Israel is close to ‘historic’ maritime deal with Lebanon

Israel is close to ‘historic’ maritime deal with Lebanon

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Israel said Tuesday it was close to a “historic” deal with Lebanon to settle a long-standing dispute over its border in Mediterranean waters, which have rich gas reserves, after a US-drafted proposal met Israeli “demands”.

A deal between the neighboring countries, which are still technically at war, could mean a big step towards opening up offshore gas production for both countries.

The talks were brokered by US envoy Amos Hochstein, who has been trying to settle long-standing competing demands.

Hochstein submitted a first set of proposed final terms to Israel and Lebanon earlier this month.

Israel welcomed Hochstein’s first draft, but Lebanon demanded changes. Israel said it plans to reject the Lebanese amendments.

Negotiations have continued in recent days, and Israel said Hochstein’s latest draft put an agreement within reach.

“All our demands have been met, the changes we requested have been corrected,” Israel’s national security adviser and chief negotiator at the talks, Eyal Hulata, said in a statement.

“We have protected Israel’s security interests and are on our way to a historic deal,” he added.

A Lebanese source with knowledge of the negotiations told AFP that the latest US draft “contains and fulfills most of Lebanon’s demands or positions.”

Hochstein sent his proposal to Lebanon’s chief negotiator, Deputy Spokesman Elias Bou Saab, late Monday, and top officials were due to discuss it on Tuesday, added the source, who requested anonymity while discussing the negotiations.

The countries resumed negotiations on their sea border in 2020, but the process has repeatedly faced obstacles.

A major source of friction was the Karish gas field, which Israel claimed fell entirely within its waters and was not the subject of negotiations.

Lebanon was reportedly claiming part of the field, and Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Shia group with major influence in Lebanon, threatened attack if Israel started production in Karish.

Israel has said production in Karish would begin as soon as possible, regardless of Lebanon’s demands.

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On Sunday, London-listed Energean began testing the pipeline connecting Karish to the Israeli coast, an important step before production can begin.

Under the terms of the US draft leaked to the press, all of Karish would come under Israeli control, while Qana, another potential gas field, would be shared but its exploitation would be under Lebanon’s control.

French company Total would be licensed to explore for gas in the Qana field, and Israel would receive a share of future revenues.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his government is committed to exporting more gas to Europe to help replace Russian supplies hit by the war in Ukraine.

But Israel’s November 1 general election overshadowed the final stages of the negotiations.

Right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu accused Lapid of “surrendering” to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which plays a leading role in the country’s politics, by pushing for a deal.

It’s not clear if Netanyahu, who remains determined to reclaim the post of prime minister he held from 2009 to 2021, saw the proposed terms of the deal.

But he has nonetheless vowed that the hawkish government he hopes to form next month with his far-right and religious allies will not be bound by any deal with Lebanon.

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