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Maritime gas dispute risks conflict between Lebanon and Israel | Oil and Gas News

Beirut, Lebanon – Karish is a relatively small untapped gasfield in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, but its location between Israel and Lebanon means that it could lead to a new conflict between the two neighbours.

While Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said on Monday that United States-brokered negotiations over the exploration of Karish had reached the “final stages”, Israel is expected to begin preliminary work on Tuesday to start extracting gas, a move that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called a “red line” on Saturday.

For its part, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz has said if Hezbollah harmed an offshore rig in Karish, “the price will be Lebanon”.

The two countries have a history of conflict, most notably when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the latter’s civil war, as well as the 2006 Lebanon War.

Many fear that the dispute over where exactly the maritime border crosses Karish could unintentionally ignite a new fight.

However, it appears as though the current tension may be more about appearances than actual preparations for war.

“It’s pure politics, to be able to say that any deal that comes in, Hezbollah had a role in it, and they defended the rights of Lebanon,” said Laury Haytayan, MENA director of Natural Resources Governance Institute.

“They want to bring back the idea that their power and weapons are used in the national interest and not in the Iranian agenda, reshaping the narrative that they protect Lebanon’s wealth,” Haytayan told Al Jazeera.

According to Haytayan, the two countries also view the maritime border dispute differently; while Lebanon sees it as an energy and economic issue, Israel sees it as a security issue.

“For Israel, it’s very important to deal with this to take away one element of tension and possible escalation with Hezbollah,” Haytayan said. “If Lebanon starts exploration and has its own oil and gas, Hezbollah won’t be able to threaten Israel’s platforms any more because it would be: you threaten my platform, I threaten your platform.”

Line in the sea

While both sides agree that the rich gasfields in the Eastern Mediterranean should be divided, the question is over where the line should be.

In 2020, Lebanon attempted to submit a new interpretation of the border that would have given it the northern part of Karish, which is estimated to have $1.3bn worth of gas.

That was rejected by Israel and the US, and negotiations stalled for nearly two years.

This year, Lebanon dropped the 2020 border proposal, and the two countries are expected to compromise on a border position similar to the Hof line – originally proposed in 2012 by then-mediator Frederic Hof – which gives all of Karish to Israel and most of the South Saida Prospect, or Qana field, to Lebanon.

However, negotiations have hit a sensitive point pertaining to where, on land, the maritime border starts, which could have implications on territorial delineation and sovereignty.

A senior government official close to the negotiations told Al Jazeera that Beirut has asked Israel to “clarify” what the latter has labelled “security issues” regarding the land border.

“If it’s a security issue there won’t be a problem and we will reach an agreement because there will be an arrangement, [but] we cannot agree on any modification on the land or any consequence that would lead to any modification of the land [border],” the source said.

After his last visit to Beirut on September 9, US mediator Amos Hochstein said progress was made, but that “more work needs to be done” in the coming weeks to reach an agreement.

However, as the negotiations drag on, there is more potential for their collapse.

Hezbollah has threatened to attack a ship sent to Karish by Israel, and on July 2 Israel said it shot down three drones headed towards the gasfield launched by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Energean, the company licensed by Israel to extract gas from Karish, has announced it will start imminently, with Israel under added pressure to increase its energy output after it signed a deal with the European Union to export gas for the first time, as the bloc seeks alternatives to Russian energy.

“Until now the negotiations are going in the right way, it’s normal to go back and forward in negotiations,” the Lebanese official added.

“There is progress, but I don’t know if the progress means we will reach an agreement.”

Solution for Lebanon’s economic crisis?

At home, the Lebanese government has sold the promise of the Qana field as the light at the end of a financially-collapsing tunnel, despite experts warning that no deal can be a substitute for the urgent reforms needed to stabilise Lebanon’s economy.

Internal oil production would ease the country’s deep energy crisis, which has seen residents coping with little, if any, state-run electricity. Politicians have also sold it as a leveraging tool to negotiate an International Monetary Fund loan from a stronger position.

