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Envoy: US ready to facilitate stalled Israel-Lebanon maritime border talks

David Hale says any progress in talks that ran aground during Trump’s final days would offer significant economic benefits for Beirut as it struggles to recover from crisis

US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, speaks after meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon on April 15, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, speaks after meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon on April 15, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

A senior US official on Thursday offered Washington’s assistance in facilitating negotiations between Israel and Lebanon to resolve their maritime border dispute.

“These negotiations have potential to unlock significant economic benefits for Lebanon,” said US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale in a statement to the press after meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut.

“This is all the more critical against the backdrop of the severe economic crisis the country is facing. As needed, international experts can be brought in to help inform all of us,” Hale added.

Lebanon is undergoing through its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history and has plans to start drilling in search of oil and gas in the disputed area this year.

Hale’s comments appeared to be the first by an official from the Biden administration on an issue that was picked up by the Trump administration during its final days, though few analysts expected the lame-duck president to have success at opening up the logjam.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, right, meets with the Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe, in Beirut, Lebanon, April 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Days earlier, Lebanon’s outgoing minister of public works said that he has signed a decree that would increase the area claimed by his country in the maritime border dispute with Israel. Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz responded by accusing Lebanon of “blowing up” negotiations between the two countries to resolve the issue.

Lebanese Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told reporters that he had signed an amendment of the decree that would formally extend Lebanon’s claims by 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles).

Najjar said, however, that his decree still required the signatures of the defense minister, prime minister and president to go into effect.

In addition to angering Israel, the unilateral move likely annoyed the US, as neither of the allies is expected to recognize Beirut’s extension of the disputed area.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Knesset Interior and Environmental Protection Committee, July 22, 2020. (Adina Velman, Knesset spokes)

“It seems that Lebanon prefers to blow up the talks instead of trying to reach agreed-upon solutions,” Steinitz said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this won’t be the first time in the past 20 years that the Lebanese changed their naval maps for propaganda purposes,” he continued. “Obviously, unilateral Lebanese steps will be met in kind by Israel.”

Lebanon and Israel began indirect talks with US mediation in October to reach a deal over the disputed area that is believed to be rich with oil and natural gas deposits. The meetings, which stopped few weeks later, were held at a UN post along the border of the two nations.

The negotiations were the first non-security talks to be held between the two countries, which remain technically in a state of war and have no diplomatic relations following decades of conflict. Resolving the border issue could pave the way for lucrative oil and gas deals on both sides.

Israel has already developed offshore natural gas rigs, producing enough for domestic consumption and export abroad. Lebanon hopes that its own oil and gas discoveries will help alleviate its long-running economic troubles.

US warns Lebanon of punitive actions

Also in his Thursday statement, Hale warned that Lebanese politicians who continue to block reforms in the crisis-hit country could face punitive actions by Washington and its allies.

Hale did not provide details on the nature of the potential actions. But appeared to refer to reports that the US and its allies may impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians in order to force them to end a monthslong political deadlock and start badly needed reforms to fight corruption.

Political bickering has delayed the formation of a new cabinet as the country sinks deeper into its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. The economic crisis is the gravest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

The outgoing government resigned last August, following a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed 211 people, injured more than 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital.

In this photo released by the Lebanese government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, center, and, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon on April 15, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has failed to form a new government since he was named for the post in October. Hariri has been insisting on forming a Cabinet of experts whose main job will be to get Lebanon out of its paralyzing economic crisis.

Other groups, including the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, insist on a mixed cabinet of politicians and experts.

“Those who continue to obstruct progress on the reform agenda jeopardize their relationship with the United States and our partners and open themselves up to punitive actions,” Hale said after meeting Aoun Thursday morning.

“Today there’s been very little progress but it’s not too late,” Hale said, adding that Washington has long called for Lebanon’s leaders to show sufficient flexibility to form a government that “is willing and capable to reversing the collapse that is underway.”

He added that the US and the international community are ready to help, saying that “the time to form a government, not block it, is now. The time to build a government is now. The time for comprehensive reform is now.”

The local currency has been in freefall since late 2019, losing around 90 percent of its value. The government defaulted on its foreign debt last year and nearly half the population has been pushed into poverty and unemployment.

Speaking about indirect negotiations between the US and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program that began earlier this month, Hale said a future deal will be “in our interests and in the interest of regional stability.”

He added that “America will not abandon our interests and our friends here in Lebanon.”

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