Interview with Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein
October 21, 2021
Al Arabiya Al Hadath
Al Hadath: Senior advisor for Global Energy Security and the newly appointed mediator in the U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and Lebanon, Amos Hochstein, welcome.
Mr. Hochstein: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Al Hadath: First of all, I would like to ask you about your visit to Lebanon. Is it your first visit or have you had several visits before?
Mr. Hochstein: I remember coming here and meeting with Prime Minister Hariri, who took me for a walk in what is today Solidere, but was a, really a, just a neighborhood that had all the damage from the Civil War, and telling me all about the vision of what it was going to be. And it’s quite remarkable to come every year, over twenty-six years almost, and seeing the remarkable progress, as well as some of the setbacks that Lebanon has gone through and feel like I’ve grown up with post-war Lebanon, for good and for bad. So I’m glad to be back here. It’s now, with COVID and other reasons, it’s been a long gap in visiting Lebanon, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity to come back.
Al Hadath: Ok. Does your visit to Lebanon today mean indirect talks on the demarcation of the Lebanese-Israeli maritime boundary are resuming? And how can you succeed at a time [when] both parties are holding tight and firm to their positions? Also, will the negotiations still take place in Naqoura, or will there be a sort of shuttle diplomacy?
Mr. Hochstein: Well, I think that I was asked to come back and take over the job that I had a few years ago in 2014 to 2017, and to see if we can achieve some breakthrough and to move forward on the demarcation efforts and the questions that you’re asking, whether or not this means that we’re resuming, I hope so. I came here today, really, first to listen, and to listen to the three presidents and to other ministers and the Chief of Staff of the military, and to understand the position that the Lebanese government has, and its views as to what’s the best way to move forward. At the end of the day, the goal is to advance what is best for Lebanon’s interests, and if the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people want to move forward and to achieve a resolution to this maritime conflict, we will do everything we can as the United States, and I will do everything I can to help achieve that. As far as the question of whether or not this will be in Naqoura or in shuttle diplomacy, I think the meetings in the framework that was achieved between Israel and Lebanon with the support of the United States was an incredibly important milestone of having a framework that could facilitate talks and having indirect talks that are in person in Naqoura between the two sides, in the presence of the United States and the United Nations, was really important. But I think we have to assess whether the right time for them to continue is now, or perhaps there should be some shuttle diplomacy first, in order to assess the positions of the parties to identify where there is room for negotiation, and then ultimately, to go back to Naqoura and complete the negotiations.
Al Hadath: Do you think it will take lots of time?
Mr. Hochstein: No. I hope not. I think that in these kinds of efforts what we’ve learned is that if you take a lot of time, it doesn’t happen. So we need to be focused, and we need to move quickly and efficiently to address really the needs of what this negotiation entails. More time doesn’t buy us more information. If there’s a willingness on both sides to achieve an agreement, we can do it in a short period of time.
Al Hadath: It’s true that Lebanon has increased its demands many times. Also, it changed its maps. But many experts say that Lebanon has the right to do so. Why don’t you seek the help of international experts to demarcate the maritime boundary, especially since most Lebanese won’t find that [the] U.S. as [a] mediator is more likely to side with Israel?
Mr. Hochstein: Well, first, I think many people in Israel feel that we’re more likely to side, and have been siding, with Lebanon. But maybe that’s the right role for a mediator, for both sides to think we are siding with the other. We are here because we were asked by the Lebanese government and invited by both sides to help mediate. That was part of the framework that was achieved and negotiated by the Lebanese government. So that’s the reason that we’re here. But ultimately, any decision that is made on the boundary, and on the interests of Lebanon, is not going to be made by the mediator, or by the United Nations, or by any other expert that comes in. It’s going to be made by the Lebanese government. So I, it’s not my role to force Israel or force Lebanon to do anything against its interests. My role is to listen and understand the interests of Lebanon, bring it to the table, come up with perhaps solutions and options, and at the end of the day, the government of Lebanon, on behalf of the people of Lebanon, will have to make a decision whether those solutions are representing what’s best for Lebanon — not me, and not anyone else. Only the government of Lebanon can make that decision. So the mediation is really the ability to talk to two sides when you have a remarkable situation. We have a maritime boundary that needs to be identified. You have resources that could have impacts on the economy, but it is between two countries that do not have diplomatic relations. And we’re not here in an effort for normalization. That’s not on the table. It is just to address this one area. So to do that, you need someone that can talk to both parties, and to see if we can help the sides to narrow their gaps and ultimately reach a solution. But the identity of the mediator is far less important because they can only offer, I can only offer, suggestions. The government of Lebanon will decide for the government — for the people of Lebanon, and the government of Israel will do the same for theirs.
