At the beginning of October 2020, Lebanon and Israel agreed to hold talks over disputed maritime borders, even though the two countries theoretically do not maintain diplomatic ties. Talks debuted at the middle of the month, with a second-round held towards the end of the month, sponsored by the UN and mediated by the US. As such, the first round was held on October 14th, followed by the second on October 28th.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. As a result, they each claim about 860 square kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea, known as Block 9, rich in oil and gas, as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
Therefore, the planned talks will be the first negotiations between the two states on a civilian matter in 30 years, and the US could be set to mediate further negotiations over the UN-demarcated Blue Line, the border which separates Lebanon and Israel, in the near future. The US has been mediating the issue for around a decade, but the breakthrough was reached over an agreement on a framework for mediated talks only at the beginning of October.
The two countries affirm that the indirect discussions are purely technical and not a sign of any soft political normalization of ties, the parties addressing each other through the UN and the US officials present at the meeting.
Moreover, the talks come against the backdrop of Lebanon’s economic crisis, the worst in its modern history, and following a wave of US sanctions that recently included two influential former cabinet ministers allied with the armed Hezbollah group. Also, Lebanon had begun offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, after signing its first contract in February 2018 with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI, and Novatek. Lebanon divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocks, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
However, Israel already developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighboring Egypt and Jordan. “We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalization or some kind of peace process,” a senior official with Israel’s energy ministry said. “Our aim is very strict and limited and therefore hopefully achievable,” he added.
The negotiations are also meant to tackle the countries’ land border. A military source told Arab News: “The Lebanese side considers that Israel, through the borderline it drew for itself, is eating into huge areas of Lebanese economic waters”. To support their claims, the Lebanese delegation produced maps and documents of the disputed waters.
In indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel in 2012, US diplomat Frederick Hoff proposed “a middle line for the maritime borders, whereby Lebanon would get 58 percent of the disputed area and Israel would be given the remaining 42 percent, which translates to 500 square kilometers for Lebanon and 300 square kilometers for Israel.”
The US’ envoy to the Middle East, Assistant Secretary David Schenker, arrived in Lebanon on October 12th to “facilitate the opening session of negotiations”, according to a State Department statement. Washington’s ambassador to Algeria, John Desrocher, serves as the US mediator for the duration of the talks. “As announced on October 1, the framework agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese ad Israeli citizens alike,” the statement added.
On the eve of the October 14th meeting (first round of discussions), Lebanese and Israeli officials met to discuss a framework to resolve the conflict through the implementation of UN Resolution 1701. UNIFIL Commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col praised the “constructive role that both parties played in calming tensions along the Blue Line” and stressed the necessity of “taking proactive measures and making a change in the prevailing dynamics regarding tension and escalation.”
During the first round of discussion, on October 14th, Lebanon and Israel held a short opening round of indirect talks over their disputed maritime border on Wednesday, breaking up after an hour, with Lebanese state media reporting a second round to be held on October 28th.
The opening round of discussions was held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. Israel said that there will be “direct negotiations”, something Lebanese officials have denied.
Emphasizing the technical nature of the talks, the Israeli and Lebanese delegations were both composed of professionals, not politicians. The Israeli team was headed by the Energy Ministry Director-General Udi Adiri. Also, on the Israeli team were Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz’ chief of staff Mor Halutz, Steinitz’ international adviser Aviv Ayash, deputy national security adviser Reuven Azar, Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Alon Bar, and Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, head of the IDF’s Strategic Division.
Lebanon’s four-member delegation was led by Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin and included Col. Mazen Basbous, Lebanese oil official Wissam Chbat and border control expert Najib Massihi. However, Hezbollah and its ally Amal criticized the delegation representing Lebanon at the talks. A statement from Lebanon’s two main Shia parties, coming just hours before the meeting was due to start, called for reform of the negotiating team which they said must include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians. Before the meeting, on October 12th, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon” and argued that Israel was the real “beneficiary”.
Still, Israeli officials downplayed the importance of these negotiations, stressing they should by no means be taken as the beginning of a normalization process similar to that which took place with the UAE or Bahrain. A senior Israeli Energy Ministry source was quoted as saying, “We have a pragmatic, realistic attitude. We have a defined goal to solve the disagreement and set a border for our economic waters. … The goal is very limited and clear.” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who has been involved in the talks, said, “We must have realistic expectations about negotiations with Lebanon. It does not talk for peace and normalization. Rather, it’s an attempt to solve a technical-economic dispute that for 10 years has delayed the development of natural resources in the sea for the benefit of the nations of the region.”
