US pushing ahead with diplomatic efforts to resolve Lebanon-Israel border dispute

“We remain committed to reaching a solution, and we believe a lasting compromise is possible,” a State Department official said.

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US officials believe reaching a maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel is within reach despite reports that negotiations could come to a sudden halt over last-minute demands.

The yearslong dispute between the two neighboring countries has been a focus of the Biden administration in recent months as it tries to push a deal over the finish line.

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Waters claimed by both sides have potential natural gas reserves. Israel currently pumps gas from offshore fields, while Lebanon has not found commercial gas reserves after one round of drilling north of the capital Beirut.

However, reports out of Israel on Thursday suggested that the Israeli government completely rejected Lebanon’s requested amendments to the US-circulated draft agreement.

Israeli officials struck a pessimistic tone after Beirut reportedly wanted to alter the formal recognition of buoys placed at sea by Israel years ago. Lebanese officials have voiced concerns that accepting this would impact the land border between the two countries, which is currently separated by a UN-demarcated Blue Line.

This threatened to torpedo the diplomatic efforts of Washington, which have been spearheaded by Amos Hochstein, special presidential coordinator for Joe Biden.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly stated that resolving the dispute was a key priority and could bring about increased stability and economic security in the region.

Officials said that the White House is equally as interested as the State Department and other US agencies in finalizing a deal.

Asked about the negative reports on Thursday, the State Department said Hochstein would continue his “robust engagement” with both sides to bring the talks to a close.

“We are at a critical stage in these negotiations, and the gaps have certainly narrowed, and we remain committed to reaching a solution, and we believe a lasting compromise is possible,” State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.

White House officials also said that US diplomatic efforts would continue to move forward, signaling the seriousness of how important a deal is for the administration.

Iran-backed Hezbollah has vowed to prevent Israel from benefiting from the Karish gas rig if Lebanon cannot begin exploration in the waters it secures in a potential deal.

London-based Energean's drill ship begins drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel in the east Mediterranean May 9, 2022. (Reuters)
London-based Energean's drill ship begins drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel in the east Mediterranean May 9, 2022. (Reuters)

On Thursday, Israeli officials hit back and said the rig would be activated when it becomes possible, playing down Hezbollah’s threats.

But two key developments could impact the fate of the negotiations, which is another reason the US hopes to conclude a deal soon.

The term of Lebanon’s president ends at the end of the month, and all signs point to another presidential vacuum in a country that is already on the verge of an all-out socio-economic collapse.

And an increase in political mudslinging has been witnessed in Israel ahead of the Nov. 1 elections. Political opponents of Yair Lapid’s government, specifically Benjamin Netanyahu, have criticized a potential maritime border deal as benefitting Hezbollah.

“Both parties remain incentivized to get the deal done, but electoral timetables in both Israel and Lebanon are making concession-making by either side on outstanding points of disagreement challenging,” said Randa Slim, a program director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Years of US diplomacy

At least three different US envoys, including Hochstein, have spent significant time trying to help resolve the maritime border dispute.

In 2012, Frederic Hof, most notably, proposed dividing the disputed waters along what became the “Hof Line.”

This would have seen Lebanon take 500 sq. km. out of the 842 sq. km.
Hochstein tried to mediate while the State Department’s special envoy for international energy affairs from 2014-2017.

US diplomats David Satterfield and David Hale also shuttled between the Lebanese and Israeli capitals, hoping to bring the sides closer to agreeing on a framework for future discussions.

Under the Trump administration, then-top State Department official for the Middle East, David Schenker, was able to get Lebanese and Israeli officials in the same room for indirect talks.

After a few rounds of talks at the end of 2020, the US stopped the discussions when Lebanon suddenly demanded an extra 1,430 square kilometers (550 sq. miles). Israel proceeded to put forth maximalist demands as well.

In came the Biden administration, which dispatched Hochstein last year to resume the stalled talks.

He has made several trips to Lebanon and Israel while also engaging Gulf and European countries to help.

Read more: Biden: Lebanon-Israel maritime border deal should conclude ‘in coming weeks’

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