Israeli and Lebanese officials on Wednesday morning sat down in the same room — or tent, to be exact — for indirect maritime border negotiations in what has been called a “historic” achievement with the potential to bring more stability and prosperity to the region.
However, both countries have stressed that the talks, which lasted for about two hours, are merely aimed at resolving a decade-old dispute on the exact delineation of each other’s territorial waters in an area that may contain undersea natural gas reserves, and do not presage peace negotiations or a normalization process.
The next round of talks is scheduled for October 28, officials said.
The meeting — a rare official interaction between Lebanon and Israel, which have no diplomatic relations — were hosted by the United Nations and mediated by the United States. The session was held in a large open tent at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in Naqoura, about 200 meters north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
A six member-Israeli delegation & a four member-Lebanese delegation to hold indirect talks in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura to discuss maritime borders, today. Talks mediated by the U.S. pic.twitter.com/W3F7FiagDm#Lebanon #Liban #Israel #لبنان #إسرائيل #ترسيم_الحدود
— Madhuvanthi Srinivasan | مدهوونتی شرینیوسن (@MadhuvanthiS95) October 14, 2020
Lebanese delegation chief Bassam Yassin indicated in a statement after Wednesday’s talks that the maritime negotiations with Israel were unlikely to bring immediate results, but expressed optimism that they would in due time.
“It is a first step in the thousand-mile march of the demarcation of the southern borders,” Yassin says, without mentioning Israel by name. “Based on the supreme interest of our country, we are looking forward to the wheel of negotiations running at a pace that enables us to achieve this within a reasonable timeframe.”
Expectations regarding the negotiations “need to be realistic,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Monday. “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 will see the Lebanese delegation speaking through UN and US officials to the Israelis, sources said ahead of the session. Lebanese negotiators do not intend to speak directly with their Israeli counterparts even though the sides will sit in the same room, according to a report last week.
US officials have said talks between Israel and Lebanon on the land border will be held on a “separate track.”
Officials in Jerusalem emphasized that the talks should by no means be mistaken as the beginning of a normalization process similar to those with the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain.
On Tuesday, a senior official in the Energy Ministry said that the disagreement under discussion between Jerusalem and Beirut was small, and expressed cautious optimism about settling it quickly.
“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 side 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 sarcastically, saying 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 pointed out. Lebanon, on the other hand, buys 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 could start exploring additional reserves in the area, the official said.
Wednesday’s talks came with Lebanon 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 in the coming months.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun also appeared to rule out any chance that the talks could lead to normalization with Israel.
“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 Aoun met with his delegation to the talks.
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,” Pompeo 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.”
Wednesday’s meeting marked 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.
“The negotiations are intended to cover a disputed 330-square-mile 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.
“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,” he wrote.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker presided 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 served as the US mediator for the course of the negotiations, which were 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 would be headed Yassin. The three other members are navy Col. Mazen Basbous, Lebanese oil official Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi.
The Israeli delegation was headed by Udi Adiri, director-general of the Energy Ministry. He was 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 UN and International Organizations Alon Bar, and Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, head of the Israeli military’s Strategic Division, also attended 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.
Hezbollah and the allied Shiite movement Amal early Wednesday morning again rejected the talks, saying in a joint statement that the inclusion of civilian representatives in the Lebanese delegation was detrimental to the country’s interests and violated a previous government resolution.
“What happened [with the delegation] constitutes a transgression of all elements of our country’s strength and a severe blow to its role, resistance and Arab position,” the statement said.
The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily on Monday called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon,” arguing that Israel is the real “beneficiary.”
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,” according to Baker, the former Foreign Ministry legal adviser.
Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.