Al Hadath: Do you think that it’s taking the government of Lebanon a lot of time to decide?
Mr. Hochstein: Well, I think this is a new government that was just established a few weeks ago. So, let’s — the file is ten years old. I’ve been here meeting with a number of prime ministers and a couple of presidents, and I hope that, and trust, and everything I’ve heard today, is that there’s a commitment and a desire to reach a resolution. And I will take what I heard today and learned and listened to today and see if we can come up with some ideas to put forth presentations that address the concerns and the demands and the interests of the Lebanese government that I heard today.
Al Hadath: Ok. There was a major dispute over Takhlet Island that led to the postponement of the talks last time. In [a] similar dispute between Somalia and Kenya, the International Court of Justice recently ruled in favor in favor of Somalia, stating [that] the disputed maritime triangle with Kenya must be split, and a ruling that would support — this ruling would support the Lebanese position. Why don’t negotiations resume under the umbrella of the UN Convention on the Law of Sea?
Mr. Hochstein: Well, first, the ICJ decision on Somalia and Kenya is not necessarily applicable here. It has some elements of it. There are other decisions of other arbitration courts that look at the situation a little bit differently. So if we want to find a resolution to the maritime boundary, we can decide of two routes. One, we can decide to have, hire a law firm, international big law firms, and we can start arguing in court, and I think we may get a good resolution in, somewhere in the next 10 to 15 years. But that’s probably not what is of best interest to Lebanon, especially as you’re trying to go into arbitration between two countries that don’t actually recognize the existence of one another. So it’s difficult to select arbitration in that way. So, you can look at — that’s, that’s one option. If you want an immediate resolution to this dispute and be able to not only benefit from having stability of, of the resolution itself, but to actually benefit from the resources that are there and exploit it in Lebanon, well, then I think we have to look at what is the process that leads us to a resolution this year and not in ten years. And that’s not going to be through international arbitration, lengthy or international arbitration courts, but deciding I know what I want, I know what I’m willing to compromise on, in order to get what I want. So I have my red lines. Each country has red lines. Each country has demands, and they have to be addressed. And look, in 2016, when I was here, had we reached a resolution in 2016, today, you wouldn’t have any blackouts in Lebanon. The lights would be going on and you would be paying the cheapest gas prices, because you need, paying consumers, Lebanese people, would be paying producer prices and you’d likely be exporting. Remarkably, we’re sitting down here and we’re in an energy crisis around the world. And natural gas prices are the most expensive they have ever been in history. So instead of buying gas on, the most expensive gas, in the world, you’d be selling gas into the most expensive market. I say this because it’s important sometimes to understand opportunity cost. When you lose an opportunity, status quo is not a win. You get to tell yourself, I didn’t compromise or I didn’t negotiate. But today the opportunity cost is those revenues, and that’s stability for the economy. And maybe we get an entirely different economic condition today. Now what happened in 2016 doesn’t matter except for learning the lessons forward. What we don’t want is to sit in 2025 and ask the questions, what could have been? Instead, let’s come back and have this interview in 2025, when gas is flowing for the first time to Lebanon from its own fields, and when you’re joining the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean in selling gas into the global market, and you become a global exporter of a product. That’s, that’s what’s at stake here. That’s what’s on the table.
Al Hadath: OK, but you know, there’s no resolution, but Israel is extracting oil. What, why Lebanon isn’t doing this?
Mr. Hochstein: So Israel is — Israel and Egypt and Cyprus reached agreement on their borders, on their boundaries. Exactly the same kind of boundaries that Israel and Lebanon need to resolve. So those were resolved, and that opened the way for developing their natural gas resources by international companies, and that gas is — those reserves are very far away from the Lebanese border. Why is Lebanon not producing? That’s a very good question. When a company decides to invest, they look at two things: Is the resource there of good potential? And, is the, what we call, above-ground risk — do I have a risk to my investment? Because it costs hundreds of millions of dollars before you take one molecule of gas out of the ground, and they look at this and say, look, when you reach resolution on your boundary, when you don’t have big inflammatory rhetoric around these waters, we will come and invest. But until then, the likelihood is that they won’t. And fortunately or unfortunately, much of the most attractive resources in the Lebanese waters are either in, or close to, or close enough, to the disputed areas.
