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Israel and Lebanon hold maritime border talks, in first since Biden took office

US is acting as mediator in indirect negotiations over economic zones in Mediterranean that potentially hold lucrative natural resources

A UNIFIL Navy ship patrols in the Mediterranean Sea next to a base of the UN peacekeeping force, off the southern town of Naqoura, Lebanon, May 4, 2021. (Hussein Malla/AP)
A UNIFIL Navy ship patrols in the Mediterranean Sea next to a base of the UN peacekeeping force, off the southern town of Naqoura, Lebanon, May 4, 2021. (Hussein Malla/AP)

After a nearly six-month pause, Lebanon and Israel on Tuesday resumed indirect talks with US mediation over their disputed maritime border.

The resumption comes after the new Biden administration 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 will speak through UN and US officials to the Israelis.

US Ambassador John Desrocher, who serves as the American mediator, arrived in Beirut Monday night to take part in the talks.

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 few weeks later.

A maritime map of the eastern Mediterranean showing Exclusive Economic Zone borders, including an area of dispute (marked 4) between Israel and Lebanon. Source: IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2012 (www.iemed.org/medyearbook)

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.

In the second 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.

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.

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