Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chided Lebanese leaders for fighting with Israel and among themselves over natural gas in the Mediterranean Tuesday, as a US mediator arrived in Beirut for talks on an offshore extraction dispute that has threatened to snowball into armed conflict.
Bennett made the comments during a Jerusalem meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi focused on bilateral ties as well as energy supplies to Europe amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Israel and Lebanon are currently at odds over rights to the Karish gas field, which the Israeli government claims is in its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone, while Lebanon asserts that the waters are disputed.
“I look forward to the day that Lebanon decides it is ready to benefit from natural gas in its economic waters,” Bennett said.
“It’s a shame Lebanon’s leaders, rather than extracting the gas for the benefit of its people, are busy with internal and external fights,” he added.
He called on Lebanon to take the opportunity presented by the gas find for improving the country’s disastrous economic situation, telling Beirut to “start to deal with it.”
Talks across the field have been frozen since last year, after Lebanon tried to move its claim further into the Israel claims zone as its own. But Beirut requested the return of US energy envoy Amos Hochstein last week after Israel moved a natural gas rig into its Karish offshore field.
The arrival of the vessel, operated by London-based Energean, provoked anger from Lebanon, which claims the ship is in disputed waters, and the Hezbollah terror group threatened to attack it.
Hochstein met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other officials on Tuesday in an attempt to mediate the dispute. He did not speak to reporters after the meetings.
A Lebanese official who attended the meetings told The Associated Press that they focused on the disputed area of the Mediterranean and that the additional area Lebanon had been pushing for – known in Lebanon as Line 29 – was shelved due to the area being a non-starter for Israel.
Lebanese media reported ahead of Tuesday’s meetings that Aoun would put forward several proposals, including one which shows readiness to give Israel full control of the Karish field in return for Lebanon getting the Qana field, part of which stretches deep into the disputed area.
Aoun’s office said he gave Hochstein a response to a proposal the US envoy made in February, to forward it “to the Israeli side.” Aoun told the US envoy he hopes that Hochstein would return soon to Lebanon with Israel’s answers.
Lebanon and Israel – which have no diplomatic relations and consider each other enemy states – have been holding indirect talks brokered by the US for close to two years to resolve the decade-old maritime border dispute.
Lebanon hopes to unleash offshore oil and gas production as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
In their meeting, Draghi and Bennett also discussed deepening cooperation between Italy and Israel, the consequences of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the current global food crisis, and cooperation on energy, with the potential of exporting gas to Europe via Egypt.
“Europe needs energy right now and in Israel, we have natural gas in our economic waters,” Bennett said, adding that he spoke with Draghi about the steps needed to deliver gas to Europe. The EU is attempting to sever energy ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and seeks alternate sources of natural gas.
For now, the prospect of getting Israeli gas to Europe is fraught with challenges and would require major and long-term infrastructure investments.
With no pipeline linking its offshore fields to Europe, one of the options, for now, is piping natural gas to Egypt, where it could be liquified for export by ship to Europe.
Bennett lauded Israel and Italy’s shared histories after the meeting, noting that the two states are examples of “modern independence renewed in ancient lands,” and that both nations have “contributed much to the advancement of civilization.”