Lebanon names team for maritime border talks with Israel

President Aoun says 4-member delegation will be led by air force Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin; rare indirect negotiations kick off Wednesday

The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, pictured from the northern beach of Dor on December 31, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)
The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, pictured from the northern beach of Dor on December 31, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Lebanon on Monday announced the members of the delegation it is sending to hold indirect talks later this week with Israel over the disputed maritime border between the two countries.

The announcement by President Michel Aoun’s office comes two weeks after Lebanon and Israel reached an agreement on a framework for the US-mediated talks. The talks are scheduled to begin Wednesday at the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura.

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. 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.

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.

Lebanese officials have made sure to send a team of experts to show that this week’s talks with Israel are purely technical and don’t mean any kind of normalization between the two countries.

On Thursday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz announced the makeup of the Israeli delegation that will attend the meeting.

Udi Adiri (Screen capture: YouTube)

Udi Adiri, director-general of the Energy Ministry, will lead the Israeli delegation and 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.

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, Israeli media reported last week.

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 buy Israel near the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border, that wasn’t recognized 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.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, is expected in Lebanon ahead of the talks to attend the opening session.

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

The talks come 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.

Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite indirect meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along their border. The countries also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s when Arab states and Israel were working on reaching peace agreements. Although the Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Syria did not.

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