Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri rejected Friday a new U.S. proposal to resolve a maritime border dispute with Israel, casting gloom over an American mediation effort in the long-simmering rift over oil Block 9 in Lebanese territorial waters.
Given the sensitivities and intricacies of potential oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea in territorial waters between two neighboring countries that are technically at war, the American side is calling on Lebanon to forget about a border demarcation with Israel for now and to concentrate instead on “commercializing” the oil and gas wealth, a political source told The Daily Star.
“Essentially, the U.S. proposal calls for the formation of a neutral company to be tasked with drilling, exploring and producing oil and gas reserves from the disputed maritime border areas. The company would then give a share of the produced oil to Lebanon and another share to Israel,” the source said.
It was not immediately known whether the new U.S. proposal was the same one presented by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Beirut Thursday.
Tillerson, who held talks with President Michel Aoun, Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was reported to have floated new ideas for a resolution to the border dispute after a previous proposal was roundly rejected by Lebanese officials.
There was no immediate comment from the government on the new proposal, but Berri poured cold water on it during a meeting Friday with Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, who also met with Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil as part of the U.S. mediation attempt.
Satterfield, who was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richards, discussed the issue of Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the maritime border with Israel with the speaker. After listening to the U.S. proposal on the border dispute, Berri told Satterfield that the proposal was “unacceptable,” according to a statement released by the speaker’s media office.The statement said Berri insisted on his position for the demarcation of the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel through a tripartite committee comprising senior army officers from Lebanon, Israel and the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon – UNIFIL – similar to the U.N.-drawn Blue Line.
Satterfield’s meeting with Hariri at the prime minister’s Downtown Beirut residence focused on the situation in the region and bilateral relations, a statement from the prime minister’s media office said.
The U.S. official is set to leave Lebanon for Israel over the weekend to pursue his mediation effort, a Lebanese political source told The Daily Star.
“Satterfield continues to engage on regional issues and on helping Lebanon prosper through the development of its resources in agreement with all of its neighbors,” a source from the American Embassy in Lebanon told The Daily Star ahead of the U.S. envoy’s meetings with Lebanese officials.
Few details emerged from the 45-minute meeting between Bassil and Satterfield at the Foreign Ministry.
A Foreign Ministry statement said Bassil and Satterfield “reviewed the situation in Lebanon and the region.”
The pair did not respond to The Daily Star’s questions regarding the details of new proposals Tillerson put forward to solve the southern border dispute.
Diplomatic sources said that the Bassil-Satterfield meeting was complementary to the foreign minister’s meeting with Tillerson Thursday, which was “positive.”
“The meeting between Bassil and Satterfield focused on the U.S. initiative to resolve the problem of the border and its demarcation and other contentious points,” a diplomatic source said.
The U.S. envoy put forward proposals to resolve the dispute and Bassil promised to study them, provided that they did not contradict Lebanon’s firm position on the dispute, the source said.
The source added that Satterfield relayed a positive atmosphere about Tillerson’s visit to Beirut and his meetings with the three top leaders, particularly with Aoun.
Satterfield’s meetings and Tillerson’s visit to Beirut came at a time when Israel has stepped up its rhetoric against Lebanon over claims to potential oil and gas reserves near the disputed maritime boundary, and has begun construction on a cement wall along the border with Lebanon.
Israel disputes some of Lebanon’s oil and gas rights, particularly Block 9 in the Exclusive Economic Zone in Lebanese territorial waters.
Aoun told a Cabinet meeting Thursday that Tillerson presented new ideas for a solution to the border dispute between Lebanon and Israel after a previous proposal was roundly rejected by Lebanese officials.
The original proposal was presented to Lebanese leaders by Satterfield last week, and was based on the “Hoff Line.” In 2011, U.S. diplomat Frederick Hoff reportedly proposed for Lebanon to acquire 550 square kilometers of the disputed 860 square kilometers that Lebanon insists is part of its maritime border, and abandon the remaining part to Israel.
The Lebanese government at the time rejected Hoff’s proposal.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah entered the fray by slamming the American mediation attempt and saying the United States was not an honest broker in the dispute.
He also called on the Lebanese government not to be taken by Israel’s threats over Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration, saying his party’s military might was the only force to repel Israel in any possible battle over oil reserves in Lebanese territorial waters.
Source: Daily Stars