However, if negotiations with Israel fail, Lebanon will be left to convince the French energy company Total, which owns the contractual rights to exploit the area, to operate in a disputed area, something the company has said is not willing to do.

In addition, if oil and gas are found in Qana, it may still fall within Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone, meaning that further negotiations would be needed.

Funding would also be needed to restore decrepit power infrastructure, and the use of the Arab Gas Pipeline to export to other Arab countries.

And, according to Diana Kaissy, an advisory board member at the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative, the existence of oil and gas in Qana is still uncertain.

“We cannot say a field exists unless you drill and you find that reservoir,” Kaissy told Al Jazeera. “So far no drilling has happened and no reservoir was found, and so the existence of Qana is just a name given to an idea to what we might find when we drill.”

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First female premier poised to take helm of Italy government

ROME — A party with neo-fascist roots won the most votes in Italy’s national election, setting the stage Monday for talks to form the country’s first far right-led government since World War II, with Giorgia Meloni at the helm as Italy’s first female premier.

Italy’s lurch to the far right immediately shifted Europe’s geopolitics, placing Meloni’s euroskeptic Brothers of Italy in a position to lead a founding member of the European Union and its third-largest economy. Italy’s left warned of “dark days” ahead and vowed to keep Italy in the heart of Europe.

Right-wing leaders across Europe immediately hailed 45-year-old Meloni’s victory as sending a historic, nationalist message to Brussels. It followed a right-wing victory in Sweden and recent gains by the far-right in France and Spain.

Still, turnout in the Italian election Sunday was a historic low of 64%, and pollsters suggested voters stayed home in protest, disenchanted by the backroom deals that had created the country’s last three governments and the mash-up of parties in outgoing Premier Mario Draghi’s national unity government.

By contrast, Meloni was viewed as a new face in the merry-go-round of Italian governments and many Italians appeared to be voting for change, analysts said.

The victory of Meloni’s just 10-year-old Brothers of Italy was more about Italian dissatisfaction with the decades-long status quo than any surge in neo-fascist or far-right sentiment, said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs.

“I would say the main reason why a big chunk of (voters) … will vote for this party is simply because it’s the new kid on the block,” she said.

The election’s sharp swing to the right, “confirms that the Italian electorate remains fickle,″ said London-based political analyst Wolfango Piccoli, noting that an estimated 30% of voters went for a different party than their choice in 2018 elections.

Meloni, whose party traces its origins to the postwar, neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, tried to sound a unifying tone, noting that Italians had finally been able to determine their leaders.

“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone. We will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people,” said. “shechose us. We will not betray it.”

Near-final results showed the center-right coalition netting 44% of the parliamentary vote, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy snatching 26% in its biggest win in its decade-long meteoric rise. Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League party led by Matteo Salvini winning 9% and Forza Italia of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8% of the vote.

The center-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26% support, while the populist 5-Star Movement — which had been the biggest vote-getter in the 2018 parliamentary election — saw its share of the vote halved to 15%.

While the center-right was the clear winner, the formation of a government is still weeks away and will involve consultations among party leaders and with President Sergio Mattarella. In the meantime, Draghi remains in a caretaker role.

The elections, which took place six months early after Draghi’s government collapsed, came at a crucial time for Europe as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and related soaring energy costs that have hit ordinary Italians as well as industry.

A Meloni-led government is largely expected to follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including her pro-NATO stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, even as her coalition allies take a different tone.

Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While both have distanced themselves from his invasion of Ukraine, Salvini has warned that EU sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry. Berlusconi has even excused Putin’s invasion as an event foisted upon him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

A bigger shift and one likely to cause friction with other EU nations is likely to come over migration. Meloni has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving North African shores, and has proposed screening potential asylum-seekers in Africa, not Europe.

