Lebanon Names Team for Maritime Border Talks With Israel

Beirut wants to make sure this is seen as a purely pragmatic affair, not a step towards normalization, with access to crucial gas resources in the balance

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The Naqoura Bay south of the Lebanese city of Tyre as seen behind a new wall on the Israeli-Lebanese border, September 5, 2018.
The Naqoura Bay south of the Lebanese city of Tyre as seen behind a new wall on the Israeli-Lebanese border, September 5, 2018.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

Lebanon announced on Monday the names of the delegation that will hold indirect talks later this week with Israel over the disputed maritime border between the two countries.

The announcement by President Michel Aoun’s office comes two weeks after Lebanon and Israel reached an agreement on a framework for the U.S.-mediated talks. The talks are scheduled to begin Wednesday at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as within their own exclusive economic zones.

A Lebanese military vessel patrols the waters off the coast of the southern area of Naqoura by the border with Israel, October 11, 2020.Credit: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT - AFP

Aoun’s office said the four-member Lebanese delegation will be headed by air force Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin. The three other members are navy Col. Mazen Basbous, Lebanese oil official Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi.

Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation, according to Israeli officials.

Lebanese officials have made sure to send a team of experts to show that this week’s talks with Israel are purely technical and don’t mean any kind of normalization between the two countries.

Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said last week that the talks don’t mean reconciliation with Israel. A statement by Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament said last week that defining the border of “national sovereignty” is the job of the Lebanese state.

The talks will see the Lebanese delegation speaking through UN and U.S. officials to the Israelis.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, is expected in Lebanon ahead of the talks to attend the opening session.

The talks come as Lebanon is passing through the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it come out of the crisis.

Israel's offshore Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, September 29, 2020.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and is expected to start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel in the coming months.

Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite indirect meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along their border. The countries also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s when Arab states and Israel were working on reaching peace agreements. Although the Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Syria did not.

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