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Berri says Hochstein to visit Lebanon next week

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced Tuesday that U.S. energy mediator Amos Hochstein will visit Lebanon on “Sunday or Monday” to discuss the offshore gas row between Lebanon and Israel.

Berri made the announcement in response to remarks in parliament by MP Paula Yacoubian, who said that “the issue related to our maritime resources and Line 29 cannot be postponed,” suggesting that parliament discuss an urgent draft law that it has received in this regard.

“We cannot discuss this issue now, seeing as it is not on the agenda. Amos Hochstein will come on Sunday or Monday,” Berri answered.

Lebanon had on Monday invited Hochstein to return to Beirut as soon as possible to work out an agreement amid rising tensions along the border, after reports said that a gas production ship had crossed the so-called Line 29, which is disputed by Lebanon.

Israel says the Karish field is part of its U.N.-recognized exclusive economic zone. Lebanon insists it is in a disputed area.

The U.S.-mediated indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel have been stalled for months amid disagreement within Lebanon over how big the disputed area is.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hizbullah has warned it would use its weapons to protect Lebanon's economic rights.

On Sunday, Lebanon warned Israel not to start drilling in the Karish field and President Michel Aoun said maritime border negotiations have not ended, adding that any move by Israel will be considered "a provocation and hostile act."

Israel's Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said in an interview on Monday with Army Radio that the field was "entirely in undisputed territory" and called on Lebanon to return to indirect negotiations.

Elharrar also told the 103FM radio station that the Lebanese claims were "very far from reality" and that "all the relevant forces are involved, and I recommend not trying to surprise Israel." But she said the likelihood of conflict was small.

Satellite images on Sunday from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Marshall Islands-flagged Energean Power floating production storage and offloading vessel in the Karish field area of the Mediterranean Sea. Nearby was the Bahamas-flagged platform Arendal Spirit. Ship tracking data from the two vessels analyzed by the AP also confirmed the vessels' presence in the area.

On Monday, the office of Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati said that he had agreed with Aoun to invite Hochstein to return to Beirut for talks on the border dispute and "to work on concluding them as soon as possible in order to prevent any escalation that will not serve the stability that the region is currently witnessing."

Israel and Lebanon, which have been officially at war since Israel's creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to unleash offshore oil and gas production as it grapples with an economic crisis.

Last year, the Lebanese delegation -- a mix of army generals and professionals -- offered a new map that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometers.

A Lebanese legal expert said if Israel begins exploration work in Karish, the risk of conflict between Lebanon and Israel will increase, adding that Hizbullah's precision-guided missiles can easily hit the oil rig.

"Their missiles are long-range and they are more precise in hitting these targets that are not mobile like ships and fighter jets," said Paul Morcos, founder and owner of Justicia Consulting Law firm in Beirut.

The Israeli military and ministry of defense declined to comment on whether they were taking any specific measures to protect Karish.


Written by The Levant