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Pompeo hails 'historic' development

Lebanon and Israel confirm talks this month over disputed maritime border

Indirect negotiations focused on drilling rights will be brokered by US, held at UN facility in Lebanese town; Energy Minister Steinitz to head Israeli delegation

Illustrative: Israel's offshore Leviathan gas platform. (Albatross)
Illustrative: Israel's offshore Leviathan gas platform. (Albatross)

Lebanon’s parliament speaker confirmed Thursday that an agreement has been reached on a framework for rare, indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel over a longstanding disputed maritime border between the two countries.

Thursday’s declaration by Lebanese Speaker Nabih Berri is the first confirmation by Lebanon that the negotiations will take place. Israel announced the talks on Saturday, saying Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation. announced the talks on Saturday, saying Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation.

The talks will start on the week of October 12, will be mediated by the United States and will be held at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, in the southern border town of Naqoura under the banner of the United Nations, Assistant US Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters in a Thursday briefing.

“Both sides seem eager to get a deal on this… [and] came under understanding that this was the time,” Schenker said.

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 within their own exclusive economic zones.

Yuval Steinitz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both are hoping to explore and develop new gas fields in the Mediterranean following a number of big finds in recent years. US diplomats have been shuttling between the two countries and pushing for direct talks for years.

Lebanon, which is mired in a severe economic crisis, is especially eager to develop offshore energy resources.

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

Schenker sais the US will “welcome” steps by the parties to resolve the Blue Line dispute. However, he clarified that the talks set to start in two weeks are “a separate track.”

Indirect talks mean that Lebanese army negotiators will not be speaking directly to members of the Israeli delegation but through UN officials.

The US has been mediating between Lebanon and Israel since 2010 until a breakthrough was reached in July on the framework for the indirect talks, Berri said.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

He said the US mediation stalled but it received a push in March last year during a visit to Beirut by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during which he discussed the dispute with Lebanese officials.

Schenker has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut in recent months in an effort to reach an agreement where previous administrations have failed.

Pompeo said on Thursday that the announcement of talks was “historic” and “a vital step forward that serves the interests of Lebanon and Israel, of the region, and of the United States. Both countries requested that the United States participate as mediator and facilitator in the maritime discussions.”

Pompeo said the talks were a result of three years of efforts by Schenker and diplomat David Satterfield.

He also said the US “looks forward” to separate talks on the Israel-Lebanon land border.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi thanked Pompeo and his team for “their dedicated efforts that led to the start of talks.”

“This is an important step that came after three years of diplomatic contacts and would not have been possible without the mediation of the United States,” Ashkenazi said.

“Our goal is to bring an end to the controversy over the demarcation of maritime economic borders to assist the development of natural resources for the benefit of all nations in the region,” said Steinitz, the energy minister.

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)

The agreement on the framework comes as Lebanon is going through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades, compounded by the massive 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 massive 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.

Israel invaded Lebanon during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war to battle Palestinian terrorists who had launched cross-border attacks, and it occupied a strip of territory in southern Lebanon until 2000.

In 2006, Israel fought a month-long war with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group. Hezbollah has vastly expanded its arsenal of rockets and missiles since then, and today Israel views it as its most immediate military threat.

Neither side is believed to be seeking war, but they have traded fire on a number of occasions in recent years, and both have warned that a future conflict would be far more devastating for the other side.

Supporters of Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans ahead of his televised speech in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US and other countries, is part of a political alliance that dominates Lebanon’s parliament and government.

The Israeli government in May 2019 said it had agreed to enter US-mediated talks with Lebanon to resolve the maritime border dispute. However, pressure from Hezbollah was reported to have caused Beirut to back out.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean for oil and gas with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Lebanon in April said initial drilling in an area known as Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves. Exploration of another area, Block 9, has not started and is much more controversial as Israel also claims ownership over part of it.

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