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Lebanon to send feedback on US maritime border offer with Israel

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads a technical meeting to discuss the demarcation of the maritime borders with Israel. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - Lebanon said Monday it will send remarks to Washington's proposal to resolve a maritime border dispute with Israel, with which it is technically still at war, over gas-rich waters.

A draft agreement floated by US envoy Amos Hochstein aims to settle competing claims over offshore gas fields and was delivered to Lebanese and Israeli officials at the weekend, following years of indirect negotiations.

On Monday, Lebanon's top leaders met to discuss the offer, delivered via Washington's ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea.

Crisis-hit Lebanon, which is grappling with its worst-ever financial downturn, will send its notes on the offer by "Tuesday at the latest", and hopes to receive a response "before the end of the week", deputy speaker Elias Bou Saab told reporters.

"We are not giving an official response but delivering an answer to the proposal with...remarks that we have," he added.

Bou Saab, tasked by President Michel Aoun to oversee US-mediated negotiations, did not elaborate on Lebanon's feedback but said it included notes on "legal and logical" issues.

A Lebanese official involved in the negotiations said the remarks include "amendments of specific sentences so that there is no room for misunderstanding".

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to comment on the issue. 

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who also spoke after the meeting, said that "things are on the right track".

Washington's offer has not been made public, but it has raised prospects for a deal that could help Lebanon explore potential gas wealth that the debt-ridden country desperately needs.

'Important step'

Lebanon and Israel are officially at war and their land border is patrolled by the United Nations.

They reopened negotiations on their maritime border in 2020, but the process was stalled by Lebanon's demand that the map used by the UN in the talks be modified.

The negotiations resumed in early June after Israel moved a production vessel near the Karish offshore field.

The latest proposal by Washington was welcomed by both Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, a major player in Lebanon that considers the Jewish state its arch-enemy.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who had repeatedly threatened Israel with attacks if it proceeds with extraction in disputed areas before a deal is reached, said developments at the weekend were "a very important step".

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid also welcomed the agreement, which he said grants Israel full claim over the disputed Karish field as well as profits from the nearby "Sidon reservoir", known as the Qana field, which will fall to Lebanon. 

Lapid said: "Israel gets 100 percent of its security needs, 100 percent of Karish and even some of the profits from the Lebanese reservoir."

But Aoun on Monday said "there will be no partnership with Israel", while Bou Saab insisted Lebanon will have "full rights over Qana".

In the event that a final agreement is reached, Lebanon will not sign a treaty with Israel, Bou Saab said.

Instead, a mechanism will be put in place to register the demarcation with the United Nations.

Lebanon is currently grappling with its worst ever financial crisis, and fuel shortages have ground the country to a halt in recent months.

With a bankrupt state unable to deliver more than an hour or two of mains electricity a day, individuals, businesses and institutions have relied almost entirely on diesel-powered generators.

Lebanese politicians hope that commercially viable hydrocarbon resources off Lebanon's coast could help lift the country out of crisis.

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