Israel rejects Lebanese accusation about gas field, says conflict unlikely

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Jerusalem (Reuters) – Israel has denied a Lebanese allegation it is encroaching on a disputed Mediterranean natural gas field, playing down on Monday any prospect of conflict over the dispute.

After months of deadlock in U.S.-mediated talks on maritime delineation, Beirut on Sunday warned against any activity in the disputed area, responding to the arrival of a vessel operated by London-based Energean (ENOG.L) to produce gas for Israel.

Israel says the field in question is within its exclusive economic zone, not in disputed waters.

“This (Lebanese account) is very far from reality,” Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharrar told Tel Aviv radio 103 FM, adding that there was “unequivocally no” encroachment by Israel.

Lebanon is home to the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which has fought numerous wars with Israel.

Hezbollah has previously warned Israel against drilling in the disputed area until the issue is resolved, and said the group would take action if it did so.

Asked about the prospect of escalation, Elharrar said: “We are not there at all. Really, such is the disconnect (between rhetoric and reality) that I do not believe they would take action.”

But she added: “Israel is making preparations (and) I recommend that no one try to surprise Israel.”

There was no immediate comment from the United States, which in 2000 began mediating indirect talks between the two sides to settle a long-running dispute that has obstructed energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

Energean said its floating production storage and offloading vessel arrived on Sunday at the Karish field, about 80 km (50 miles) west of the city of Haifa, in Israel’s exclusive economic zone.

The company said it planned to bring it online in the third quarter.

Lebanon says its border cuts into the sea at an angle farther south and Israel’s claim runs farther north, creating a triangle of disputed waters.

Last year, Beirut expanded its claim by around 1,400 square km (540 square miles), enlarging the area disputed with Israel.

Lebanon has yet to respond to an undisclosed proposal a U.S. envoy made early this year to revive the stalled talks. Elharrar voiced hope Beirut would come back to the table.

“Ultimately, there are gains to be made from negotiating, and they can get a gas field of their own,” she said.