Hezbollah preventing start of maritime border negotiations

Group says US-Israel-Iran tension cause of delay • Satterfield leaves position

An Israeli naval vessel sails in the Mediterranean sea near the border with Lebanon, as Mount Carmel and the Israeli city of Haifa are seen in the background December 16, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An Israeli naval vessel sails in the Mediterranean sea near the border with Lebanon, as Mount Carmel and the Israeli city of Haifa are seen in the background December 16, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Internal Lebanese struggles are apparently holding up negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over demarcating their maritime border, with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri pushing for the talks to begin, but facing resistance from Hezbollah.
Lebanese website Naharnet reported earlier this week that France and the US expressed regret that efforts to kick-start the talks have been frozen.
The report quoted sources involved in the negotiations as saying “the Lebanese side, specifically Hezbollah, has decided to stop the negotiations due to an Iranian-Syrian intervention linked to the new tension between America, Israel and Iran.”
Senior US diplomat David Satterfield, who for months has been trying to get the two sides to discuss the issue, became Washington’s envoy to Turkey last Wednesday. It is unclear whether he will continue working on this issue or pass it on to his replacement for assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Schenker.
The State Department would not say whether or when Schenker – who assumed his position a month ago – would visit the region. Over the last few months, Satterfield has shuttled repeatedly between Israel and Lebanon.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in mid-June that the talks would begin in a month, but there is no indication that the start of the talks is anywhere on the horizon. Steinitz’s office also would not comment on the issue.
During a radio interview in the beginning of July, Steinitz said that while the Lebanese want to develop their natural resources, the country is facing “internal pressure,” and is “under the sway of fear of Hezbollah.”
On Monday, Hariri was quoted in Lebanese media as saying that he is “exerting strenuous efforts to launch negotiations” to demarcate the border, and that “we will eventually have to take decisions over this issue in the cabinet.”
Israel and Lebanon – who have technically been at a state of war since 1948 – have long disagreed on their maritime border in the Eastern Mediterranean, an issue that became increasingly significant in recent years after the discovery of large natural gas fields in the area.
According to Israeli officials, Hariri and Druze and Christian parties are interested in settling the border dispute because the exploration of natural gas off the coast would add millions to the Lebanese treasury, which is in dire need of replenishing. Hezbollah and its patron Iran have other interests, however, and are placing obstacles in the way.
In dispute is an 860 sq. km. triangle, which includes several blocks for drilling that Lebanon put up for bidding two years ago. Last year Beirut signed its first contract to drill in the blocks. A consortium of energy giants – Total, Eni and Novatek – are expected to begin work in December, eventually drilling in a disputed block as well.
Satterfield was reportedly able to bridge a number of sticking points that were keeping the talks from getting started, including their duration – Israel favored six months and Lebanon was open ended – and under whose mediation.
Lebanon has previously balked at bilateral negotiations with Israel, which is why the US will serve as a mediator and why the talks are expected to take place at the UNIFIL offices in Nakura, giving the UN some standing in the discussions as well.
As far as duration is concerned, the US has put forward a compromise solution whereby the talks will not have a firm deadline, but Washington – in announcing the talks – will advocate for concluding within six months.
An additional and more complicated stalling factor stems from the Lebanese demand that the talks – which are expected to be indirect in that Lebanese and Israeli officials will not talk directly to each other but rather through a US mediator – deal not only with the maritime border, but also the land border as well.
Lebanon claims that when Israel withdrew from the country in 2000 – a withdrawal certified as complete by the UN Security Council at the time – some 11 points along the border from Rosh Hanikra to Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) need to be returned to Lebanon. Beirut is determined to address this in the negotiations, while Israel is refusing to discuss the matter.