Lebanon told a senior US official that it would not make any concessions on the disputed maritime border zone with Israel believed to contain large quantities of natural gas, but expressed willingness to demarcate the area with the help of the UN and all concerned parties, sources and experts said Wednesday.
“The message to the Americans was very clear: Lebanon will not give up an inch of its rights in the 870-kilometer maritime zone which is close to Israeli territorial waters. But the government expressed willingness to demarcate the zone with the help of the UN and all concerned parties,” a source who attended the meetings between Lebanese officials and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein told The Daily Star.
Hochstein met Prime Minister Tammam Salam and Energy and Water Minister Arthur Nazarian in a bid to explore Lebanon’s views on the disputed maritime area after Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri accused Israel of planning to build an oil platform close to Lebanon’s official territorial waters.
Hochstein is scheduled to meet Berri Thursday to exchange views on the issue of the maritime zone.
Earlier, Berri warned that Israel is capable of siphoning off the part of Lebanon’s potential gas reserves horizontally, hinting that such a move could trigger a war between the two countries.
Technically and legally, the United Nations does not have the mandate to demarcate disputed borders between countries.
However, Lebanese officials insist that the UN has an interest in taking steps to avoid an open conflict between Lebanon and Israel.
“Amos [Hochstein] listened carefully to the position of the Lebanese government and this was one of the few times there was a general agreement among all politicians to demarcate maritime zone with Israel,” the source said. “And this proposal was not raised previously due to the pretext that all of the so-called disputed zone belongs solely to Lebanon.”
The disputed zone comprises 870 square kilometers of waters off Lebanon’s southern coast.
Israel has constructed a platform 40 kilometers away from the zone but there were unconfirmed reports that the Israelis may build another platform 10 kilometers away from the Lebanese blocks.
“If we continue arguing among ourselves over trivial issues, then Israel may seize this opportunity to install the platform very close to the Lebanese territorial waters. For this reason, we have to get our act together and demarcate this zone before it’s too late,” another source familiar with the talks told The Daily Star.
Sources said that Hochstein did not make any proposal to the Lebanese officials.
“But we are wanting the United States to intervene and act as a good Samaritan and help us solve this problem. Demarcating the zone is one of our top priorities now,” the source said.
He added that Washington could exert influence on Israel to accept the principle of demarcation.
“It should be clear that Lebanese sovereignty over all the country’s territorial waters is not subject to negations or compromise. The only way out is demarcation and Lebanon will accept all the results of the demarcation,” another source explained.
An oil expert who spoke on condition of anonymity said Israel may accept the idea of a demarcation to avoid a confrontation with Hezbollah. “Israel seems to be aware that Hezbollah has long-range and accurate missiles that can hit any oil platform near the Lebanese territorial waters,” the expert said.
Hochstein told Al-Jadeed TV that Israel was not building any rig or platform near Lebanese waters. He added that the US firm Nobel Energy, which is building the platforms for Israel, will avoid building a platform near the Lebanese waters to avert a dispute with Beirut.
Hochstein reiterated that no international oil company is willing to drill for gas in any disputed area.
The US official advised the Lebanese government to invite international companies for a licensing round so they can choose the blocks they want to explore.
But Hochstein was confident that none of the oil companies would bid for disputed blocks.
He also denied reports that Israel has plans to siphon off gas from Lebanese reserves, describing such scenarios as technically and geologically impossible to achieve.
By Osama Habib
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