Visits carried out by US Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs David Schenker to the region in recent weeks, including Beirut and West Jerusalem, aimed to revive talks between Lebanon and Israel on gas exploration, political sources in Tel Aviv and Washington said.
According to the Israeli Walla website, the sources confirmed that Schenker has been shuttling between the two countries for several months as part of efforts led by US President Donald Trump’s administration to push the two sides to direct negotiations on gas reserves in the Mediterranean, which will be the first in 30 years, in case such talks occur.
The sources expected the discussions to begin this year.
“Schenker, who last week met with Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz … and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, whose ministry is a partner in communications, made a breakthrough in his recent meetings in Beirut, as the Lebanese showed remarkable flexibility,” the website wrote.
Israeli and US officials attributed this progress to the changes taking place in Lebanon since the catastrophic explosion at the Beirut port. They said that the shock caused by the Aug. 4 blast, in addition to the deteriorating economic crisis, the wave of popular discontent resulting from the worsening living conditions that followed, and the expansion of internal criticism of Hezbollah, all made the US administration revive its efforts to start negotiations between the two countries.
There are several border disputes between Lebanon and Israel over 13 points on the land border and a water area of 860 square kilometers in Block No. 9 in the eastern Mediterranean.
The disagreement lies over the method of demarcating the maritime border.
The dispute has acquired great significance since 2009, when major natural gas deposits were discovered in the sea between Israel and Cyprus. International experts believe the disputed triangle contains 25 trillion cubic feet of gas.
At a time when Israel began to explore for gas, and actually found it in the south of this region, and began producing it in commercial quantities, Lebanon was deprived of exploiting its economic waters for bureaucratic reasons and because of the refusal to negotiate with Israel over the contentious area.
According to the Israelis, the US has been trying since 2011 to mediate in the conflict, but Hezbollah has great influence in politics, and the ruling leadership in Lebanon is preventing progress, claiming that “Washington is biased in favor of Israel,” and that “Lebanon does not negotiate with Israel directly.”
The criticism of Hezbollah has expanded on this position because it prevents Lebanon from exploiting natural resources, the existence of which has become certain, and which could bring about huge profits that it desperately needs.
However, after the Beirut port blast, Lebanese President Michel Aoun agreed to the intervention of the US mediator, and was able to enlist Speaker Nabih Berri to his side.
Even French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about the issue during his recent visit to Beirut.
On Sunday, the Walla news site quoted an Israeli official, whose name was not mentioned, as saying that Schenker met with senior members of the Lebanese government and reached an understanding with them that would allow negotiations with Israel, and he informed the Israeli ministers, Steinitz and Ashkenazi, about his discussions in Beirut.
The US official also presented Beirut with a modern draft of the document of principles to start negotiations, indicating that “the impression in Tel Aviv is that there is flexibility on the part of the Lebanese, and that they are ready today more than ever to enter into contacts on this issue with Israel.”