Lebanon says maritime deal ‘make or break’ after Israel snubs request for changes

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A fisherman dangles his line to catch fish, in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border

By Dan Williams and Timour Azhari

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) -Lebanon said U.S.-brokered talks to demarcate its maritime border with longtime foe Israel were at a “make or break” point on Thursday after Israel rejected revisions to a draft deal requested by Beirut, throwing years of diplomatic efforts into doubt.

The draft, which has not been made public, had a warm preliminary reception from the Israeli and Lebanese governments. But amid domestic opposition in both countries, Lebanon on Tuesday sought amendments from the U.S. envoy.

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid “was updated on the details of the substantial changes Lebanon is seeking to make and instructed the negotiating team to reject them”, an Israeli official said.

According to Israeli media, a main sticking point was over recognition of a line of demarcation buoys Israel has strung out to sea from its coast. Lebanon worries about any action that may connote formal acceptance of a shared land border.

Lebanon – which has never recognized the state of Israel, with any broader peace deal beyond the horizon – has also said Israel will earn no royalties from the Lebanese share of gas in the Qana prospect.

Top Lebanese negotiator Elias Bou Saab told Reuters on Thursday that he would only respond to official statements and not to media reports on Israel’s stance.

He said the deal “is 90% done but the remaining 10% could make it or break it,” adding that he was in constant contact with U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein.

GAS RIG PLAN

Israel has been preparing to activate a gas rig, Karish, which is outside Qana. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah made veiled threats about Karish that lent urgency to the talks.

Israel previously presented the draft deal with Lebanon, if finalised, as securing Karish. But on Thursday, it changed tack.

Israel is now pressing ahead with Karish, regardless of progress or no progress in the talks, whereas before it cast a successful deal as a means of securing Karish.

“Israel will produce gas from the Karish rig as soon as it is possible to do so,” the Israeli official said, adding that negotiations will “stop immediately” in the face of any threats.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz further hardened the tone, saying in a speech that “Lebanon will bear a heavy military price” if Hezbollah attacks, and he put forces on alert.

There was no immediate response from Hezbollah.

(Additional reporting by Maya Gebeily; Writing by Dan Williams and Maya Gebeily;Editing by Ari Rabinovitch, Nick Macfie, William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

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