ready to start talks immediately and we hope it can happen before the end of the year."
  • The Israeli foreign ministry and the State Department refused to comment.
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