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Israel, Lebanon end second round of ‘productive’ maritime border talks

Joint US-UN statement says hope remains negotiations will lead to ‘long-awaited resolution’ of dispute; another meeting said set for November 11

Soldiers form the Italian contingent with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) monitor the area near the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura during the second round of talks between Lebanon and Israel at a UN base on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries, on October 29, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT/AFP)
Soldiers form the Italian contingent with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) monitor the area near the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura during the second round of talks between Lebanon and Israel at a UN base on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries, on October 29, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT/AFP)

Talks between Israel and Lebanon over disputed maritime borders have been productive and are expected to resume next month, the United States and the United Nations said Thursday.

The US-mediated indirect talks, hosted in a tent on a base of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqura, convened for a second straight day Thursday after their launch earlier this month.

“Building on progress from their October 14 meeting, on October 28 and 29 representatives from the governments of Israel and Lebanon held productive talks mediated by the United States and hosted by ​the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon,” a joint statement said. “The United States and UNSCOL remain hopeful that these negotiations will lead to a long-awaited resolution.”

The talks are the first non-security ones between the two countries, which are technically at war. Israel confirmed the talks are to reconvene next month. A Lebanese source close to the negotiations said they would resume on November 11.

Lebanon’s official delegation, led by the army, had no immediate comment. After nearly four hours of talks Thursday, the delegation went to brief Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Lebanon brought new maps to the talks, pushing for what local media and experts called a “maximalist stance” aimed at rectifying previous positions that pushed for a smaller area to be part of the country’s territorial waters.

Israeli and Lebanese officials have declined to comment on the secret, indirect talks. But Lebanese media, quoting informed officials, said the government is pushing for new maps to demarcate disputed maritime borders that involve potentially lucrative oil and gas deals.

The Israeli delegation prior to heading to a second round of maritime border talks with Lebanon, October 28, 2020. (Energy Ministry)

The new maps offered by the Lebanese delegation — a mix of army generals and professionals — Wednesday push for an additional 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles).

This area is to be included in Lebanese territory on top of the already disputed 860-square-kilometer (330-square-mile) area of the Mediterranean Sea that each side claims is within their own exclusive economic zones, according to local media.

An Israeli official informed about the negotiations said Thursday the Israeli delegation wouldn’t discuss Lebanon’s maximalist proposal, which effectively lays claim to parts of Israel’s Karish gas field. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the negotiations should be on the lines previously submitted by the two countries to the UN.

Disagreements over the Lebanese claims sparked a heated argument during Wednesday’s talks.

Thursday’s meeting included a lunch hosted by the United Nations, according to Lebanon’s LBC TV station, but there were no direct talks between the two delegations. The Lebanese delegation also refused to appear in a joint photo with the Israeli team and the US and UN.

The talks are held amid tight security, including patrols by UN peacekeepers, Lebanese army patrols and Israeli navy ships.

A United Nations ship is pictured in the southernmost area of Naqura, by the border with Israel, on October 14, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

After years of quiet US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel this month said they had agreed to begin the negotiations in what Washington hailed as a “historic” agreement.

The announcement came weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates established relations with Israel. On Friday, US President Donald Trump announced that Sudan would also establish ties with Israel.

But Lebanon has insisted the negotiations are purely technical and do not involve any political normalization with Israel.

Lebanon hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome a historic economic and financial crisis. The talks come amid heated US elections, the results of which could impact the pace of the negotiations.

They also come against the backdrop of US sanctions that recently included two influential former cabinet ministers allied with the terrorist Hezbollah group. A Hezbollah ally, Lebanon’s parliament speaker, is viewed as the guardian of the Lebanese negotiating position.

Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighboring Egypt and Jordan.

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