US envoy planning Beirut trip as Lebanon and Israel inch closer to maritime deal

Resolution could delineate maritime border between Lebanon and Israel for the first time since 1948.

Amos Hochstein meets Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut. Reuters
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US President Joe Biden's administration is close to brokering a maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel, as its envoy Amos Hochstein drafts a final proposal before a trip to the region, sources in Washington told The National.

Following a year of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Lebanon, Mr Hochstein, the US special envoy and co-ordinator for international energy affairs, is preparing a draft agreement that could lead to the resolution of a decade-old dispute.

The US envoy will take the proposal to both governments during a trip that could happen as soon as the end of August, the sources said.

The dispute involves an 860-square-kilometre section of a reportedly gas and oil-rich area in the Mediterranean Sea. A resolution could delineate the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel for the first time since 1948.

“All parties — but especially the US and Lebanon — want a deal soon and before [Lebanese President Michel] Aoun leaves office,” a diplomatic source said.

For Israel, brokering an agreement before the coming elections on November 1 is also critical to avoid further setbacks if the Likud party wins a majority. Likud, or the National Liberal Movement, is the major centre-right to right-wing political party in Israel and is headed by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Washington has led successive rounds of negotiations since 2007, but recent progress is the closest it has come to the deal. The State Department is not disclosing the dates for Mr Hochstein's trip, but it is cautiously optimistic over the prospects of a breakthrough.

“We believe that a resolution is possible,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

“We welcome the consultative and open spirit of the parties [Lebanon and Israel] to reach a final decision … [with] the potential to yield greater stability, security and prosperity for Lebanon as well as Israel.”

A bargain would involve a territorial swap, in which Lebanon would compromise by accepting a deal for the boundary to be set on line 23 as opposed to line 29, in return for an Israeli concession granting Beirut extra maritime territory near the Qana gasfield.

Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Programme at the Middle East Institute, saw a ripe political climate for a deal.

“The prospects are good. This has always been about a technical problem that is amenable to a solution, granted both sides have the political will to agree on a compromise solution,” Ms Slim told The National.

“Until recently, the political will — especially among the Lebanese political class — was lacking.”

An unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon as well as Israel’s recent exploration in the disputed zone of Karish — which led to Hezbollah issuing a series of threats — have set the stage for a possible bargain, the expert said.

Eyal Hulata, Israel's national security adviser, is visiting Washington this week, with Defence Minister Benny Gantz set to arrive on Friday.

In a report published this week, the International Crisis Group said “they would welcome the precedent a deal would set for the two countries resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence”.

As he tries to salvage a deal in the coming weeks, mustering the political will to form the minimum required consensus on the Lebanese side will be Mr Hochstein’s hardest challenge.

Updated: August 24, 2022, 4:39 PM