US envoy talks with Lebanese over border dispute with Israel

BEIRUT – The US envoy mediating between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed sea border met Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Tuesday in Beirut to discuss ways to find a solution amid mounting tensions along the tense border.

Amos Hochstein, senior energy security adviser at the US State Department, arrived in Beirut on Monday at the invitation of the Lebanese government. The invitation came after Israel set up a gas platform at the designated site in the Karish field, which Israel claims is part of its UN-recognized Exclusive Economic Zone. Lebanon insists it is in a disputed territory.

The Israeli-Lebanon-backed militant Hezbollah have exchanged threats, with the Hezbollah leader warning last week that he would attack the gas platform near Karish. 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.

Hochstein did not speak to reporters after his meetings with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Mikati. 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.

During a visit to Lebanon in February, Hochstein handed Lebanese officials a proposal to donate more than half of the disputed territory to Lebanon. Lebanon did not respond to the proposal.

When asked what the United Nations could do to move the negotiations forward, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, said the UN can “work with the parties to help them find a solution through of dialogues, through discussion, between both sides”.

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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