First Israeli-Lebanese talks in 30 years to be held on maritime dispute

Israel's energy minister confirmed that two sides would hold US-mediated talks.

Israel-Lebanon border (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel-Lebanon border
For the first time in 30 years, Israel and Lebanon will hold direct negotiations to try to resolve their maritime border dispute, officials for both sides and the United States said Thursday.
The talks between the two neighboring states, which are at war and have no diplomatic ties, will be mediated by the US and hosted by the United Nations.
Those negotiations, over an 860-square-kilometer area in the Eastern Mediterranean near Israel’s natural-gas fields, are scheduled to begin the week of October 12 at the UN base in Naqoura, near the country’s border with Israel at Rosh Hanikra.
“The United States looks forward to commencement of the maritime boundary discussions soon, to be held in Naqoura, Lebanon, under the UN flag and hosted by the staff from the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL),” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
News of the pending negotiations is viewed as the latest Middle East success for the Trump administration with regard to Israel’s ties with its neighbors. It follows two US-brokered normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“Today’s announcement is a vital step forward that serves the interests of Lebanon and Israel, of the region, and of the United States,” Pompeo said. “Both countries requested that the United States participate as mediator and facilitator in the maritime discussions,” he added.
“This historic agreement between the two parties was brokered by the United States and is the result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement by Ambassador David Satterfield and Assistant Secretary [of State for Near East Affairs] David Schenker,” Pompeo said.
“The United States also looks forward to separate expert-level talks to define unresolved issues related to the Blue Line [the Israel-Lebanon land border], which offer the promise of another positive step for regional stability,” he said.
Both Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who will represent Israel at the talks, thanked the US, noting that such a breakthrough would not have come about without its efforts.
“We look forward to the opening of direct negotiations in the near future,” Steinitz said. “Our objective is to end the dispute over the economic maritime demarcation of the waters between Israel and Lebanon in order to help develop natural resources for the benefit of all peoples in the region.”
The final breakthrough in the process came in the aftermath of a recent visit to the region by Schenker, he said. Initial news of the talks was reported by the media last week, including by The Jerusalem Post.
In Lebanon, politicians were more cautious.
“This is a framework agreement, not a final one,” Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told reporters, adding that Washington would push for an agreement as soon as possible. Berri is a Hezbollah ally and an influential Shi’ite leader in charge of the border portfolio.
A Lebanese official source suggested Berri was prompted to make the announcement now because of the economic crisis and US sanctions imposed last month on his right-hand man, Ali Hassan Khalil.
A Western diplomat echoed this, but Berri denied being swayed. “I, Berri, cannot be softened by force,” he told reporters.
The announcement of the talks came as Lebanon faces its worst crisis since the 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.
Resolution of the dispute would have positive economic benefits for Lebanon. In 2018, Beirut licensed a group made up of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out Lebanon’s first offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them, Block 9, covers a stretch disputed by Israel.
The talks have not provided sanctions relief for Lebanese officials with links to Hezbollah or those engaged in corruption, Schenker told reporters. Further sanctions remained in play even after Israel and Lebanon announced earlier on Thursday that they had agreed to a framework for the coming negotiations, he said.
“We note that this is a framework to begin discussions,” Schenker said. “It is not the actual agreement upon delineation of the maritime boundary or upon the sharing of potential resources that will be the subject of the discussions that will take place between the two sides.”
“But that said, we encourage both sides to take advantage of this opportunity to reach a mutually beneficial agreement,” he said.
Schenker will represent the US in the first round of talks.
Reuters contributed to this report.