Lebanon determined to pursue oil despite Israeli criticism

Israeli defence minister says awarding such bids amounted to "provocative behaviour"

BEIRUT - Lebanon on Thursday pledged to do "everything in its power" to pursue oil and gas drilling off its coast, in response to Israeli accusations that such explorations were "provocative."
In December, Lebanon approved a first bid to search for oil and gas in two blocks off the country's Mediterranean coast, including one that Israel says belongs to it.
On Wednesday, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said awarding such bids amounted to "provocative behaviour" by Lebanon's government.
"They issue a tender on a gas field -- including a bloc which by all accounts is ours -- to international groups that are respectable companies, which to my mind are making a serious mistake since it's against all rules and protocol in cases like this," Lieberman said.
Lebanese officials have fired back, with Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil on Thursday saying Lebanon would defend its right to drill there.
"Israel will do what it can to block us from taking advantage of our oil wealth, and we will do everything in our power to defend it," Abi Khalil told a local radio station.
Lebanon will sign agreements with the explorers -- France's Total, Italy's ENI and Russia's Novatek -- next week and would be ready to begin drilling by 2019, he said.
Lieberman's comments on Wednesday have set off a firestorm in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, an armed movement that has clashed with Israel on several occasions, condemned his statement.
Armed movement Hezbollah on Wednesday it would "respond firmly to any attack on our oil and gas rights, defend Lebanon's products, and protect its resources."
And on Thursday, President Michel Aoun pledged Beirut would "defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by all available means."
Lebanon is looking to tap potential oil and gas reserves after major offshore discoveries by neighbouring Israel and Cyprus.
On December 14, it approved a bid on blocks four and nine -- just two of the five that were offered.
Block nine is the disputed block with Israel.