Salvini has made clear he wants the League to recapture the interior minister post, where he once imposed a tough anti-migrant policy. But he may face an internal leadership challenge, with Meloni’s party outperforming the League even in its northeastern stronghold.

On relations with the EU, analysts note that for all her euroskeptic rhetoric, Meloni moderated her message during the campaign and has little room to maneuver, given the economic windfall Italy is receiving from Brussels in coronavirus recovery funds. Italy secured 191.5 billion euros, the biggest chunk of the EU’s 750 billion-euro recovery package, and is bound by certain reform and investment milestones to receive it all.

That said, Meloni has criticized the EU’s recent recommendation to suspend 7.5 billion euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding, defending autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the elected leader in a democratic system.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen praised Meloni for having “resisted the threats of an anti-democratic and arrogant European Union.”

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”

Meloni is chair of the right-wing European Conservative and Reformist group in the European Parliament, which includes her Brothers of Italy, Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party, Spain’s far-right Vox and the right-wing Sweden Democrats, which just won big there on a platform of cracking down on crime and limiting immigration.

“The trend that emerged two weeks ago in Sweden was confirmed in Italy,” acknowledged Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, calling Monday a “sad day for Italy, for Europe.”

“We expect dark days. We fought in every way to avoid this outcome,″ Letta said at a somber news conference. “(The Democratic Party) will not allow Italy to leave the heart of Europe.”

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University and the executive editor of the Journal of European Integration, noted that Italy has a tradition of pursuing a consistent foreign and European policy that is bigger than individual party interests.

“Whatever Meloni might be up to will have to be moderated by her coalition partners and indeed with the established consensus of Italian foreign policy,” Christiansen said.

———

Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.

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Tense Japan holds funeral for assassinated ex-leader Abe

TOKYO — A tense Japan prepared Tuesday for a rare and controversial state funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving leader in his nation’s modern history and one of the most divisive.

Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests opposing the funeral planned around the capital and nation. Hours before the ceremony began, dozens of people carrying bouquets of flowers queued at public flower-laying stands at nearby Kudanzaka park.

Thousands of uniformed police mobilized around the Budokan hall, where the funeral is being held, and at major train stations. Roads around the venue are closed throughout the day, and coin lockers at main stations were sealed for security. World leaders, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, were in town for the funeral.

Opponents of the state-sponsored funeral, which has its roots in prewar imperial ceremonies, say taxpayers’ money should be spent on more meaningful causes, such as addressing widening economic disparities caused by Abe’s policies.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been criticized for forcing through the costly event to honor his mentor, Abe, who was assassinated in July. There has also been a widening controversy about Abe’s and the governing party’s decades-long close ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents. Abe’s alleged assassin reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his links to the church; he said his mother ruined his life by giving away the family’s money to the church.

Kishida says the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history deserves a state funeral. The government also maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. Most of the nation’s 47 prefectural governments, however, plan to fly national flags at half-staff and observe a moment of silence.

Opponents say Kishida’s one-sided decision, which was made without parliamentary approval, was undemocratic, and a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism. The prewar funeral law was abolished after World War II. The only postwar state funeral for a political leader, for Shigeru Yoshida in 1967, also faced similar criticism.

“Spending our valuable tax money on a state funeral with no legal basis is an act that tramples on the constitution,” organizer Takakage Fujita said at a protest Monday.

About 1.7 billion yen ($11.8 million) is needed for the venue, security, transportation and accommodation for the guests, the government said.

A group of lawyers has filed a number of lawsuits in courts around the country to try to stop the funeral. An elderly man last week set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in an apparent protest of the funeral.

In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida has launched a series of meetings with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy.” The talks are meant to strengthen ties as Japan faces regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea. He was to meet about 40 foreign leaders through Wednesday. No Group of Seven leaders are attending.

Kishida met about 10 dignitaries Monday, including Harris, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte. He will meet with his Australian and Indian counterparts separately and host a reception Tuesday.