Following the first round of talks, Lebanon’s delegation head said he hopes the talks will resolve the maritime border dispute within a “reasonable time”. The talks mark a “first step in the thousand-mile march towards the demarcation” of the maritime frontier, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin was quoted as saying in a statement issued after the session. “Based on the higher interests of our country, we are looking to achieve a pace of negotiations that would allow us to conclude this dossier within a reasonable time.”
Lebanon’s outgoing Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi said Lebanese negotiators are “more fierce than they expect because we have nothing to lose”. He added that if Lebanon’s economy collapses, “there is no interest in making concessions”.
After the first round of discussions, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Naqoura, said that “the US has been engaged in intense diplomacy over recent years to get these two sides to the negotiating table”. “It’s significant because this is the first time since 1990 that the Israelis and the Lebanese are talking about the civilian matter,” she said. “Both sides have been saying that these talks are not about peace, normalizing ties, or recognizing each other. But they are about a technical issue. Whether or not that is possible that is another question. Both sides have commercial interests at stake. Lebanon more than Israel, because Israel has already started to drill and explore its waters but Lebanon has not.”
Lebanese negotiators are set to adopt a maximalist stance when indirect talks to delineate the maritime border with Israel restarts on October 28th – a game-changer position that brings what is currently an Israeli gas field into disputed territory.
Reactions to the first round of discussions
After the first round, the UN Secretary-General welcomed the launch of ground-breaking discussions over the disputed maritime border between Lebanon and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean, following a framework agreement between the two nations at the beginning of the month. “The UN through its representatives is fully committed to supporting the parties in the discussions, as requested by them, as they work towards a final agreed outcome”, said a statement released by the Spokesperson for UN chief António Guterres, after the reportedly hour-long initial meeting in the Lebanese town of Naqoura.
Described as an initial meeting, the joint US and UN statement said that the representatives held “productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month”.
After the October 14th talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed hope that the negotiations would lead to some sort of dialogue on a political level and subsequently also to peace. Addressing the Knesset on the occasion of the Israeli parliament’s approval of normalization with the United Arab Emirates, Netanyahu called on the Lebanese government “to continue these talks and maybe this will mark the first step toward the achievement of peace.’’
The second round of talks
On Wednesday, October 28th, Israel and Lebanon held a second round of US-mediated talks over their disputed sea border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, though sources said gaps between the sides remain large. Delegations from the two countries reconvened at the UN peacekeeper base to try to reach an agreement over their maritime border. In terms of material proofs, the sides presented contrasting maps outlining proposed borders that actually increased the size of the disputed area, sources said.
On one hand, the Lebanese proposal, which had been carried by local media for days prior to the talks, extended farther south than the border Lebanon had years before presented to the UN, according to a Lebanese security source.
On the other hand, the Israeli team presented its own map that pushed the boundary farther north than Israel’s original position, according to a source familiar with what was discussed.
Local news reports described the meeting as “serious” as the two sides got down to technicalities and the Lebanese delegation pushed for an additional 1,430 square kilometers to be included in Lebanese territory.
However, the discussions are not yet finished.
Possible results of the talks
Some analysts say successful talks could lead to oil and gas discoveries helping to revive Lebanon’s devastated economy.
Energy experts and other analysts, like Dania Koleilat Khatib of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, say that even if commercial quantities of gas or oil were discovered, it could take years before Lebanon would benefit from it financially. “By the time you demarcate, you extract, it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes you years,” Khatib said. “By then, is gas going to be useful in 10 years? They are wishing that if we can demarcate, then we can get some deal. It’s for public consumption: we are a gas-producing nation. I don’t think it will immediately bring money to the country.”
Speaking to Arab News, Mohanad Hage Ali of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center said: “Negotiating with Israel has important political and security results as it will lead to reducing current tensions.”
Some analysts, including Khatib, tell VOA that if sea border talks lead to others resolving the land border, then those negotiations might undermine the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s justification for holding on to its weapons. “We still have contested land. The Israelis are still in Shebaa Farms in the south,” she said. “But as long as Israel is in Shebaa, Hezbollah will always claim that Lebanon is under occupation and this will give justification for its arms. When Israel leaves Shebaa, Hezbollah doesn’t have any excuse to keep arms.”
This article was edited using data from the following websites: www.theowp.org, www.middleeastmonitor.com, www.al-monitor.com, www.news.un.org, www.israelhayom.com, www.english.aawsat.com, www.voanews.com, www.arabnews.com, www.naharnet.com, www.euronews.com, www.aljazeera.com, and www.dailystar.com.lb.