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Lebanon offers a path to save maritime border talks with Israel

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Lebanon offers a path to save maritime border talks with Israel
Israeli soldiers guard the entrance of Rosh Hanikra crossing between Israel and Lebanon last October as talks were held over the disputed maritime border. File Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 22 (UPI) -- Lebanon is seeking a quick resumption of U.S.-mediated negotiations over its maritime border dispute with Israel, putting on hold new claims to more offshore territory and resorting to arbitration by inviting international experts to step in, according to Lebanese officials and experts.

Israel is being asked to refrain from all exploration activity in the disputed area, potentially rich in oil and gas.

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The move, which came against a backdrop of changing positions by Lebanon caused mostly by political bickering, different delimitation methods and negotiation tactics, was meant to end the impasse in the indirect talks and reach a deal over the disputed area.

Lebanon spent 10 years in negotiations to reach a U.S.-mediated framework agreement that paved the way for unprecedented talks with Israel last October.

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But the negotiations were suspended after four rounds when the Lebanese delegation, made up of Army generals and experts, presented a new map that would add 550 square miles (referred to as line 29) to the disputed 330 square mile area (referred to as line 23) of the Mediterranean Sea that each side claims is within their own exclusive economic zones.

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Debt-stricken Lebanon is in dire need of proceeding with oil and gas discoveries that could help overcome its economic woes.

Its negotiations with Israel, which has developed offshore natural gas rigs, "have potential to unlock significant economic benefits for Lebanon," U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale said during a visit to Beirut last week.

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In a turn of events, Lebanese President Michel Aoun put on hold a decree confirming the new claims within the disputed area and ignored calls for registering the new offshore coordinates with the United Nations for the country's EEZ.

Aoun went a step further during a meeting with Hale on April 15, proposing to have international experts draw the borders in accordance with international law. Israel, in the meantime, would have to stop any oil and gas exploration activity in the disputed area.

"President Aoun, as a last chance for Lebanon, proposed to the U.S. mediators to resume the negotiations [with Israel] and bring in experts to solve this debatable issue of line 29, and whatever is the outcome we will accept it," Alain Aoun, a parliamentarian and a senior member of the Free Patriotic Movement party founded by the president, his uncle, told UPI.

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Bringing in international experts "under the umbrella of the U.S. mediators" was a way out of the impasse to solve the border issue "once and for all," said Alain Aoun, who along with two of the president's top aides met with Hale before he engaged in talks with the Lebanese officials.

"We have to resume the talks [with Israel] quickly...and the experts will rule on this issue of line 29," he said, adding that Hale "was very happy" with the offer, which he was expected to relay to the U.S. and Israeli officials.

Cyprus agreement

The root of the problem lies in the agreement that Lebanon and Cyprus signed in 2007 for the delimitation of their EEZ, leaving the two southernmost and northernmost points of the Lebanese EEZ for further negotiations with neighbors Israel and Syria.

Lebanon never ratified the accord and objected to an Israeli-Cypriot EEZ delimitation agreement signed in December 2010 on the basis that it did not agree to a border that would deprive Lebanon of about 332 square miles of its territorial waters.

"This has been the problem since then," said a Lebanese official source involved in the negotiations that led to a framework agreement for the talks with Israel that started in October. "At that time, Lebanon had to protect its rights and marked its border on point 23."

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The United States engaged in mediation between Lebanon and Israel, which are still in a state of war, and proposed what became known as the "Hoff line," named after former U.S. envoy Frederick Hoff. That plan would give Lebanon "almost 60 percent" of the 332-square-mile disputed area and "70-75 % of the remaining part," according to the source, who spoke to UPI on the condition of anonymity.

Lebanon rejected the proposal, while Israel accepted it.

The framework agreement announced by Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri on Oct. 1 stipulates for "the delimitation of the maritime border, starting from the coastal area, land point, of Ras al-Naqoura up to Lebanon's EEZ."

"There was no talk about any specific area, not a centimeter or a mile," the source said. "We simply accepted the principle of demarcation...If it turns out to be less or more than point 23, we will take it."

Point 29, which was recently suggested based on new studies and using different delimitation methods, "is one of the probabilities," he said.

"The way out is to return to the negotiations and apply the framework agreement," he said, adding that Berri suggested in October using international experts if needed.

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Oil and gas fields

The urgency to resume border talks with Israel was apparently linked to fears that the London-based Greek firm Energean, which developed the Karish field, will begin pumping gas to the Israeli domestic market, with its floating production storage and offloading unit set to sail from Singapore for Israel within weeks. But on Monday, Energean said the first gas from its flagship Karish offshore field is now expected in the first quarter of 2022 due to COVID-19 issues.

Walid Khadduri, a Beirut-based oil and gas expert, warned that "the minute the Israelis start exploratory drilling [in Karish], it will be a de facto and source of big tension because this would put Lebanon, or groups in Lebanon such as Hezbollah, in a position where it must act."

"That would be a turning point and the most dangerous, for it will take us to another stage in the conflict," Khadduri told UPI. "If they don't start drilling, negotiations are to continue to resolve the issue" diplomatically.

He said Israel "is drilling off the disputed area" and will never accept point 29 and the extra 890 miles.

Until the maritime border dispute is solved, drilling on both sides should stop to avoid any escalation, observers said.

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Iran-backed Hezbollah, which repeatedly pledged to defend Lebanon's rights and wealth, has been keeping "a low profile" on the matter, said Alain Aoun, whose FPM is Hezbollah's close ally.

Hezbollah chief Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah said in November that border demarcation is the "responsibility of the state," and his heavily armed group will abide by "what it will define."

Alain Aoun said the president's new proposal "defused" any possible tension in the area and would help resolve the border dispute with Israel.

"The moment we solve this issue, things will start to change and [international donors] will unblock funds for Lebanon," which is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

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