Al Hadath: OK
Mr. Hochstein: So I think — that’s a good example for why, when I look at the map, the resource map of the Eastern Mediterranean, I see dots all over the map — Cyprus, Egypt, Israel. And only the Lebanese waters is blue. No dots. That’s what I’m here to change. What I want is to have Lebanon as a producer, having billion — multibillion dollar investments from foreign companies here in Lebanon, creating jobs, creating opportunity, creating economic stability.
Al Hadath: Israel is starting to drill in the northern part of [the] Karish gas field, challenging Lebanon by taking this unilateral step in the disputed area. As a negotiator, how will you deal with this issue and would it be possible that you will stick to a policy of no lines, or no zones, and start all over again with the idea of common reservoirs?
Mr. Hochstein: No, I’m not looking at common reservoirs as an option. That was never my plan, nor is it now. As far as Israel’s Karish, look, there is a — Lebanon introduced point 29 very late in the game, as you suggested. Until point 29 was introduced, the Karish field wasn’t actually anywhere near a disputed area when all these contracts were signed. The Lebanese negotiators put that on the table. Again, I wasn’t the mediator at the time, but I’m not here to tell people what to put on the table. That’s the decision of Lebanon’s. I’m not here to say it’s a good idea or a bad idea. But the fact remains that it was put on the table, and the Karish field is already identified, and it was already bid out. So you didn’t hear any cries from Lebanon, or from anyone else, when the bid round happened and a European company was selected and announced its development plans. There’s been many developments in Karish until this one. So, that’s, that’s the history and why Karish is is now the hot potato that it is.
Al Hadath: Ok.
Mr. Hochstein: I think the most — the best way to address it, is to come back to a framework, the framework, and a format of negotiations where we’re talking about these things and identifying solutions that are not short-term: what are you, what are you developing today, what are you drilling tomorrow? But rather, what’s a comprehensive agreement that is lasting, that is long-lasting? But we don’t have to come back to these negotiations every time a gas field, an oil field, or something else is discovered. Things that I don’t even know about today. The new technology will come up and will be able to identify things. That’s the, that’s the idea. So instead of looking at little disputes, let’s resolve the big one, and [then] the little ones will go away.
Al Hadath: Ok. You are well connected to oil companies, keep in, keeping in mind that David Hale already offered to send some experts to Lebanon. Do we expect that that you will be paving the road for some oil companies here?
Mr. Hochstein: I think that I will be paving the road, and the way I will pave the road is if we can get to a successful resolution to the negotiations over the boundary issue. As I said before, if you have a boundary dispute, it’s going to be very difficult to get energy companies to invest in Lebanon. If you resolve it, you won’t need me.
Al Hadath: The U.S. gave Lebanon the green light to import Jordanian electricity — maybe this is the reason for your visit here? — and Egyptian natural gas through Syria. Some say that the United States took action only when Nasrallah announced the departure of [an] Iranian fuel ship towards Lebanon, while the U.S. had previously tightened an economic noose around Lebanon, which Hizballah was able to break.
Mr. Hochstein: Do you know why Hizballah did not break the noose, or the blockade, or any of the other scary words? We never had a blockade. There was never a noose. So they didn’t break anything. We never attempted to stop fuel tankers from coming here. In fact, we have repeatedly — our ambassador here in Beirut, and our senior officials — we have always said: we want to see Lebanon succeed. We want to see fuel. If you need fuel oil on a temporary basis, we hope the international market is able to deliver. But we also hope, is that you look at it, that Lebanon looks at it from a sustainable, long-lasting, transparent solution. These blackouts are not happening because Hizballah wasn’t able to bring a fuel oil tanker last month. And I’ve been here now for 24 hours, and in several of my meetings, we have blackouts. So I guess the fuel tankers didn’t really work. But, we don’t — I don’t want to look at temporary solutions that give me fuel oil for a few hours. I want to bring — that’s why we came up with this, through the solution of working with the legitimate government of Lebanon, to bring gas from its neighbors. You live in a neighborhood that’s full of energy resources. Take advantage of it. So you have resources in Egypt. There’s a pipeline that goes from Egypt all the way to Syria. There’s another one that goes from Syria into Lebanon. We wanted to look if we can make that happen. So we’ve never stopped that either. On the contrary, we’ve been facilitating it and helping that transaction and that deal to happen. I’ve been on the phone with the current energy minister and saw him today. I had calls with the previous acting, or interim, government minister. I know that our ambassador here has been clearly working to support this. And I talked to the my friends in Egypt and we’re talking to the Jordanians all the time. We have a sanctions regime against Syria. It is not against Lebanon. It has nothing to do with Lebanon. It is entirely to do with Syria. We have determined that it is not — this kind of a transaction could be, likely is not, under — covered by the sanctions. And therefore we’ve informed the government here, and we’ve informed the government in Egypt, that it can move ahead — which it was anyway, already, in anticipation. And my hope is that we can direct our efforts not into PR stunts, but rather into a, a solution that will be provided for all Lebanese. Not where you have to go and beg and ask to get fuel oil for your generator, but rather that when you flip the switch on in your house, you know that it’s going to come on. When you want to do the laundry or you want to charge your computer, you want to run your business, that you know they’ll be there because you cannot run your personal life or your business life or your economy unless you have reliable and cheap, affordable energy resources. So that’s what we’re focused on. And that’s why the mid-term, of bringing gas from Egypt into Jordan — we haven’t yet fully discussed the electricity. That’s something that we are going to work on, and to see if that’s viable, but that’s another solution that will provide for the Lebanese people. And then hopefully, in the long term, you’ll have your own gas, and we won’t need any of these solutions.
