Lebanese team refuses to talk to Israelis in maritime border negotiations

The Lebanese side's statements about the meeting emphasized that they are "indirect" and "technical."

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)
Lebanon’s representatives would not speak directly to the Israeli delegation in the first meeting for negotiations about the border between the countries’ exclusive economic zones on Wednesday, according to the Lebanese side.
The meeting lasted about an hour and a half. The Israeli and Lebanese teams met in tents at the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in Naqoura, which is near the border with Israel, with US Ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher mediating.
The US State Department said: “During this initial meeting, the representatives held productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month.”
The Energy Ministry said the sides discussed the format of the negotiations and set a schedule for future meetings, saying the next one will be in the coming weeks. The Lebanese delegation said the next negotiation meeting will take place on October 28, and they will continue every two weeks.

No photos were released from the meeting, and Lebanese media reported their side refused to take pictures with the Israeli delegation.
The Lebanese side’s statements about the meeting emphasized that they are “indirect” and “technical.”
Hezbollah TV channel Al-Manar explained how the indirect negotiations worked, saying the Lebanese delegation did not speak to the Israelis. Their translator would talk to the UN and American delegation, which would then pass the messages on to the Israeli delegation, and vice versa.
The Energy Ministry would not comment on the format of the talks, though a senior ministry source expressed apparently misplaced optimism earlier this week that once the delegations meet in person, they would be able to talk directly.
The night before the talks began, Hezbollah and Amal, Lebanon’s other major Shi’ite party, demanded that the Lebanese delegation include only military officials, and the government pulled a Foreign Ministry official from the team. The terrorist organization has faced criticism at home that the negotiations signal a weakening in its “resistance” to Israel.
Lebanese Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Brig.-Gen. Bassam Yassin, head of the Lebanese delegation, called the meeting “a first step in a journey of a thousand miles.
“We are looking forward to the negotiation wheel running at a pace that enables us to complete this file within a reasonable time,” Yassin said, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
The Lebanese Army tweeted that the negotiations are in “supreme interest of our country” and meant “to establish national sovereignty over the Lebanese borders and enable Lebanon to invest its natural resources of oil and gas within its exclusive economic zone that is preserved by international law.”
In Israel, demonstrators from Women Wage Peace held signs that said “Yesterday the Emirates, Today Lebanon, Tomorrow the Palestinians,” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, as the Israeli negotiators, led by Energy Ministry director-general Udi Adiri and including representatives from the National Security Council and Foreign Ministry, drove past the Rosh Hanikra border to nearby Naqoura, the site of UNIFIL’s offices on the other side of the border with Lebanon.

Though the protesters put Lebanon, the Palestinians and the United Arab Emirates in the same category, the talks in Naqoura are not about normalization or peace, and the officials present were authorized only to discuss the technical matter of the border between the countries’ exclusive economic zones.

Neither side is able to develop gas reservoirs in the disputed area, which is a triangle shape starting from the border on the Mediterranean Sea. The dispute is over up to 15 km. in the widest part, and averaging five to six km. The area would be about 2% of Israel’s economic waters.

As such, the Energy Ministry has taken the lead on resolving the dispute, and is approaching it as an economic issue.
The ministry source explained this week that every year that has passed has meant a loss of billions of dollars for each side. Lebanon, however, has more to gain, since it imports billions of dollars of oil, diesel and liquid gas each year, while Israel no longer imports energy sources and uses its own natural gas, and even exports some.
The US has tried to bring Israel and Lebanon to the negotiating table for the past decade, and more actively in the past three years.
American and Lebanese officials have said land disputes between Jerusalem and Beirut will be handled in a different channel, but the Energy Ministry source said that there is no final agreement on that front yet. Israel wants to separate the two issues, in order to give the maritime border negotiations a chance to succeed.
Negotiations over the Blue Line, as the border with Lebanon is known, would likely focus on Mount Dov, an area of the Golan Heights at the intersection of the Lebanese-Syrian border. Lebanon and Syria had a dispute over the territory. Israel took control of the Golan Heights, including Mount Dov, in 1967, and applied sovereignty over the area in 1981.
When Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, the UN certified the departure, but Hezbollah and others in Lebanon consider Israel to be occupying Mount Dov, which they call Shaba Farms.
According to Jewish and Muslim tradition, Mount Dov is where Abraham made the Covenant of the Pieces with God.