BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top leaders met Tuesday to study measures to confront Israel’s plans to explore for oil and gas in disputed areas between the two countries’ maritime boundaries.
A day after his new government gained a vote of confidence from Parliament, Prime Minister Najib Mikati met with President Michel Aoun to discuss the developments arising from Israel’s decision to grant US oilfield services group Halliburton an offshore oil and gas drilling contract in disputed areas in maritime boundaries between the two countries. The meeting, at Baabda Palace was also attended by Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib.
The meeting was devoted to examining the repercussions of the Israeli actions and the measures which Lebanon will take based on the letter it had sent to the United Nations in this respect, said a statement released by the presidency’s media office. Bou Habib could not be reached on what measures Lebanon would take to foil Israel's oil drilling plans.
Meanwhile, Mikati will make his first foreign trip as prime minister by visiting Paris Thursday, a statement from the prime minister’s media office said. It added that during the working visit, Mikati will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron Friday for talks after the formation of a new Cabinet on Sept. 10.
Earlier Tuesday, Mikati met at the Grand Serail with French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo, discussing the situation in the country as well as bilateral relations, said a statement issued by the premier’s media office.
Later, Mikati met with US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, who has just returned to Beirut after a visit to the US.
Both the US and France have welcomed the formation of a new government in Lebanon, but urged it to quickly undertake essential reforms in order for the international community to come forth with its promised aid to the crises-hit country.
The European Union has also urged Lebanon's new government to move quickly to adopt reforms that would pave the way for a deal with the International Monetary Fund to halt the country's economic collapse
Mikati vowed to push for a solution to the maritime dispute with Israel so that Lebanon could explore and extract oil from its territorial waters to salvage the country’s ailing economy.
“Concerning the maritime border [with Israel], I will do my best to revive talks on demarcating the maritime border in a scientific and correct manner, rather than through outbiddings and accusations of betrayal,” Mikati said in a speech Monday night shortly before Parliament voted to grant confidence to his new Cabinet of 24 specialists, giving ministers a boost to get down to work on tackling a series of urgent problems facing the country.
“There is a scientific process that will be studied in a correct manner. But the decision on the issue is not in Lebanon’s hands alone. However, I will make efforts to reach a solution. In this way, we will have access to explore in territorial waters and we will begin extracting gas, [a move] that will revitalize all the economy,” Mikati added.
Last week, Mikati asked Bou Habib to seek clarification from the international community after Israel commissioned Halliburton for offshore drilling contract in the Mediterranean.
Lebanon and Israel are in dispute over the delineation of their territorial waters in the Mediterranean and negotiations between the two countries could lead to Lebanon being able to unlock valuable gas reserves amid an unprecedented economic meltdown.
The two countries have been holding on-off US mediated talks since October to try to resolve the issue.
"We will not back down on this issue or give up on Lebanese rights," Mikati was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office.
Bou Habib had reached out to Lebanon's permanent UN representative, Amal Mdallali, the US Embassy in Beirut, and other countries backing the maritime talks to make sure the Halliburton contract does not involve work in the disputed areas, a statement by the foreign ministry said.
Halliburton's contract was awarded after a previous offshore well drilling campaign off Israel's coast.
The indirect US-mediated Lebanon-Israel maritime talks have been stalled since May after Beirut rejected preconditions by a US mediator at negotiations.
Aoun said Lebanon’s delegation should only negotiate if there were no preconditions, as previously agreed. A statement from the president's office in May said US mediator Ambassador John Desrocher had asked the Lebanese delegation to stick to the previously accepted demarcation.
Lebanon's delegation, made up of a mix of Army officers and experts, had expanded the country's claim in talks late last year, drawing up maps that push for an additional 1,430 square kilometers for Lebanon.
Since the maritime talks stalled, former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former ministers of defense and public works approved a draft decree which would expand Lebanon's claim, adding around 1,400 square km to its exclusive economic zone. Aoun has not yet signed the draft decree.
Negotiations between Lebanon and Israel began in October to try to resolve the dispute which has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, but the talks stalled and the negotiations were paused in early December.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
In the second round of talks, the Lebanese delegation offered a new map that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometers for Lebanon.
Lebanon, which began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocks, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel
Out of the 100 lawmakers who voted following a morning and evening parliamentary session Monday, 85 MPs voted for the government and 15 against. The remaining 17 lawmakers were not present during the vote.
In his speech Monday night, Mikati disclosed that the government has begun negotiations with the IMF on a bailout package to rescue the debt-ridden nation from its worst economic meltdown in history.
“We will immediately begin the reform file. We have actually begun discussions with the International Monetary Fund. The talks with it [IMF] are not a picnic and the Fund is not a charity. This issue is not an option but a mandatory passageway that must succeed in order to serve as the first foundation toward salvation and the right way for Lebanon’s revival,” Mikati said.
Mikati, backed by France and some regional powers, in addition to the country’s major parliamentary blocs, including Hezbollah, unveiled a new Cabinet of 24 specialists on Sept. 10, ending 13 months of political stalemate that exacerbated the economic depression, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to the country’s stability since the 1975-90 Civil War.
He reiterated his commitment to implement reform measures contained in the government’s policy statement and also in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch in history.
During Parliament’s morning session Monday, Mikati read out the policy statement on whose basis the government sought a confidence vote from lawmakers. The policy statement, in addition to outlining the country’s internal and external policies, also sets the government’s priorities and plans to deal with an unprecedented financial downturn that has propelled more than 70 percent of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty amid a crashing Lebanese pound that has lost around 90 percent of its value since late 2019.
Implementation of long-overdue reforms is deemed crucial for unlocking billions of dollars in promised foreign aid to the cash-strapped country, which is teetering on the verge of total economic collapse.