Amos Hochstein, the US mediator in the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon, told the parties if they can’t get an agreement before the March 2022 parliamentary election in Lebanon, he will stop dealing with the issue, Israeli officials told Barak Ravid of Axios on Wednesday.
The direct message from Hochstein seems to be aimed at making it clear to the parties they will have to make compromises.
Hochstein is one of President Joe Biden’s closest confidants, which signals this issue is a relatively high priority for the Biden administration, noted Ravid.
Last year, official discussions commenced between representatives of Israel and Lebanon, with the aim of reaching an agreement on their maritime border.
There have been major natural gas discoveries off the coasts of both countries during the last decade, and the border dispute has halted gas exploration in an area that has attracted the interest of US energy companies.
The talks were initiated after Lebanon signed its first contract to drill for oil and gas off its coast with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek, including in a block disputed by Israel.
Israel says one of two blocks in the eastern Mediterranean where Lebanon wants to drill for oil belongs to it, and had denounced any exploration by Beirut as "provocative".
The US-brokered talks began which in October 2020 were the first direct political negotiations between Israeli and Lebanese officials in 30 years, but they stalled after several rounds.
Hochstein visited Beirut for talks on the issue two weeks ago. He met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, according to Ravid.
On Sunday, he arrived in Israel and met Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Energy Karine Elharrar and other senior officials.
Hochstein told his Israeli interlocutors he isn’t going to resume direct talks between Israel and Lebanon at the UN base on the border between the countries, Israeli officials said. Instead, he is going to make separate visits to Beirut and Jerusalem in order to hear the parties and in the end present a US bridging proposal.
According to Israeli officials quoted by Ravid, Hochstein stressed that he thinks the period until the Lebanese parliamentary elections in March 2022 is a window of opportunity to get a deal, especially when Lebanon needs to save its economy and attract any investment it can.
“Hochstein told us he is not going to present a proposal that both sides like, but the opposite — that both won’t like. But if three to four months from now he sees the parties are not willing to take the deal, he would drop the whole thing and won’t deal with this anymore,” a senior Israeli official said.