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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.

Go deeper

Nov 24, 2021 - World

Israeli diplomat: New regional alliances "keep the Iranians up at night"

Photo: Mazen Mahdi AFP via Getty

MANAMA, Bahrain — The diplomat who transitioned Israel's secret relationship with Bahrain into a public one tells Axios that Israel's burgeoning partnerships in the region "keep the Iranians up at night."

What he's saying: "The Iranians opened a front against us in Syria and Lebanon, but now when they look across the Gulf, they see us there with our allies very close to them," says Itay Tagner, the outgoing head of mission at the new Israeli Embassy in Bahrain, who previously led the secret Israeli diplomatic mission in Manama.

Movie theaters go out of style

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Vaccination rates are going up, people are going out to restaurants again — although the new COVID variant may get in the way — but they still aren't rushing back to the movies.

By the numbers: Some 49% of pre-pandemic moviegoers are no longer hitting theaters, according to a study from the film research company The Quorum, as reported by the New York Times.

2 hours ago - Health

Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles down

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

European countries are doubling down on pressure campaigns to get people vaccinated just as Republicans continue to wage war — often successfully — against vaccine mandates in the U.S.

Why it matters: The starkly different approaches create a sharp contrast between the regions' approaches to vaccination, even as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads around the world.