US envoy talks with Lebanese over border dispute with Israel

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BEIRUT — Lebanon’s president on Tuesday made suggestions regarding the disputed maritime border with Israel to the US envoy mediating between the two countries, the president’s office said.

President Michel Aoun’s office released the statement after meeting de Amos Hochstein, a senior energy security adviser at the US State Department who mediates between the two neighbors.

Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday at the invitation of the Lebanese government and after Israel set up a gas platform at the designated location in the Karish field. Israel says the field is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone, while Lebanon insists it is in disputed territory.

Hochstein’s talks with top Lebanese officials focused on ways to find a solution amid mounting tensions as the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group and Israel exchanged threats. Hezbollah’s leader last week warned that he would attack the gas platform near Karish if drilling takes place before an agreement is reached. The heavily armed Hezbollah, which has fought several wars with Israel, has repeatedly said in the past it would use its weapons to protect Lebanon’s economic rights.

Days later, Israeli army chief Aviv Kochavi threatened Lebanon with “unprecedented bombings” and said a future war would be very big.

US-mediated indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel have stalled since last year due to disagreements within Lebanon over the size of the disputed area.

The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim approximately 860 square kilometers (330 sq mi) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to unleash offshore oil and gas production as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

Last year in the talks, the Lebanese delegation – a mix of army generals and professionals – offered a new map with an additional 1,430 square kilometers (550 sq mi) as Lebanese territory.

In Beirut, Hochstein met Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other officials. He did not speak to reporters after the meetings.

A Lebanese official who attended the meetings told The Associated Press that they were focusing on the disputed area of ​​the Mediterranean Sea and that the additional area Lebanon was pushing for — known in Lebanon as Line 29 — was shelved.

“The Israelis refuse to talk about Line 29 completely,” the official said on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media.

Lebanese media reported ahead of Tuesday’s meetings that Aoun would make several proposals, including one showing a willingness to give Israel full control of the Karish field in exchange for Lebanon receiving the Qana field, part of which is extends deep into the disputed territory.

The anonymous official said Lebanon wants full control of the Qana field and has reservations about Israel operating in the Karish field without a final agreement with Lebanon.

During a visit to Lebanon in February, Hochstein had handed Lebanese officials a proposal from Israel to give more than half of the disputed territory to Lebanon. Lebanon did not respond to the proposal at the time.

Aoun’s office said he had responded to Hochstein’s February proposal to forward it “to the Israeli side.” Aoun told the US envoy he hopes Hochstein will return to Lebanon soon with Israel’s answers.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet criticized the Lebanese leadership, saying on Tuesday that instead of using gas “for the benefit of its citizens, that same leadership is busy fighting internal and external disputes.”

The dispute over the maritime border has been going on for more than a decade. In 2012, Lebanon rejected a US proposal to get 550 square kilometers (212 square miles), or nearly two-thirds of the area, while Israel would have received the remaining third.

The offering was known at the time as the ‘Hoff Line’, after American diplomat Frederick Hoff who then mediated between the two countries.

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