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Lebanon expands its demands in maritime talks, angering Israel

After Lebanese public works minister increases area claimed in sea border dispute, Israeli energy minister accuses him of ‘blowing up’ talks aimed at resolving issue

Screen capture from video of Lebanon's Public Works Minister Michel Najjar. (YouTube)
Screen capture from video of Lebanon's Public Works Minister Michel Najjar. (YouTube)

Lebanon’s outgoing minister of public works said Monday that he has signed a decree that would increase the area claimed by his country in a maritime border dispute with Israel.

Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz responded by accusing Lebanon of “blowing up” negotiations between the two countries to resolve the issue.

Lebanese Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told reporters that he has signed an amendment of the decree that would formally extend Lebanon’s claims by 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles).

In addition to angering Israel, the unilateral move was likely to also annoy the US, as neither of the allies are expected to recognize Beirut’s extension of the disputed area.

“It seems that Lebanon prefers to blow up the talks instead of trying to reach agreed-upon solutions,” Steinitz said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this won’t be the first time in the past 20 years that the Lebanese changed their naval maps for propaganda purposes,” he continued. “Obviously, unilateral Lebanese steps will be met in kind by Israel.”

Lebanon and Israel began indirect talks with US mediation in October to reach a deal over the disputed area that is believed to be rich with oil and natural gas deposits. The meetings, which stopped few weeks later, were held at a UN post along the border of the two nations.

The negotiations were the first non-security talks to be held between the two countries, which remain technically in a state of war and have no diplomatic relations following decades of conflict. Resolving the border issue could pave the way for lucrative oil and gas deals on both sides.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Knesset Interior and Environmental Protection Committee, July 22, 2020. (Adina Velman, Knesset spokes)

In late October, the Lebanese delegation to the talks — a mix of military generals and professionals — offered a new map that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles).

This area is to be included in Lebanese territory on top of the already disputed 860-square-kilometer (330-square-mile) area of the Mediterranean Sea that each side claims is within its own exclusive economic zones.

Lebanon’s Najjar said, however, that his decree still required the signatures of the defense minister, prime minister and president to go into effect.

The announcement came as US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale was expected in Lebanon later this week to meet Lebanese officials.

Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history and had plans to start drilling in search for oil and gas in the disputed area this year.

Israel has already developed offshore natural gas rigs, producing enough for domestic consumption and export abroad. Lebanon hopes that its own oil and gas discoveries will help alleviate its long-running economic troubles.

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