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US diplomat upbeat after maritime border talks with Lebanon, will head to Israel

“Resolving the maritime dispute is really a critical and important step to resolving this economic crisis and to beginning a pathway towards recovery and growth again,” Hochstein said from Beirut.

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The US envoy mediating the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border dispute struck an upbeat tone after meeting officials in Beirut on Tuesday and said he would carry what he described as “a basis to continue the negotiations” to Israel.

Amos Hochstein, US senior advisor for Energy Security, held separate meetings with Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker.

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He told US-funded Al-Hurra TV that he heard “a lot more unity of message” from Beirut.

Previous trips by Hochstein were marred by internal bickering between Lebanese politicians, arguing over which international maritime boundary should be claimed by Lebanon.

What has been referred to as “Line 23” was previously adopted by the Lebanese government before they suddenly shifted to a claim of “Line 29,” which would have seen an extra1,400 square km (540 square miles) added and part of Karish. Israel has claimed Karish and a Greek vessel entered to begin drilling for gas earlier this month.

But Hochstein said he heard a unified stance from Lebanese leaders this time around as well as a “clear understanding” that the economic crisis in Lebanon is closely tied to the energy crisis in the country. “And resolving the maritime dispute is really a critical and important step to resolving this economic crisis and to beginning a pathway towards recovery and growth again,” Hochstein said.

Lebanese leaders shared ideas of how to continue the indirect negotiations with Israel, “the basis for which to continue the negotiations and to take it a step forward,” according to Hochstein.

Now he will travel to Israel, and when he receives a response from them, he will communicate that back to Beirut.

Karish for Qana?

Israel has claimed Karish as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but Lebanon and Iran-backed Hezbollah have threatened to respond to any drilling in this disputed territory.

A new proposal that has surfaced has been to allow Karish to be part of Israel’s territory in return for Lebanon getting all of the “Qana” area, which would fall south of Lebanon’s Line 23.

Asked about this, Hochstein said, “a lot of people have ideas of what the negotiations should be.”

Hochstein added: “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 interests.”

He went on to say that thinking should be focused on an idea that all sides could agree to. “What is a creative idea that we can all compromise around, that both sides will feel I may not have gotten everything I want, but I got a lot more than what I have right now,” he said. “Which, really, in the case of Lebanon right now, is nothing.”

Washington has tried to mediate a deal between Lebanon and Israel since the early 2000s, including efforts by Hochstein under the Obama administration. One of the most significant breakthroughs came during the Trump administration when both sides agreed to sit in the same room to discuss a framework to potentially reach a deal.

However, a change in administrations in the US and Israel and Lebanese delays put a monthslong pause on the talks.

Hochstein previously said he would not expend unlimited diplomatic shuttling but repeatedly offered his willingness to help.

Tensions ramped up last week after the vessel entered disputed waters to begin drilling for gas. Lebanese officials quickly invited the US envoy to respond to his written proposals presented to Beirut months ago.

Read more: Israeli defense minister: Gas dispute with Lebanon to be resolved diplomatically