BEIRUT –Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war and with no diplomatic ties, launched a second round of maritime border talks Wednesday under UN and US auspices to allow for offshore energy exploration.
The talks were held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqura, guarded by army roadblocks and with UN helicopters circling above.
Delegations from the long-time foes reconvened to “assess the possibility of reaching an agreement on demarcating the maritime border … in a manner enabling the cultivation of natural resources in the area,” Israel’s energy ministry said.
“Today’s session is the first technical session,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert who said she expected “detailed discussions on demarcation.”
Talks later wrapped up and were set to resume at 10am (0800 GMT) Thursday, the state-run National News Agency reported.
A Lebanese source familiar with negotiations said that the first round of technical talks were “positive.”
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 (550 square miles) to be included in Lebanese territory.
The English-language Daily Star reported that the Lebanese side was adopting a “maximalist stance.” It said Lebanon was pushing for the additional square kilometres to be included in Lebanese territory on top of the already disputed 860 square kilometre- (330 square mile-) area of the Mediterranean Sea which each side claims as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
The local Al-Jadeed station called the talks serious and “very heated,” adding that the Lebanese delegation’s ceiling is the highest it has been and that there are “fundamental disputes on the starting point.”
After years of quiet US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel this month said they had agreed to begin the negotiations in what Washington hailed a “historic” agreement.
The announcement came weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Sudan also announced last Friday it has agreed to normalise with Israel.
Lebanon — which last saw military clashes with Israel in 2006 — insists that the negotiations are purely technical and don’t involve any soft political normalisation with Israel.
“Today’s session is the first technical session,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert. “Detailed discussions on demarcation should begin.”
Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press on with its offshore quest for oil and gas.
The search for hydrocarbons has already heightened tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean following repeated Turkish exploration and drilling operations in waters claimed by both Cyprus and Greece.
An Israeli government statement on Tuesday said its aim was to “examine the possibility of reaching an agreement … between the countries in a way that will enable the development of natural resources in the region.”
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.
Exploration of one of the blocks is more controversial as part of it is located in an 860-square-kilometre (330-square-mile) area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon.
Lebanon is expected to adopt a “maximalist approach” to maritime border negotiations, said Haytayan.
The energy expert explained that Lebanese negotiators will likely try to claim areas that fall beyond the disputed 860 square kilometres zone, including the Karish gas field currently operated by Israel, she said.
“We have to wait to see the reaction of the Israelis,” she said.
While the US-brokered talks look at the maritime border, a UNIFIL-sponsored track is also due to address outstanding land border disputes.
“We have a unique opportunity to make substantial progress on contentious issues along” the border, UNIFIL head Major General Stefano Del Col said in a statement on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz released a statement saying that Wednesday’s meeting would be attended by American diplomat and mediator John Desrocher.
He said the Israeli delegation would examine the possibility of reaching an agreement on the determination of the maritime border between the countries in a way that will enable the development of natural resources in the region.
On Wednesday, his office said the Israeli team updated Steinitz, who instructed them to continue talks Thursday.
The meetings have raised faint hopes for a thaw between the neighbours who have repeatedly clashed on the battlefield.
The Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, said on Tuesday he was “hearing positive voices coming out of Lebanon, who are even talking about peace with Israel.”
Gantz, speaking during a tour of northern Israel, did not specify which Lebanese comments he was referring to.
But they came a day after Claudine Aoun, daughter of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, told Al Jadeed TV that peace with Israel would be conceivable if outstanding issues were resolved.
“We have the maritime border dispute, the issue of Palestinian refugees, and another topic which is more important, which is the issue of natural resources: water, oil and natural gas which Lebanon is depending on to advance its economy,” she said.
When asked directly if she would object to a peace treaty with Israel, she responded: “Why would I object?”
“Are we supposed to stay in a state of war? … I don’t have doctrinal differences with anyone … I have political differences.”
The Iran-backed armed movement Hezbollah, a major force in Lebanese politics, has criticised the maritime talks because they included Lebanese civilian negotiators, lending credence to accusations of implicit normalisation intent. Confrontation with Israel is the single most important element of Hezbollah’s self-legitimising narrative.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006, and both sides still exchange sporadic cross-border fire.
Even as the maritime talks proceed, Israel has been conducting a large-scale military exercise along its northern border with Lebanon this week simulating war with Hezbollah.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the exercise and met with top military commanders Wednesday in northern Israel.
“Even during the coronavirus, our enemies are not stagnant and neither are we. In this exercise I have been impressed by the vast improvement in the IDF’s offensive capabilities and Hezbollah and Lebanon would do well to take this into account,” he said.
“Whoever attacks us will meet firepower and a steel fist that will destroy any enemy.”