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Jerusalem adamant: This is not the start of normalization

Israel lowers expectations ahead of ‘historic’ maritime talks with Lebanon

Wednesday’s negotiations aimed only at solving minor border dispute to allow offshore drilling in disputed areas, Jerusalem stresses; senior official expects results within months

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Vehicles belonging to UN peacekeepers drive along a road along the Israel-Lebanon border near the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Kila on September 1, 2019. (Ali Dia/AFP)
Vehicles belonging to UN peacekeepers drive along a road along the Israel-Lebanon border near the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Kila on September 1, 2019. (Ali Dia/AFP)

Officials in Jerusalem this week downplayed the importance of rare maritime borders negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, stressing that the US-brokered talks will focus exclusively on a relatively minor dispute on the exact delineation of each other’s territorial waters to promote the development of future oil drillings.

The Israeli officials emphasized that the talks, scheduled to start Wednesday morning on a United Nations base on the Lebanese side of the border, should by no means be mistaken as the beginning of a normalization process similar to those with the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain.

The talks will see the Lebanese delegation speaking through UN and US officials to the Israelis. Lebanese negotiators do not intend to speak directly with their Israeli counterparts even though the sides will sit in the same room, it was reported last week.

US officials have said talks between Israel and Lebanon on the land border will be held on a “separate track.”

Expectations regarding the negotiations “need to be realistic,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday. “We’re not talking about peace talks or negotiations over normalization, but rather about the attempt to solve a technical-economic problem that for a decade has been preventing us from developing natural resources in the sea for the benefit of the people of the region.”

The talks aim to solve “a well-defined and limited problem regarding those territorial waters,” Steinitz added.

The talks have only one goal: allowing both countries to take advantage of the treasures hidden in the sea — natural gas — in hitherto disputed areas, he said.

On Tuesday, a senior official in the Energy Ministry said that the disagreement between Jerusalem and Beirut was small and expressed cautious optimism about settling it quickly.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

“If the other side comes to the talks with a pragmatic approach, I hope that we can solve the dispute and move forward within a short period of time — weeks, months,” the official told diplomatic reporters in a briefing, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Of course, if the other sides comes with the intention to reach another victory over the ‘Zionist enemy,’ they can continue to celebrate victories like they did for the last 10 years,” he added ironically, adding that the current Israeli-Lebanese argument about the exact delineation of the maritime borders has been ongoing for a decade.

“The issue is important to us. It’s even more important to the other side,” the official added. “We already have [natural] gas reservoirs that provide for our local needs. We no longer import crude oil and gas and diesel fuel for our power stations. Almost everything is natural gas.”

In fact, Israel is already exporting gas to Jordan and Egypt, the official added. Lebanon, on the other hand, is buying diesel fuel and kerosene from abroad for billions of dollars every year for its power stations. It was therefore in Beirut’s interest to come to the talks with a pragmatic attitude lest another decade go by before the two sides can start exploring additional natural oil reserves in the area, the official said.

Wednesday’s talks come as Lebanon is going through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades, compounded by a massive deadly blast at Beirut’s port in August. Lebanon is hoping that oil and natural gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it pay back its enormous debt.

Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and is expected to start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel in the coming months.

“We’re coming to this with a pragmatic-realistic approach,” the Israeli official said. “Our goal is very focused, we’re not talking about our disputes on the land border, certainly not about normalization. Our sole aim is to solve a disagreement about territorial waters that for the last 10 years has been a stumbling block for the development of natural resources in our area.”

That’s also why the Energy Ministry and not the Foreign Ministry has been tasked with heading the negotiations, he said.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun during an address to the nation at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, November 21, 2019.
(Dalati Nohra via AP)

Lebanese President Michel Aoun also appeared to rule out any chance that the talks could lead to normalization with Israel.

Partially due to memories of a 1982 Israeli invasion and the subsequent 15-year occupation of southern Lebanon, Beirut has long taken a harsh stance on ties with Israel and banned its citizens from communicating with Israelis.

“President Aoun stressed that these negotiations are technical and specific to the demarcation of maritime borders, and that discussions should be limited to this specific issue,” the official Lebanese National News Agency reported Tuesday, after the Aoun had met with his delegation to the talks.

“President Aoun expressed his hope that an equitable solution safeguarding the sovereign rights of the Lebanese people will be reached,” Aoun’s press office said in a statement.

