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Second round of Lebanon-Israel border talks starts in Naqura |

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 are 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.

The two sides held their first round of talks on October 14 and are expected to hold another round on Thursday, the statement said.

Turning 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 as 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.

“Maximalist approach”

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.

A base for UN peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, October 28. REUTERS
A base for UN peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, October 28. (REUTERS)

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.

Faint hopes

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.”

Lebanon Israel border map

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.

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