Israel expects U.S.-mediated Lebanese sea border talks in weeks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel expects to launch U.S.-mediated talks within weeks with Lebanon on setting their maritime border, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday, naming a U.N. peacekeeper compound in southern Lebanon as a possible venue.

Lebanon has not commented publicly on whether it would attend talks or on any possible timeline. The United States, which has been sending a senior envoy on shuttle missions between Lebanon and Israel, also has not announced a date or venue but said it is prepared to help them resolve the dispute.

Formally at war since Israel’s 1948 founding, the neighbors have long disagreed on border demarcations in the eastern Mediterranean, an issue that gained prominence in the past decade when large deposits of natural gas were found there.

Among the bridging proposals put forward by both sides was for international energy groups, operating in both Israeli and Lebanese waters, to carry out the first seismological survey of the disputed area, the Israeli official told Reuters.

Last week, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel was open to U.S.-mediated talks on the sea border.

The senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday that Israel expects the negotiations “will begin already in the coming weeks”.

U.S. envoy David Satterfield has been traveling between Israel and Lebanon to try to lower tensions, which have also stemmed from a land border dispute.

The Israeli official said that if there were talks, they would address only the maritime border and not the land frontier.

“In the past 10 days of Satterfield’s shuttling between Israel and Lebanon a number of technical issues have been discussed, like the agreement that the talks will happen at the U.N. facility in Naqoura in southern Lebanon and with U.S. mediation by Satterfield,” the Israeli official said.

A U.S. official told Reuters that Washington “stands ready to work towards solutions that are mutually agreeable to both parties” but declined to elaborate on Satterfield’s discussions.

Lebanese lawmakers close to parliament speaker Nabih Berri have quoted him as saying there was “clear progress” on efforts to resolve the border dispute. Lebanon was awaiting responses after presenting a “united stance” on the matter, they quoted him as saying, without elaborating.

Israel is currently tendering off 19 offshore blocks to exploration and production companies, but it has avoided offering areas close to the disputed border.

Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry