Israel, Lebanon Begin U.S.-mediated Talks Over Disputed Maritime Border

Amid first direct talks between the countries in 30 years, Hezbollah criticizes Lebanon Negotiating team, saying it must include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians

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A United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) convoy patrols an area next to the last checkpoint for the Lebanese army in the southernmost area of Naqura, October 13, 2020.
A United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) convoy patrols an area next to the last checkpoint for the Lebanese army in the southernmost area of Naqura, October 13, 2020.Credit: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT - AFP

Lebanese and Israeli teams met on Wednesday at a United Nations base in southern Lebanon for talks on their disputed maritime border, a United Nations source said.

Both delegations met under the auspices of the United Nations on the UNIFIL base in the town of Naqoura in southern Lebanon. If the talks go well, it will be possible to move toward a deal "within weeks or months," according to a senior Israeli Energy Ministry official. 

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The talks ended after barely an hour and agreed to meet again in two weeks.

"Our meeting today will launch the train of technical, indirect negotiations, and represents the first step on a thousand-mile journey for demarcating the southern borders," the Lebanese army quoted the head of the delegation, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin, who headed the Lebanese delegation, as saying.

"We look achieving this file within a reasonable timeframe."

The contested territory between Israel and Lebanon

In a joint statement released on Wednesday by the U.S. State Department and the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, they said the talks were “productive,” and reaffirmed the parties’ "commitment to continue negotiations later this month.”

The Israeli delegation was headed by the director-general of the Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri. The U.S. team mediating the talks was headed by Assistant Secretary David Schenker and Ambassador John Desrocher, and hosted by UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis. 

Formally still at war after decades of conflict, Lebanon and Israel agreed to launch talks via U.S. mediation over the border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters after three years of diplomacy by the United States.

These are the first official civilian diplomatic talks in 30 years between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah has said the talks did not signal peace-making with long-time enemy Israel. The talks also come weeks after the United States stepped up sanctions on political allies of Iran-backed Hezbollah in the midst of Lebanon's deep financial crisis.

In an overnight statement, Hezbollah and Amal, Lebanon's two main Shi'ite parties, said the negotiating team must include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians.

"The two demand immediately rowing back from this decision and re-forming the delegation in line with the framework agreement," it said.

There was no immediate comment from the office of President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah political ally, which took charge of forming the team. The presidency said on Tuesday the negotiations would be exclusively technical.

The preliminary talks on the issue began quietly in 2019 with U.S. mediation, and focused at first on the status of an offshore natural gas field that is in dispute between the two countries. So far, all the many attempts at mediation have failed. The breakthrough came a short time later, during the last visit to the region by David Schenker, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, who will participate in the meeting on Wednesday.

Schenker has emphasized that the talks will focus on the maritime border only, and for now there is no intention of dealing with other questions in dispute between the two countries – such as the 13 disputed spots along their land border

Nonetheless, behind the scenes, the United States hopes that a successful agreement over the maritime border cold open the door to additional future contacts, against the backdrop of an U.S.-Israeli campaign to weaken the power of Hezbollah in the political arena.

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