The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Israel wants solution to maritime border dispute

- By Joseph Haboush

BEIRUT: Israel wants a solution to the maritime border dispute with Lebanon in order to not scare away potential oil companies from its own waters, a Lebanese diplomatic source told The Daily Star Wednesday.

“They [Israel] want a solution and Satterfiel­d said a solution is in the interest of everyone because if one isn’t reached, the companies will not explore here or there,” the Lebanese source said after Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfiel­d met with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

Satterfiel­d met with Bassil for 50 minutes upon returning from Israel to inform him of the latest stance from Tel Aviv over the dispute.

This is the diplomat’s third visit to Beirut in as many weeks as the United States mediates in the bitter dispute after Israel upped its rhetoric against Lebanon.

The source, who was present at the meeting, said the Foreign Ministry would do its utmost to get the maximum out of talks for Lebanon and preserve its interests.

“Any solution over the disputed territorie­s will be under the umbrella of national unity and must have national consensus – Minister Bassil emphasized this in the talks.”

Satterfiel­d and U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard did not comment or respond to questions as they left.

Another source from the Foreign Ministry said that Bassil relayed Lebanon’s firm stance over Block 9, adding that “there’s no giving up any part of that or modifying it.”

The same source said: “We are looking at the maritime line and how it can be solved in the interest of Lebanon. As of for Block 9, we consider it’s Lebanon’s and there is no debate or room for discussion over this. The discussion­s were over the disputed areas and how Lebanon will maintain its rights.”

But the ongoing prospects for exploratio­n shouldn’t be affected, the ministry source said, “because Israel will be affected just as Lebanon will be.”

Separately, Speaker Nabih Berri voiced Lebanon’s continued, unified stance in defending its sovereignt­y, oil wealth and borders.

“The Israeli equation of ‘What’s ours is ours and what’s yours is ours and yours’ is completely rejected and will not pass,” Berri told MPs during a weekly bloc meeting at his Ain al-Tineh residence.

Berri is scheduled to meet with Satterfiel­d Thursday, local media reported. Satterfiel­d also met Prime Minister Saad Hariri late Wednesday, although sources close to the prime minister declined to give details of the discussion­s.

Sources knowledgea­ble about the dispute said that a counterpro­posal from Lebanon last week included a “White Line,” similar to the U.N.demarcated “Blue Line” along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. A trilateral committee including Lebanese and Israeli experts on the topic was also proposed.

One of the sources said that Berri suggested experts and typographe­rs, including Americans, would be welcomed in this committee. The speaker first suggested the solution in 2015 and brought it up again last week.

However, one of the sources said Israel and the U.S. did not want to bring in the U.N. to the dispute.

Also Wednesday, Satterfiel­d met with Army head Gen. Joseph Aoun and discussion­s revolved around developmen­ts along Lebanon’s southern border and the Army’s firm stance on Lebanon’s complete sovereignt­y over all its land and maritime territorie­s, including its Exclusive Economic Zone.

The border dispute came back to the fore after Israel urged internatio­nal companies not to exploit

potential Lebanese oil and gas reserves in the Mediterran­ean Sea. This came as Israel began constructi­on on a cement wall along the border with Lebanon.

The entire disputed maritime area is close to 856 sq. km. In Block 9 itself, 145 to 148 sq. km are disputed out of its 1,700 total sq. km.

In 2007, Lebanon signed a maritime border agreement with Cyprus and in the agreement, Point 1, which is now claimed by Israel, was designated as the southernmo­st marker in the treaty.

However, this was before Lebanon officially defined its EEZ. A commission was tasked in 2009 with doing so and found that the southernmo­st tip of Lebanon’s maritime border was at Point 23, some 17 km south of Point 1.

Lebanon never intended Point 1 to be the final marker because it was the conclusion of a bilateral agreement, so could not define the border of a third country. In such agreements the point where three countries meet should be left for future negotiatio­ns.

Point 1 is where Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel meet while Point 6 in north Lebanon is the where Lebanon, Cyprus and Syria meet. The points were intended to be left out.

But as Lebanon signed an agreement in 2007 with Cyprus, Israel did the same with Cyprus in 2010 – using Point 1 rather than Point 23. At the time, Lebanon had defined its EEZ and sent the points to the United Nations, but Israel and Cyprus disregarde­d this and continued work.

Last week, a political source told The Daily Star that the American side is calling on Lebanon to forget about a border demarcatio­n with Israel for now and to concentrat­e instead on “commercial­izing” the oil and gas wealth.

Total, one of the oil and gas companies that form the consortium of firms in the winning bid for Lebanon’s exploratio­n in Block 9, has acknowledg­ed the dispute, but played down the impact on work.

In a statement on their website, it says that they are “fully aware of the Israeli-Lebanese border dispute” but that it covers “only very limited area – less than 8 percent – of the block’s surface.”

It adds that “[as] the main prospects are located more than 25 km from the disputed area, the consortium confirms that the exploratio­n well on Block 9 will have no interferen­ce at all with any fields or prospects located south of the border area.”

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