About 4,300 people, including Japanese lawmakers and foreign and local dignitaries, are attending the funeral.

Japanese troops will line the streets around the venue, and 20 of them will act as honor guards outside of Abe’s home as his family leaves for the funeral. There will then be a 19-volley salute.

The ceremony will start when Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, enters the hall carrying an urn containing her husband’s ashes, placed in a wooden box and wrapped in white cloth. The former leader was cremated after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after his death.

Government, parliamentary and judicial representatives, including Kishida, will make condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party are boycotting the funeral, along with others.

Abe’s opponents recall his attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities, his push for more military spending, his reactionary view of gender roles and a leadership seen as autocratic and supportive of cronyism.

Protests of the funeral have increased as more details emerged about Abe’s and LDP lawmakers’ connection to the Unification Church. The South Korea-based church has built close ties with LDP lawmakers over shared interests in conservative causes.

“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered with policymaking processes is seen by the Japanese people as a greater threat to democracy than Abe’s assassination,” wrote Hosei University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi in a recent article.

Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the church take root in Japan and is now seen as a key figure in the scandal. Opponents say holding a state funeral for Abe is equivalent to an endorsement of ruling party ties to the Unification Church.

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In Tokyo, Harris calls US-Japan alliance ‘a cornerstone’

TOKYO — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shortly after arriving in Tokyo for the state funeral of assassinated former leader Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a former prime minister who was assassinated in July, will be honored on Tuesday, and Harris is leading a U.S. delegation to pay its respects.

“The alliance between Japan and the United States is a cornerstone of what we believe is integral to peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” she said Monday at the Akasaka Palace.

Kishida said Abe “poured his heart and soul” into strengthening ties between their two countries.

“I feel it is my duty to carry on his aspirations,” Kishida said.

Abe forged closer ties with the United States at a time of increased concern about China’s ambitions, and Kishida is continuing his push for a stronger national defense.

The potential for war over Taiwan, a self-governed island that China claims as part of its own territory, has troubled Japan, which would likely be pulled into such a conflict.

President Joe Biden said recently that the U.S. would send its own troops to defend Taiwan if China attacked.

“The president has addressed that issue. And if it comes up, the vice president will align with the president,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

The official also said Harris would “make clear our ironclad commitment to Japan’s security.” More than 50,000 U.S. troops are based there.

Harris on Thursday will visit South Korea and its Prime Minister Han Duck-soo during a meeting early Tuesday said Harris will make a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, the border area with North Korea that is jointly controlled by the American-led United Nations Command and North Korea.

A White House official, speaking on the condition on anonymity, confirmed that Harris will tour sites at the DMZ and visit with troops there to demonstrate that the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense is “ironclad.”

Her visit, the first by a ranking U.S. official since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to the DMZ in August, will come the same week North Korea test-fired a short-range ballistic missile in apparent response to joint military exercises between the U.S. and Korea. Harris will be the highest-level American to go to the DMZ since former President Donald Trump visited in 2019 for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Harris, who is scheduled to spend three nights in Tokyo, is visiting Japan at a politically fraught moment. Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe, a conservative nationalist, has been controversial in a country where such memorials are uncommon, and some oppose honoring him in this way.

Kishida is also pushing for a dramatic expansion of defense spending that would give Japan the world’s third-largest military budget in the coming years, after the United States and China. A new national security strategy, the first in almost a decade, is in the works as well.

The debate is playing out as Japan reevaluates the risk of war after the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, said Christopher Johnstone, senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The fighting in Europe is a reminder that “conflict really is possible,” he said, and “Japan lives in a pretty difficult neighborhood.”

Japan is upgrading missiles and considering using them for preemptive strikes — a move critics say would fundamentally change the country’s defense policy and breach the postwar pacifist constitution that limits use of force to self-defense.

It has also shifted its defense from the northeast to southwestern Japan, including Okinawa and other remote islands.

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