Israel and Lebanon to launch direct maritime border talks, report says

After years of on-and-off negotiations, Israel and Lebanon have reportedly agreed to launch high-level, direct talks aimed at demarcating a maritime border.

The talks will take place immediately following the Sukkot holiday, which ends on October 10, and will be held at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, according to a Friday Channel 12 report.

The issue of the shared maritime border is sensitive, mainly because of a dispute over coastal drilling rights.

The breakthrough allowing for next month’s summit was achieved during a recent visit to the region by Assistant US Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, the network said.

A senior US official will be brokering the maritime talks, the report said.

Schenker has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut in recent weeks in an effort to succeed in reaching an agreement where previous administrations have failed.

The US State Department declined a request for comment.

The Israeli side of the maritime talks will be led by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Channel 12 said, without specifying whether he will be making the trip to Lebanon himself. The Lebanese negotiating team will be led by Shiite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in coordination with President Michel Aoun’s office.

David Schenker, US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, in Beirut, Lebanon, on September 9, 2019. (Hussein Malla/AP)

No agreement was reached to allow for similar direct talks to demarcate Israel’s land border with Lebanon, but added if an agreement is reached regarding the maritime border, it will allow for the acceleration of natural gas drilling in the economic waters of both countries, the report said.

The network also speculated that such high-level talks “almost certainly” required the tacit approval of the Hezbollah terror group, which is based in southern Lebanon.

Axios previously reported that Washington had renewed efforts to launch direct negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over their disputed maritime border, and hoped to reach a breakthrough before November’s US election.

Israeli officials told the website that the administration decided to make a new push for progress in the wake of the Beirut port explosion and amid Lebanon’s economic and civil crisis.

Lebanon in 2018 signed its first contract to drill for oil and gas off its coast, including a block disputed by Israel, with which it has fought several wars. Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war.

The Israeli officials cited by the report said one of the last issues of disagreement was who would mediate the talks, with Lebanon seeking mediation by both the US and UN, while Israel wants the UN to act as host only, with no active role.

Schenker told Lebanese journalists earlier this month that “incremental progress” was being made, and later told a Brookings Institute video conference that “the sticking point is… absurd.”

It is not known whether he was referring to the issue of mediation, as reported by Axios.

Schenker also said of Lebanon’s incentive: “We’re talking about free money for a state that is in a financial crisis.”

A view of the Leviathan natural gas gas processing rig from Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, January 1, 2020. (Flash90)

But an Israeli official who spoke to the news site said: “There is progress. We see willingness on the Lebanese side to move and settle this dispute. We are ready to start talks immediately and we hope it can happen before the end of the year.”

The Israeli government in May 2019 said it had agreed to enter US-mediated talks with Lebanon to resolve the maritime border dispute. However, pressure from Hezbollah was reported to have caused Beirut to back out.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean for oil and gas with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Lebanon in April said initial drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves.

Exploration of Block 9 has not started and is much more controversial as Israel also claims ownership over part of it.

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