Israel will reject Lebanon’s amendments to a United States-drafted proposal on resolving a long-running maritime border dispute over gas-rich waters off the countries’ Mediterranean coasts according to an Israeli official, throwing into doubt years of diplomatic efforts to enable both enemy countries to extract gas in or around a disputed Mediterranean prospect.
A draft agreement – which has not been made public – was floated by US envoy Amos Hochstein and had a mostly warm preliminary reception from the Israeli and Lebanese governments when they received it at the weekend.
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However, after Lebanon presented its response to Washington’s proposal on Tuesday, Israeli media and the AFP news agency reported that Israel had rejected on Thursday the modifications to the US proposal.
“Prime Minister Yair Lapid was updated on the details of the substantial changes Lebanon is seeking to make in the agreement and instructed the negotiating team to reject them,” the official said.
“Israel will not compromise on its security and economic interests, even if that means that there will be no agreement soon,” the official added.
However, Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s lead negotiator, said the deal was “90% done but the remaining 10% could make it or break it”.
Another Lebanese official said that his government awaited formal notification on Israel’s new position. “We want to know if they rejected the amendments fully or in part, or if they just have their own comments on it,” the official said.
Lebanon and Israel have been locked in a dispute over a maritime area of 860sq km (332sq miles), according to maps sent by both countries to the United Nations in 2011.
The area is rich in natural gas and oil. Starting in 2020, five sessions of indirect negotiations have been held on the issue under UN sponsorship and US mediation, with the latest round held in May 2021.
The two countries are technically still at war and have no diplomatic relations.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said earlier this week that the US proposal was “on the right track to assert Lebanon’s rights over all its waters”.
Washington’s terms were also welcomed by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, a major player in Lebanon that considers Israel its archenemy.
Al Jazeera’s John Hendren said Israel is putting on a little pressure by rejecting the changes made to the proposed agreement by Lebanon.
“What we are hearing from Lapid’s administration is that they are going to go ahead and extract gas from that Karish field entirely in Israeli territory and if Hezbollah attacks it they are going to stop negotiations,” he said, speaking from West Jerusalem.
Israel has been preparing to start operations at the Karish field, the main gas field off the coast of the two countries, despite Hezbollah’s threats.
A Lebanese official involved in the negotiations said on Tuesday that Beirut’s response to Hochstein’s draft includes “amendments of specific sentences so that there is no room for misunderstanding”.
Israel and Lebanon reopened negotiations on their maritime border in 2020, but the process was stalled by Beirut’s demand that the map used by the UN in the talks be modified.
According to Israel, the US proposal gives Israel full control of the Karish field, which Lapid has maintained falls entirely within Israeli territory and was never a subject of negotiation.
The Israeli official on Thursday underscored that Israel is not negotiating with Lebanon over Karish and “will produce gas from the Karish rig as soon as it is possible to do so”.
Hezbollah had threatened attacks after Israel moved a production vessel near the Karish field.
“If Hezbollah or anyone else tries to damage the Karish rig or threaten us – the negotiations on the maritime line will stop immediately and [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah will need to explain to the citizens of Lebanon why they don’t have a gas rig for the benefit of their economic future,” the official added on Thursday.
With Lapid serving in a caretaker capacity ahead of a November 1 election, the political opposition had demanded Knesset ratification for the deal.
Lapid’s main rival, ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had argued that the deal could surrender Israeli maritime rights and benefit Hezbollah.
Beirut, meanwhile, has baulked at Lapid’s assertion that Israel will be paid partial royalties from future Lebanese exploration in the separate Qana gas prospect. A Lebanese ex-negotiator and some opposition lawmakers have argued that the proposed border demarcation skews too far north, thus favouring Israel.
But Lebanon is also keen for any sign of relief from a spiralling economic crisis, and its president, Michel Aoun, wants to seal the maritime deal before he steps down at month’s end, according to political sources.