Israel and Lebanon to start talks over maritime border this month

What happened: Lebanon has agreed to hold negotiations with Israel under a US and UN framework to end the long-running dispute over their maritime border with Israel.

  • Lebanese Speaker Nabih Berri made the announcement yesterday, after Israel announced the talks last Saturday. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation.
  • “This is a framework agreement, and not a final one,” Berri told a news conference, saying discussions would be held under the auspices of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, UNIFIL.
  • Yesterday Steinitz said that talks can progress quickly but will be dependent on the willingness of the Lebanese side, noting “this is a dispute of only six kilometres… the dispute is not over a large area”.
  • The talks will start around 12 October and will be held at the UNIFIL headquarters in the southern border town of Naqoura. Steinitz addee: “It will be the first time since the First Lebanon War (which began in 1982) that Israeli and Lebanese representatives will sit opposite each other.” However, US Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker yesterday clarified that the talks are “a separate track” and Lebanese negotiators will not be speaking directly to members of the Israeli delegation but through UN officials. Lebanon is expected to send military officials to the talks, rather than political officials.In the past, it has been Israel that sends the IDF and not political officials to liaise with UNIFIL.
  • According to Israel Hayom, both sides committed to secrecy in the preliminary talks. Israel wanted the US to be the sole mediator between the parties whilst Lebanon demanded that the UN mediate the talks. In the end, a solution was reached whereby the talks would take place at UNIFIL.
  • US Secretary of State Pompeo said on Thursday that the announcement of talks was “historic” and “a vital step forward that serves the interests of Lebanon and Israel, of the region, and of the United States.” He also said the US “looks forward” to separate talks on the Israel-Lebanon land border.

Context: Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometres (known as Block 9) of the Mediterranean Sea as within their own exclusive economic zones.

  • The US has been mediating between Lebanon and Israel since 2010 until a breakthrough was reached in July on the framework for the indirect talks, Berri said. In 2012 Israel offered to hand over to Lebanon, as a compromise, over 50 per cent of Block 9. The Lebanese refused.
  • The reason for talks now, Steinitz says, is because “the Lebanese have realised that they are lagging behind. They are in a severe economic crisis, even before the explosion in the port of Beirut, and are unable to properly develop their potential gas fields because companies are reluctant to act in disputed areas. “
  • Alex Fishman of Yedioth Ahronot writes: “Over the course of the past year, the Lebanese economy has crashed. The need to arrive at a quick arrangement that will enable the start of gas explorations, which could fill the treasury of the state and of Hezbollah, has become urgent. The potential of off-shore gas is the only asset that Lebanon can present today as a guarantee for receiving economic aid from the world.”
  • Two years ago, the Security Cabinet in Israel tasked Steinitz with leading a team of representatives from the ministries of energy, foreign affairs, and justice, as well as representatives from the National Security Council, to define Israel’s interests and negotiation demands.
  • Bahrain has congratulated the sides, with the official Bahraini news agency stating this was an important step that could lead to direct negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to advance stability, peace and prosperity in the region.

Looking ahead: Both sides have agreed to negotiate but an end to the maritime border dispute remains a long way off.

  • The talks will start around 12 October and will be held at the UNIFIL headquarters in the southern border town of Naqoura.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted that negotiations over the maritime border could led to talks over the land border.

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