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Israel says US has reached breakthrough with Lebanon over maritime borders

Israeli officials claim that US mediator Amos Hochstein has signalled Hezbollah's approval to continued negotiations
A United Nations ship near a disputed maritime area in the Lebanese area of Naqura, by the border with Israel, 14 October 2020 (AFP)

Israeli officials believe that US mediator Amos Hochstein has reached a breakthrough in talks with Lebanon over the maritime borders dispute between the two Mediterranean countries, with Hezbollah giving the green light for negotiations to go forward.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel believes Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah "gave his approval to the Lebanese government to proceed with negotiations," according to a message passed on by Hochstein to security officials in Tel Aviv.

The senior US adviser for energy security arrived in Lebanon last week to resolve the issue over maritime borders between Israel and Lebanon, which is holding up oil and gas explorations for both countries.

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Middle East Eye could not independently verify the Haaretz report. The US has been mediating between Israel and Lebanon since October 2020 to settle the border issue, but with little success.

Talks between Israel and Lebanon resumed last May, as Washington appears to be determined to secure an agreement, Haaretz reported.

Lebanese officials are pinning hopes on commercially viable hydrocarbon resources off Lebanon's coast to alleviate the country’s unprecedented financial crisis.

Last week, Nasrallah said in an interview with the Iranian-owned channel Alalam that the issue of deciding the southern Lebanese borders in the Mediterranean is a sovereign matter to be determined by the Lebanese state.

He added that Hezbollah is "not interested" in talking about marine borders.

"When the Lebanese state decides and says this is our [Lebanese] borders, then it will be our borders and that's the end," Nasrallah said.

However, he added that his movement does not recognise Israel and considers the land and sea areas near Lebanon as part of Palestine.

'Narrowing gaps'

Hezbollah has been wary of Washington’s mediation on the issue of the maritime border and views its efforts as an attempt to drag Lebanon into normalising ties with Israel.

Haaretz reported that Nasrallah's statement was "understood" by Israel, Hochstein, and Lebanon as "Nasrallah's backing of the Lebanese government in the drawing up of an agreement to settle the dispute over a 530 square metre area of sea to which both countries claim sovereignty." 

However, the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah’s parliamentary grouping, said that Hochstein aims to create facts on the ground through the indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel.

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"He wants to weave a fait accompli that would open, even in the future, the door to normalisation with the Zionist enemy through mechanisms and arrangements that he is working to market," the Bloc said in a statement on Thursday.

There was no immediate comment from Lebanon on the matter. Last month, Lebanon and the US State Department denied Israeli media reports that they have inked a US-brokered deal to import gas from Israel, saying that they were "false."

Hochstein has met several Israeli and Lebanese officials over the past week, including Israel's energy minister, Karine Elharrar. The mediator told Lebanese TV channel LBCI that Israel and Lebanon are "narrowing gaps" to reach a deal over the marine borders.

"There's no later anymore. This is the 'later.' This is the last minute. The negotiations now for Lebanon that Lebanon has to consider, I don't worry about the politics or the politicians or the leadership," he said.

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