Israel and Lebanon concluded the first day of a second round of US- and UN-mediated maritime border talks on offshore energy exploration on Wednesday, which included discussions described by one Lebanese television station as “very heated.”
The talks were held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, guarded by army roadblocks and with UN helicopters circling above.
The Israeli delegation updated Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on the details of the discussions and he instructed them to continue with the talks on Thursday, the Energy Ministry said in a statement.
Lebanese media described the talks as “serious” as the two sides got down to technicalities and the Lebanese delegation pushed for an additional 1430 square kilometers (550 square miles) to be included in Lebanese territory.
The Lebanese English-language Daily Star reported that the Lebanese side was adopting a “maximalist stance.”
It said Lebanon was pushing for the additional square kilometers to be included in Lebanese territory on top of the already disputed 860 square kilometer- (330 square mile-) area of the Mediterranean Sea which each side claims as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
The Al-Jadeed station called the talks serious and “very heated,” adding that the Lebanese delegation’s ceiling is the highest it has been and that there are “fundamental disputes on the starting point.”
Lebanon insists the talks are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties. The Lebanese delegation speaks through UN and US officials to the Israelis.
After years of quiet US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel — still technically at war and with no diplomatic ties — this month said they had agreed to begin the negotiations in what Washington hailed as a “historic” agreement.
The first round of talks was held on October 14. The US and UN said in a joint statement that the meeting was “productive.”
“The purpose of the delegation in the meetings is to examine the possibility of reaching an agreement on the determination of the maritime border between the countries in a way that will enable the development of natural resources in the region,” the Energy Ministry said Tuesday.
Similar to the first round of talks, Israel’s delegation was led by the director-general of the Energy Ministry Udi Adiri, accompanied by the energy minister’s chief of staff Mor Halutz, and Aviv Ayash, the minister’s international adviser. Deputy National Security Adviser Reuven Azar; the Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director-General for the UN and International Organizations Alon Bar; and Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, head of the Israeli military’s Strategic Division, were also present.
They were joined on Wednesday by Haim Srebro, an expert on international boundaries and the former head of Survey of Israel, the mapping department of the Housing Ministry.
“Today’s session is the first technical session,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert, ahead of the talks. “Detailed discussions on demarcation should begin.”
Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press on with its offshore quest for oil and gas.
Beirut hopes that potential discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome an unprecedented economic and financial crisis and pay back its massive debt that stands at 170% of GDP, making it one of the highest in the world.
The search for hydrocarbons has already heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean following repeated Turkish exploration and drilling operations in waters claimed by both Cyprus and Greece.
The Lebanon-Israel talks also come against the backdrop of US sanctions that recently included two influential former Cabinet ministers allied with the Hezbollah terror group.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.
Exploration of one of the blocks is more controversial as part of it is located in an 860-square-kilometer (330-square-mile) area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon.
Haytayan explained that Lebanese negotiators will likely try to claim areas that fall beyond the disputed 860-square kilometer zone, including the Karish gas field currently operated by Israel, she told AFP.
“We have to wait to see the reaction of the Israelis,” she said.
While the US-brokered talks look at the maritime border, a UNIFIL-sponsored track is also due to address outstanding land border disputes.
“We have a unique opportunity to make substantial progress on contentious issues along” the border, UNIFIL head Major General Stefano Del Col said in a statement on Tuesday.
The meetings have raised faint hopes for a thaw between the neighbors who have repeatedly clashed on the battlefield.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed hope that the talks may eventually lead to a peace deal between the two countries.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Tuesday he was “hearing positive voices coming out of Lebanon, who are even talking about peace with Israel.”
Gantz, speaking during a tour of northern Israel, did not specify which Lebanese comments he was referring to. But they came a day after Claudine Aoun, daughter of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, told Al Jadeed TV that peace with Israel would be conceivable if outstanding issues were resolved.
“We have the maritime border dispute, the issue of Palestinian refugees, and another topic which is more important, which is the issue of natural resources: water, oil and natural gas which Lebanon is depending on to advance its economy,” she said.
Asked directly if she would object to a peace treaty with Israel, she responded: “Why would I object? Are we supposed to stay in a state of war?… I don’t have doctrinal differences with anyone… I have political differences.”
The Shiite Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, a major force in Lebanese politics, has criticized the maritime talks.
On Wednesday, Lebanese journalists covering the border talk were forced out of the town by three men who also attacked a Lebanon state TV crew and destroyed their equipment.
One of the journalists in the area said the men introduced themselves as Hezbollah supporters but this could not be independently verified.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006, and both sides still exchange sporadic cross-border fire.