New energy minister meets US negotiator over Lebanese maritime talks

Karine Elharrar says Israel is willing to consider ‘creative solutions’ to resolve the ongoing border dispute

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar meets with US Ambassador John Desrocher (center) as well as US Envoy to Israel Michael Ratney (right) and Energy Ministry director-general Udi Adiri. (Energy Ministry)
Energy Minister Karine Elharrar meets with US Ambassador John Desrocher (center) as well as US Envoy to Israel Michael Ratney (right) and Energy Ministry director-general Udi Adiri. (Energy Ministry)

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar met on Wednesday with John Desrocher, the American mediator in the indirect talks between Israel and Lebanon over their disputed maritime border.

“Despite Israel’s strong legal case, we are ready to consider creative solutions to bring this issue to an end,” Elharrar, who took office this week, told Desrocher of the ongoing indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel.

Elharrar was also joined on Wednesday by Michael Ratney, the interim head of the US Embassy in Israel, as well as Udi Adiri, director-general of the Energy Ministry.

During the meeting, held in the Energy Ministry’s office in Jerusalem, Elharrar stressed that the ongoing negotiations with Lebanon are of the utmost importance despite the recent government transition, and said she is being kept up to date by Adiri, the head of Israel’s delegation to the talks.

The Energy Ministry said the latest round of talks on the issue began earlier this week in Lebanon, and continued with the meeting on Wednesday in Jerusalem.

The goal of the negotiations, the ministry said, is to find a solution to the maritime border dispute that “will enable the development of natural resources in the area for the benefit of the residents of the area.”

UN military vehicles of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) enter the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura where the second round of of talks started on October 28, 2020 between Lebanon and Israel at a UN base on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Israel’s delegation also includes Reuven Azar, the deputy national security adviser; Alon Bar, the political director of the Foreign Ministry; Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, the head of the IDF’s Strategic Division; Amit Hoyman, director of the Foreign Ministry’s international law department; and Dr. Haim Srebro, the former director-general of the Survey of Israel department of the Housing Ministry. They all met with Elharrar ahead of her meeting with Desrocher.

On Monday, Desrocher met with Lebanese President Michael Aoun to kick off the latest round of talks. Aoun reportedly told Desrocher that he is keen to pursue the negotiations, and urged the US to “push for fair talks without preconditions,” noting that Israel “cannot impose its unilateral view on the course of negotiations.”

According to a statement from Aoun’s office, the Lebanese president “expressed hope that the efforts which Ambassador Desrocher will undertake with Israeli officials will yield positive results considering the presence of a new government in Israel, which may require additional efforts in order not to delay negotiations.”

The indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel — which have no diplomatic ties — kicked off in October, the first negotiations between the countries in 30 years. After several rounds of talks, the negotiations hit an impasse and were postponed last year, but Lebanon has reportedly since walked back its more aggressive approach.

The Israeli delegation ahead of leaving for the second round of maritime border talks with Lebanon, October 28, 2020. (Energy Ministry)

Last month, talks resumed for a marathon six-hour session, the first since US President Joe Biden took office. The negotiations this week are the first since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was sworn in on Sunday.

Both Israel and Lebanon each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.

Lebanon, which began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.

Despite the negotiations, both countries have denied that the talks could lead to a normalization deal between the nations, who have been in a state of war for decades.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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