Al Hadath: And in the short term, how — when do you think the energy crisis would start, will start to decrease at least?
Mr. Hochstein: Well, my — already now there are some arrangements that the government, and I talked to the minister who is working with some of your neighbors to have a sustained delivery of some fuel products and energy products. My hope is that this is a matter of about two or three months before we can have gas flowing into Egypt — from Egypt. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and I’m hoping that we can, that we are working on it very effectively and efficiently in collaboration with Lebanon.
Al Hadath: So it just happened.
Mr. Hochstein: So this blackout — I guess that the —
Al Hadath: It’s a good example.
Mr. Hochstein: — the fuel tankers did not have a resolution.
Al Hadath: OK, now we will wait, maybe we’ll wait for the UPS.
Crew (Al Hadath): For the generator.
Al Hadath: To start working again. But, OK, I can, I will continue anyway.
Mr. Hochstein: Is it [ok]?
Al Hadath: Yeah, it’s fine. This is, this is part of our lives, so.
Mr. Hochstein: Please.
Al Hadath: Lebanon has lately been exempted from Caesar Aact sanctions. You talked about this. Also, the U.S. has disregarded the Iranian diesel ships. Is there some kind of deal between Iran and the U.S. such that Lebanon will give up on amending its claims to the line 29 maritime border demarcation line, in order to repair relations with Iran?
Mr. Hochstein: No. I don’t even know how else to answer that question, except for, no.
Al Hadath: OK. So Lebanon is not a scapegoat?
Mr. Hochstein: You said that Lebanon was exempted from sanctions. It was not.
Al Hadath: Okay.
Mr. Hochstein: Because Lebanon is not under sanctions. Syria is. What was exempted —
Al Hadath: Hizballah is.
Mr. Hochstein: I see Lebanon as a country. I don’t think of Lebanon as — Hizballah as Lebanon.
Al Hadath: OK
Mr. Hochstein: So I say that Lebanon is not under sanctions. People of Lebanon are not under sanctions, as a country. Syria is. So, what was — what we found that is not covered by the sanctions, is this transaction. And as long as that remains true, there’s no issue. But it’s very important for people to understand, because there’s so much misconception in the Lebanese media about us having sanctions on Lebanon, us having a noose around Lebanon’s neck, or else restricting Lebanon. Nothing could be further from the truth. This U.S. administration fully supports Lebanon, supports the progress of Lebanon, recognizes the opportunity that is [in] Lebanon. This is a country that has the ability to flourish, but it needs to take action, it needs to take action on reforms to its own system of government, to its corporate governance, and it needs to take the steps that would enable foreign investment to come in, to right the ship, and to have an economy that builds up. If we want to make sure that Lebanese people are traveling and moving back to Lebanon, rather than moving out of Lebanon, then you have to have hope for people that the situation will change and that they can build a better life here. That’s the goal of this administration. We want to support its military and we want to support its economy as long as it continues to act on the promises that are being made on all of the reform agenda and the idea of building back — not a new Lebanon, but bringing back the old one that was such a great place for people to live and to grow.
Al Hadath: Would you like to add anything?
Mr. Hochstein: I look forward to coming back and seeing you again.
Al Hadath: Thank you so much for the interview.
Mr. Hochstein: Thank you.