Lebanon and Israel agree to negotiate their maritime border in dispute over gas fields

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The two countries, technically still at war, agree on their first direct contact in 30 years

The bonanza that promises the natural gas buried under the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean favors the rapprochement between enemies. Lebanon and Israel, technically still at war since they clashed in 2006, announced on Thursday an agreement to negotiate the delimitation of their maritime border, a disputed area that runs between the main deposits on the Levant coast. The understanding between the two countries, which had not engaged in direct talks for three decades, comes after three years of mediation by the United States.

Lebanon’s political and economic crisis, exacerbated by the massive explosion that devastated the port of Beirut two months ago and killed nearly 200 people, appears to have accelerated diplomatic contacts bogged down by a longstanding regional feud. The framework agreement reached with Israel establishes that the maritime border delimitation negotiations will take place under the auspices of the UN, at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force for Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqura, located a few kilometers from the border. Israeli. The United States will act as mediator and promoter of the dialogue at the request of both countries, as announced by the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, whose party, Amal, has recently suffered sanctions from the State Department directed against senior officials of the moderate Shiite organization.

The head of US diplomacy, Mike Pompeo, immediately congratulated himself on the result obtained “after long years of intense international efforts,” through an official statement. The Undersecretary of State for the Middle East, David Schenker, had already anticipated in September the rapprochement between the parties and their willingness to start talks.

Israel was also quick to confirm the agreement for the start of maritime zone delimitation negotiations, which for now excludes Lebanon’s pending land border grievances. He Minister of Energy, Yuval Steinitz, He specified that the negotiations will be direct and will begin in mid-October, after the end of the autumn Jewish holidays. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, in turn highlighted the important role played by the US mediation in achieving understanding.

While Israel has already begun to exploit the large Tamar and Leviatan fields in its maritime economic zone, currently operated by the US oil company Chevron, Lebanon has been trying since 2018 to get a consortium led by the French Total and the Italian ENI to start up the exploration of the gas wealth that lies under its exclusive exploitation waters. Two of the sectors in which they have yet to undertake surveys are in the area in dispute with Israel.

“If the demarcation is successful, there is a very wide margin, especially with regard to blocks 8 and 9, for us to think about being able to pay our debts,” Berri said in Beirut, quoted by Efe news agency. In the midst of the worst national crisis since the civil war that devastated Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, the delimitation of the maritime border would help to unblock the award to international companies of the research and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources. An ally of the Hezbollah militia party – declared enemy of the Jewish state – the Speaker of Parliament acts independently as responsible for negotiations on the maritime border.

The Lebanese delegation in the talks with Israel is expected to be headed by members of the Army, one of the few strictly national institutions within the complex confessional and ethnic power distribution.

The eastern Mediterranean, a historical focus of conflicts, hides large gas reserves far from its main market. For this reason, the EU is promoting a gas pipeline project to connect —through Cyprus, Greece and Italy— the maritime deposits of the Levant, as an alternative means of energy flows that reduce European dependence on Russia.

The Achilles heel of the project is the high cost of transporting Levantine gas, which would make it more expensive by up to 40% over Russian gas. The budget for the complex engineering work, exceeding 6,000 million euros, and the technical difficulties of conducting a conduit at depths of up to 3,300 meters below sea level condition the project. Lebanon, for its part, expects to have gas reserves similar to Israel’s, according to preliminary estimates from the Beirut government, not yet confirmed by prospecting.

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