US declares failure of Lebanon-Israel maritime boundary talks

Mike Pompeo has said the US is ready to provide mediation for future talks, which are focused on energy

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 19, 2020 US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo speaks during a press conference with Iraq's Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein at the State Department in Washington, DC.  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on December 14, 2020 denounced as "barbaric" adversary Iran's execution of opposition figure Ruhollah Zam, who ran a popular social media channel. "The US strongly condemns Iran's unjust, barbaric execution of Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist kidnapped abroad by the regime," Pompeo wrote on Twitter.
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that talks this year between Israel and Lebanon over a long-disputed maritime boundary have made no progress.

“Earlier this year, the Israeli and Lebanese governments sought US assistance in mediating an agreement on their maritime boundary,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement released on Wednesday.

“Regrettably, despite goodwill on both sides, the parties remain far apart,” Mr Pompeo said.

Officials from the UN and US first called for negotiations over the disputed area of sea in 2011, after the US Geological Survey reported that sub-sea resources off the coast, known as the Levantine Basin, contained vast oil and gas resources.

Since then, the US and UN have been pushing for compromise on an area thought to hold almost three trillion cubic metres of gas, enough to supply Lebanon with decades’ worth of electricity in gas fired power plants, if used efficiently. The disputed area may also hold almost two billion barrels of oil.

The talks, beginning in October and held in Naqoura, southern Lebanon, were hailed as a potential breakthrough, something Mr Pompeo’s statement highlighted as offering “potentially significant economic benefits to the people of both countries”.

Some observers, including the daughter of Lebanese president Claudine Aoun, hoped that a compromise would not only lead to lucrative energy deals for both sides, but also further talks on a host of issues, including a disputed land border and trade.

But the maritime talks soon faltered, with both sides increasingly taking maximalist positions.

An early move by Lebanese delegation was to increase the disputed area by claiming an additional 1,430 square kilometres, on top of the 860 square kilometre area in question.

Hezbollah heightened controversy around the talks, first by rejecting them outright, before insisting that Lebanon should be represented by a military delegation, despite the geological focus of the negotiations.

Lebanon has also awarded oil and gas exploration licenses in the disputed area, signing contracts with Total, ENi and Novatek in 2017. Israel announced in July that exploration licences would be awarded in the disputed “Block 72” area, a decision Lebanese President Michel Aoun called “highly dangerous”.

The US and UN now face a difficult task convincing delegations to return to the negotiating table. Mr Pompeo, however, stressed that efforts would continue.

“The United States remains ready to mediate constructive discussions and urges both sides to negotiate based on the respective maritime claims both have previously deposited at the United Nations,” he said.