The US mediator arbitrating negotiations of the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel concluded a speedy trip to Lebanon Friday, saying the two sides had made "good progress" in the talks but that "more work needs to be done" to reach an agreement.
Amos Hochstein first met with President Michel Aoun in the presidential headquarters, then with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in the capital's Grand Serail. Both rounds of meetings were attended by top Lebanese officials and a US delegation, according to Lebanon's state media.
Mr Hochstein's visit this week is seen by Lebanese officials as an important step towards an agreement. Lebanon and Israel, which remain technically at war, are negotiating over about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean believed to contain offshore gas reserves. The countries have both made overlapping claims to the territory and hope to begin exploration.
"I think we're making good progress," Mr Hochstein said following his meeting with Lebanon's president. "I'm very hopeful we can reach an agreement."
Mr Hochstein was expected to relay the Israeli response to Lebanese conditions for the maritime border Friday. In late July, when he was last in the country he said he looked "forward to being able to come back to the region to make the final arrangement."
But an agreement remains intangible following this latest round of meetings, with Prime Minister Mikati's office announcing he would hold consultations over the latest terms of the negotiations delivered by Mr Hochstein, then send word to the mediator.
"I'm very hopeful, but more work needs to be done," Mr Hochstein said in a press conference prior to his takeoff from the Beirut's airport.
Speculation that a maritime border agreement between the two countries was imminent has swirled in recent weeks, after Mr Hochstein’s last trip to the region in early August.
His most recent visit was described as positive by him, as well as Lebanese and Israeli officials.
But this week, Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab attempted to dispel speculation of an imminent deal.
The visit by Mr Hochstein would “not bring a definitive solution” to the maritime demarcation, the deputy parliament speaker said on Tuesday. He said talks were on track, with September expected to be a decisive month for the negotiations.
“We don’t want to let go of optimism, but we don’t want to say that we’re pessimistic,” Mr Bou Saab said.
Indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel were stalled for six months before the arrival of an Israeli-contracted floating production vessel to the disputed border in June, sparking tensions that led to the resumption of talks.
The move prompted the Iran-backed Hezbollah group to threaten armed confrontation, with leader Hassan Nasrallah declaring that if Lebanon could not extract hydrocarbons from the disputed maritime border, “no one will”.
US officials have emphasised that finding a solution to the maritime dispute is a top priority for President Joe Biden's administration.
A deal would “yield greater stability, security and prosperity for both Lebanon and Israel, as well as for the region”, State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.
Lebanon and Israel are negotiating over an area measuring more than 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea that is believed to contain significant offshore gas reserves. Both countries have made claims to the territory.