Nov 10, 2021 - World

U.S. pushes for progress on Israel-Lebanon border dispute

Border-marking buoys in the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area between Israel and Lebanon

Border-marking buoys in the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area between Israel and Lebanon, May 4. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. mediator in the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon told the parties if they can’t get an agreement before the March 2022 parliamentary election in Lebanon, he will stop dealing with the issue, Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: The direct message from U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein seems to be aimed at making it clear to the parties they will have to make compromises.

  • Hochstein is one of President Biden’s closest confidants, which signals this issue is a relatively high priority for the Biden administration.

The backstory: There have been major natural gas discoveries off the coasts of both countries during the last decade, and the border dispute has halted gas exploration in an area that has attracted the interest of U.S. energy companies.

  • The talks are an attempt to resolve the dispute so gas exploration can begin. The revenues at stake could reach the tens of billions of dollars, which could be critical for Lebanon's imperiled economy.
  • U.S.-brokered talks began in October 2020 and were the first direct political negotiations between Israeli and Lebanese officials in 30 years, but they stalled after several rounds.

Driving the news: Hochstein visited Beirut for talks on the issue two weeks ago. He met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

  • On Sunday, he arrived in Israel and met Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Energy Karine Elharrar and other senior officials.
  • Hochstein told his Israeli interlocutors he isn’t going to resume direct talks between Israel and Lebanon at the UN base on the border between the countries, Israeli officials said. Instead, he is going to make separate visits to Beirut and Jerusalem in order to hear the parties and in the end present a U.S. bridging proposal.
  • According to Israeli officials, Hochstein stressed that he thinks the period until the Lebanese parliamentary elections in March 2022 is a window of opportunity to get a deal, especially when Lebanon needs to save its economy and attract any investment it can.

What they are saying: “Hochstein told us he is not going to present a proposal that both sides like, but the opposite — that both won’t like. But if three to four months from now he sees the parties are not willing to take the deal, he would drop the whole thing and won’t deal with this anymore,” a senior Israeli official told me.

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