Osama Habib| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: A senior U.S. official said that Washington would continue its efforts to end the row between Lebanon and Israel over a maritime zone believed to contain large quantities of natural gas.

“Based upon my ongoing discussions with both sides I believe that both Lebanon and Israel wish to resolve the dispute without unnecessary escalation, which is why I will continue to engage both sides on a mutually acceptable resolution,” U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein told The Daily Star in an email.

Amos recently met with Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Speaker Nabih Berri and other ministers in a bid to resolve the differences with Israel over the 870-kilometer maritime zone in the south.

Lebanon insists that the entire disputed zone belongs to the country but Berri expressed willingness to allow the United Nations to demarcate the zone to determine the actual boundaries for each side.

But Israel did not say publically if it was willing to consider Berri’s proposal to demarcate the zone.

Hochstein denied that he made any proposals to the Lebanese side during his talks.

“While no new U.S. proposal was presented to Lebanon regarding the maritime separation line with Israel, substantive discussions took place regarding the potential for moving negotiations forward.”

But the U.S. official did not explicitly say if he supported the idea to authorize the U.N. to demarcate the zone.

“The U.N. plays an important role in Lebanon and we continue to consult with the U.N. on this and other issues,” he added.

Hochstein insisted that an agreement is in the interest of both Lebanon and Israel.

“I have been in active discussions with both Lebanon and Israel about this issue for more than two years now. The U.S. sees an agreement on this issue as an important step in expanding regional security and increasing economic stability and opportunity for both Lebanon and Israel,” he added.

Hochstein prefers that both Lebanon and Israel pursue the development of hydrocarbon resources offshore. “As additional volumes of gas begin to enter the global market, time is of the essence for the development of offshore resources in the eastern Mediterranean. An agreement that allows both Lebanon and Israel to move forward with the development of offshore hydrocarbon resources is in the best interest of both countries, for both economic stability and increased regional security.”

Hochstein argues that there is a certain mechanism that would guarantee that the potential gas reserves on the Lebanese side is not touched by Israel.

“An agreement that allows both Lebanon and Israel to move forward with the development of offshore hydrocarbon resources should contain within it a mechanism by which resources that are transboundary in nature can be developed in such a way that both sides benefit with revenues distributed equitably.”

The official insisted that there is no reason for this dispute to degenerate into an open confrontation between Lebanon and Israel.

“I believe strongly that this dispute need not escalate to a point where neither side can benefit from potential resources in the disputed area, let alone result in armed conflict, which is why we are working very hard to find a solution that is equitable and allows economic development and prosperity to continue,” he said.

Hochstein also sees no reason for Lebanon to worry about the decline in oil prices if it wants to launch the offshore gas licensing round.

“The fall in oil and gas prices is forcing international oil companies to make difficult decisions on where to invest. Lebanon’s petroleum authority conducted the prequalification round in a professional way and has prepared a model contract that reflects best international practices. I believe that these positive steps, coupled with a resolution of the boundary dispute with Israel, will continue to make Lebanon an attractive investment destination in the hydrocarbons sector, even at current prices,” the official stated.

Lebanon has rescheduled the licensing round six times after the failure of the successive Cabinets to pass two decrees that set the number of blocks for auction and determine the revenue sharing between the oil companies and Lebanese authorities.

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