In First Direct Talks in 30 Years, Israel, Lebanon Agree to Negotiate Maritime Border

Talks between the two nations, which will be mediated by the United States and under the auspices of the United Nations, are set to begin on October 14

A United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) naval ship is pictured in the southern coastal town of Naqura on the border with Israel, March 19, 2018.
Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP

Israel and Lebanon have confirmed Thursday that they have agreed to begin negotiations on a maritime border.

The talks will be mediated by the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations and led by Israel's National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker they are set to begin on October 14.

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Lebanon's parliament speaker said on Thursday that a framework had been agreed for talks between the two nations, who are still in a formal state of war and have contested their land and maritime borders for decades, namely over an area in the sea on the edge of three Lebanese offshore energy blocks.

Nevertheless, Israel and Lebanon do not intend to currently discuss their land borders, a far more controversial dispute between them. Schenker stressed talks won't deal with any other issues apart from the maritime border.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. welcomes the two Middle Eastern neighbors' decision to begin talks on the matter. "Today’s announcement is a vital step forward that serves the interests of Lebanon and Israel, of the region, and of the United States," read his statement. 

Nabih Berri, who said the army would lead the Lebanese team, told a news conference negotiations would be held in south Lebanon near the border, led by the UN and the Americans, would push for a deal as fast as possible.

Berri said it was Pompeo's senior aide, David Schenker, last visit to Lebanon that brought the issue back into discussion. His announcement comes after U.S. sanctions were imposed on his right-hand man for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, the heavily armed group, Iran-backed that Washington deems a terrorist organisation.

The negotiations will be the first direct civil political talks between Israel and Lebanon in the past 30 years, and come after about two years of indirect contacts through American mediation. 

Israel's Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi welcomed the move, which he says "came after three years of diplomatic contacts," adding that he believes "the success of the talks will significantly affect the stability of the region and promote the prosperity of the citizens of both peoples in Israel and Lebanon.

At a meeting held about two weeks ago, chaired by the Energy Minister and senior officials of his ministry, and attended by officials from the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Justice and Defense Ministries, Israel's conditions for negotiations were agreed upon.

Steinitz said following the announcement: "I thank U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his staff and emissaries David Satterfield and David Schenker for their initiative on the issue. We look forward to the opening of direct negotiations in the near future. Our goal is to bring an end to the dispute over the demarcation of economic water between Israel and Lebanon in order to assist in the development of natural resources for the benefit of all the peoples of the region. I thank Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and his staff and Meir Ben-Shabbat and the staff of the National Security Council who are closely monitoring the process."

The announcement comes with Lebanon facing its worst crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The country's financial meltdown was compounded by a massive port explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.