Israel and Lebanon wrap up six-hour-long maritime border talks
Israeli and Lebanese negotiators engaged in US-mediated indirect talks over their disputed maritime for six hours on Tuesday.
The talks were the first since discussions were broken off in October 2020.
US diplomat John Desrocher, who serves as the American mediator, asked that both parties negotiate based on their original proposals filed to the United Nations in 2011, according to Lebanese daily L’Orient Today.
Lebanon has since submitted much more aggressive maritime claims. In the lead up to this round of talks, the Lebanese delegation — a mix of army officers and experts — offered a new map that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles) for Lebanon.
Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the time accused Lebanon of “blowing up” negotiations.
Reports have since indicated that Beirut had backed down from that demand.
The Israeli delegation included Energy Ministry Director-General Uri Adiri, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser Reuven Azar, Foreign Ministry political director Alon Bar, and head of the Strategic Division in the IDF/J5 Planning Directorate, Brigadier-General Oren Setter.
Steinitz’s chief of staff Mor Halutz and foreign policy adviser Aviv Ayash also represented Israel, as did the director of the Foreign Ministry’s International Law Department, Amit Hoyman, and former director-general of Survey of Israel Haim Srebro.
The resumption came after the new US administration of President Joe Biden took over in Washington at the beginning of the year. Lebanon has sunk deeper into an economic and financial crisis that started in late 2019 — a culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement by the political class.
The small Mediterranean country is eager to resolve the border dispute with Israel, paving the way for potential lucrative oil and gas deals.
Local media said the talks resumed at a UN post along the border known as Ras Naqoura, on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. The Lebanese delegation spoke through UN and US officials to the Israelis.
The US has been mediating the issue for about a decade, but only late last year was a breakthrough reached on an agreement for a framework for US-mediated talks. The talks began in October but stopped a few weeks later.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
Lebanon’s leadership is not united behind the army command’s decision regarding the extended area.
“There is weakness in the Lebanese stance and it is important for the Israelis to join the talks when Lebanon is in a weak position,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert.
The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Akhbar newspaper reported last week that Lebanese President Michel Aoun had agreed to back down from the demand, paving the way for the new talks. Israel’s Energy Ministry had prepared to present its own, more northern, proposed border in case Lebanon presented its more southern border.
Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to Egypt and Jordan.
Lebanon, which began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
Ras Naqoura already hosts monthly tripartite, indirect Israel-Lebanon meetings over violations along the land border.
Israel and Lebanon also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s, when Arab states and Israel worked on peace agreements. The Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel at the time but Lebanon and Syria did not.