The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament said Tuesday that Beirut is prepared to demarcate its maritime border with Israel, a move that could resolve an ongoing oil and gas dispute between the two neighboring countries, which are still technically at war.
Speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri told the head of the UN peacekeeping force deployed to southern Lebanon that “we are ready to draw Lebanon’s maritime borders and those of the Exclusive Economic Zone using the same procedure that was used to draw the Blue Line under the supervision of the United Nations,” according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
The Blue Line is the land border between Israel and Lebanon as drawn by the UN after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. Beirut disputes part of the border, and claims an area known in Israel as Mount Dov and in Lebanon as the Shebaa Farms.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Major Stefano Del Col expressed optimism that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) could help resolve the dispute over ownership of a roughly 860 square kilometer (332 square mile) triangular patch of the Mediterranean Sea.
The triangle meets at Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and fans out into Cypriot economic waters. Recently discovered oil and gas reserves in that area of the Mediterranean are predicted to generate up to $600 billion over the next few decades.
The long-standing dispute resurfaced last year, when Lebanon signed a deal with an international consortium to start exploratory offshore drilling in 2019.
In response, the Knesset advanced the Maritime Areas Bill, legislation that would formalize the maritime border between the two countries, and that gave Israel rights to a potentially lucrative patch of sea.
Repeated attempts by the UN and the US to settle the dispute have failed. Last year, Berri rejected a US proposal presented by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “unacceptable.”
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly offered Berri continued US mediation, but the State Department reported no progress in that area other than the two agreeing on “the need to maintain calm along the boundary between Lebanon and Israel.”
Lebanon and its southern neighbor Israel are still technically at war, even after Israeli troops withdrew from the south of the country in 2000.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating month-long war in 2006, and skirmishes still erupt along the UNIFIL-patrolled demarcation line. Last December, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Northern Shield to find tunnels that the Hezbollah terrorist group had dug into northern Israel from towns in southern Lebanon.
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.