BEIRUT - The United States stands ready to facilitate maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel that will have benefits for the crisis-hit Lebanese economy, a US envoy said on Thursday.
On a visit to Beirut, Under Secretary of State David Hale blamed Lebanese leaders for failing to end a deadlock in cabinet talks to tackle the collapse, which has crashed the currency. He warned that "those who continue to obstruct" progress open themselves up to punitive actions, without naming individuals.
As part of its pressure campaign on Tehran, Washington escalated sanctions last year against Lebanese allies of Hezbollah, hitting former ministers on charges of corruption and ties to the Iran-backed group, which it classifies as terrorist.
Hale accused Hezbollah and Iran of undermining the state after meeting on Thursday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a political ally of the group whose son-in-law became a target of US sanctions.
Hale said that talks with Iran on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal could foster regional stability but "would only be the beginning of our work" as the United States addresses "the other elements of Iran's destabilizing behavior."
While pledging not to abandon US interests in Lebanon, Hale said resolving a maritime border dispute with Israel would "have potential to unlock significant economic benefits for Lebanon."
The two neighboring enemies launched negotiations last year, a culmination of years of US diplomacy, which have since stalled. The dispute has held up offshore exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. While Israel pumps gas from offshore fields, Lebanon has yet to find commercial reserves.
A statement issued by the Lebanese presidency later said Aoun had asked to accredit international experts to draw border lines according to international law for the area and asked that no oil and gas exploration work be done in the waters in the meantime.
A Lebanese draft decree expanding the country's claims by around 1,400 square kilometers has been approved by the caretaker prime minister and two senior ministers and is awaiting presidential and full cabinet approval.