The talks were announced on October 1 by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who hailed them as “historic.”

That both Jerusalem and Beirut agreed to sit down for negotiations has the potential to “yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” he said at the time. “Today’s announcement is a vital step forward that serves the interests of Lebanon and Israel, of the region, and of the United States.”

UN peacekeepers parade during a ceremony to mark the transfer of authority between the outgoing and the newly appointed head of the mission at the UNIFIL headquarters in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Aug. 7, 2018. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

Wednesday’s meeting in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, about 200 meters from the border, marks the first time in more than 30 years “since any meaningful negotiations took place between Lebanon and Israel,” according to Alan Baker, a former legal adviser of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who heads the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“The negotiations are intended to cover a disputed 330-square miles area (860-square-kilometers) straddling the maritime border area between them in the Eastern Mediterranean, rich with natural-gas fields,” Baker, who participated in bilateral talks between Israel and Lebanon in 1982-3 and 1991-3, wrote in a paper for the center.

פורסם על ידי ‏من أجل لبنان أفضل – For a better Lebanon‏ ב- יום חמישי, 1 באוקטובר 2020

“Both states claim that the area concerned is within their own respective ‘exclusive economic zone’ and ‘continental shelf,’ theoretical 200-nautical mile zones off their coast within which, pursuant to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal states enjoy exclusive rights to exploit and benefit from natural resources.”

Such resources include fish, gas and oil, and other mineral deposits in the seabed and body of water adjacent to its coast, according to Baker, who participated in negotiations over the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Foreign Ministry’s behalf.

Wednesday’s talks scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. in an open tent at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in Naqoura.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker will preside over the meeting. He has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut in recent months in an effort to reach an agreement where previous administrations have failed.

US Ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher will serve as the US mediator for these negotiations, which are hosted by UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis.

The “framework agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” the US State Department said in a statement Tuesday.

On Monday, Aoun’s office said the four-member Lebanese delegation will be headed by air force Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin. The three other members are navy Col. Mazen Basbous, Lebanese oil official Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi.

Udi Adiri (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Israeli delegation will be headed by Udi Adiri, director-general of the Energy Ministry. He will be accompanied by Steinitz’s chief of staff Mor Halutz, as well as Aviv Ayash, the minister’s international adviser. Deputy National Security Adviser Reuven Azar, the Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director-General for the United Nations and International Organizations Alon Bar, and Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, head of the Israeli military’s Strategic Division, will also attend the talks.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group said last week that the talks don’t signify normalization or peace talks with the Jewish state.

“Despite all the talk that has been going around, the negotiating framework deals with our southern maritime borders and reclaiming our land, so as to delineate our national sovereignty,” the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah’s political wing, said in a statement.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with ‘reconciling’ with the rapacious Zionist enemy, nor with the normalization that some Arab countries have adopted,” the terror group added, referring to the recent deals Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

A line of buoys placed by Israel near the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border, unrecognized by Lebanon and the UN, seen from the southern coastal town of Naqoura, Lebanon, July 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

The international peacekeeping force UNIFIL welcomed the announcement of the talks and said in a statement that it was prepared to “extend to the parties all the support at its disposal.” The force added that it was also prepared to assist the sides in solving their land border disputes.

Israel and Lebanon still technically at war?

Israel and Lebanon don’t have diplomatic relations and are often said to be technically still in a state of war.

“However, the complex history of the relations between the two countries would appear to cast an element of doubt as to whether, indeed, a formal state of war, with all that implies, exists and is relevant,” Baker, the former Foreign Ministry legal adviser, wrote.

He cited, for instance a May 1983 agreement in which both parties declared the “termination of the state of war between them” and formally recognized each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Alan Baker (courtesy ambassadoralanbaker.com)

“The agreement contained provisions for the withdrawal of Israeli forces, establishment of a security zone in southern Lebanon, and security cooperation between the two countries,” Baker recalled. “Regrettably, and due to Syrian pressure, this agreement was never allowed to be ratified by the Lebanese parliament and was formally shelved on March 5, 1984.”

During the 1991 Madrid Conference, more than a dozen rounds of bilateral talks were held between Israel and Lebanon, Baker went on. “During these negotiations, a draft of a peace treaty was exchanged between the parties that included all the components of peace, recognition of sovereignty, good neighborly relations, diplomatic relations, security coordination, and normalization.”

But once again, Syria pressured Lebanon into terminating the talks without agreement.

Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.

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