BEIRUT: In the lead up to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit Thursday, President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri came together on two separate occasions in less than a week, stepping up efforts to present a unified front in the midst of an increasingly volatile geopolitical standoff with Israel.
The policy the three leaders wish to put forth is one hinging on the notion that Israel’s actions along the southern and maritime border infringe upon Lebanon’s rights.
“We will preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty in the face of Israel’s aggression,” Hariri said Monday.
Monday’s meeting, according to governmental sources, “looked into acting assistant U.S. secretary of state David Satterfield's proposal" to resolve a Lebanese-Israeli dispute over an 860-sq km maritime area.
According to energy firm Total, around 8 percent of block 9, one of two blocks awarded for exploration and production, is part of the disputed triangular area.
Satterfield, who met with Hariri last week after visiting both Lebanon and Israel on a mediation mission, had based his proposal on a previous proposition issued by former U.S. Special Middle East Peace Envoy assistant Frederick Hoff, which seeks to establish a maritime blue line and neutral zone between both countries.
Hoff’s proposal was seen as an attempt to split the disputed 860-sq km, located along the edge of three of the 10 blocks that form Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), with Lebanon relinquishing around 360-sq km to Israel while retaining around 60 percent of the area.
Yet Lebanese officials have continuously rejected this proposal over the years, arguing that the totality of the 860-sq km falls under Lebanon’s jurisdiction.
The tripartite meetings between Lebanon’s three leaders also touched on Israel’s construction of a 23-foot concrete wall along the blue line between the two countries, which Israel deems falls entirely on its side of the U.N.-recognized border.
Lebanon has vehemently denied those claims, arguing that the wall encroaches on Lebanese territory in 13 areas along the blue line which demarcated Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, with Israel’s recent incursions suggesting that it views the blue line as the definitive border between both sets of countries.
Several proposals were put forth during the meeting Monday ahead of Tillerson’s visit, including potential negotiations strategies with the U.S, yet the rhetoric emanating over the past few days suggests that Lebanon will hold onto its demands.
Tillerson’s visit comes in the wake of Lebanon signing its first offshore oil and gas exploration agreements with an international consortium of energy companies, comprising France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek.
The grueling process, which began in 2011, will pave the way for drilling to begin in 2019 if the dispute is resolved, as Lebanon seeks to enter the hydrocarbon race in the region.
The U.S Secretary of State will also seek to discuss with Lebanese officials the Trump administration's intensified efforts to curtail Hezbollah's influence in the region, amid the introduction of amended legislation targetting the Iranian backed militant group's financial network that passed in October 2017.
Speaking from Kuwait before making the trip to Lebanon, Tillerson assured that the U.S' differences lie "with Hezbollah and not the Lebanese people," while praising the Lebanese government's efforts in maintaining a policy of dissociation from regional conflicts.
"We try to be very precise in the actions we take to not harm the Lebanese people," he said during an interview with Al Hurra TV.
Tillerson's multi-country middle eastern tour also comes at the backdrop of tensions between Iran, its ally Syria, and Israel flaring up over the weekend as Syrian anti-aircraft shot down an Israeli jet. Prior to that, Israel had intercepted an Iranian drone which led to their jets hitting targets across Syria's territory.
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