U.S. deeply concerned as Israel-Lebanon maritime dispute intensifies

This map shows Israeli oil, gas fields . Karish field is the one being disputed between Israel; and Lebanon . While Israel claims this field lies within its line one , Lebanon disputes line one and considers the field to be within its line 29

The U.S. is deeply concerned about rising tensions between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime border dispute in the Mediterranean Sea, Axios has learned. 

The dispute over a potentially gas-rich area that Lebanon and Israel both claim intensified after a ship operated by gas exploration company Energean arrived Sunday to begin drilling in an area Israel says is within its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.

The arrival of the ship was known long in advance, and Israel had notified the Lebanese government through third parties about its intention to start drilling, Israeli officials told Axios.

Lebanon reaction

Energean’s new FPSO, which was specially constructed for the Karish field crossed the Suez Canal on Saturday while on its way from a shipyard in Singapore to the disputed Karish Field

But when the ship arrived, it generated furious political reactions in Lebanon. 

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati claimed the presence of the ship was “an invasion of Lebanon’s natural resources” and warned it could lead to an escalation.Lebanese officials have touted potential oil and gas exploration as a way out of the country’s deepening economic crisis. 

Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem told Reuters the organization is ready to take action “including force” against Israeli gas operations in disputed waters once the Lebanese government adopts a clearer policy on the issue.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun invited State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein to come to Beirut urgently to resume talks over the maritime border, which have been frozen for several months

Israeli reaction

Israel fired back at the Lebanese reaction, with officials accusing the Lebanese government of contradicting its own past position that this area is Israeli waters.

  • In a joint statement today, the Israeli ministers of energy, defense and foreign affairs said the Karish rig “will not pump gas from the disputed territory.” 
  • They added that Israel prioritizes the protection of the rig and is prepared to defend it in accordance with its rights. 
  • “At the same time, we call on Lebanon to accelerate negotiations on the maritime border,” they said.

US concerns

FILE – In this photo released by Lebanese government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with U.S. Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left,( not shown) at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 9, 2022. On Monday, June 6, 2022, the Lebanese government invited Hochstein, who is mediating between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime border to return to Beirut to conclude an agreement as soon as possible amid rising tensions along the border. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP, File)

The U.S. government is expressing concern about the escalating tone and rhetoric being used around the issue, Axios has learned. 

  • The U.S. is also urging Lebanese parties to refrain from using the issue for domestic gain. 

The fresh tensions over the maritime border dispute come several weeks after the Lebanese elections, which slightly weakened Hezbollah’s political power in parliament and strengthened that of its rivals.

Hezbollah only recently became more openly involved in the dispute both in private and in public.

According to Lebanese media reports, Hochstein is expected to ask Lebanese officials for a formal unified written response to the U.S. proposal that was given to Lebanon but was never answered.

Separately, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is expected to present his organization’s position on the dispute in a speech tomorrow night.

Hochstein is expected to arrive in Beirut on Sunday, the Lebanese government added.

Unified stance

This Map shows the disputed area in the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel . The area in green between line 1 and 29 is disputed . While Israel considers line 1 as the border line Lebanon considers line 29 as the border line . The Karish field shown in red west of block 72 lies therefore inside the disputed area , according to the Lebanese side . Energean Power vessel, was built specifically for creating an extraction rig in the Karish gas field. Its entry into disputed waters has been labeled a dangerous violation of ongoing negotiations over the maritime border dispute.

President Aoun, caretaker PM Mikati and Speaker Nabib Berri are leaning toward holding a meeting over the maritime border demarcation , Hezbollah’s mouthpiece al-Manar TV reported .

Al-Manar said Thursday that it had learned that the meeting might take place at the end of next week to discuss the latest developments regarding the maritime border dispute with Israel

Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab an ally of president Aoun said Wednesday that the Lebanese position is “strong and unified.” A-Akhbar a newspaper which is linked to Hezbollah said that Lebanon will not accept U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein’s proposal — which includes a possible amendment to Line 23

LBCI TV , for its part reported that the negotiations will be between Line 1 and Line 23, and that Washington is not interested in discussing Line 29. It added that Aoun, Mikati and Berri are close to agreeing on a unified position, which will be negotiating Line 23 without fighting for Line 29.

Axios / Ya Libnan