BEIRUT / JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon and Israel, still formally at war after decades of conflict, on Wednesday over a long-running dispute over their maritime border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters Launch talks on Wednesday to address.
The US-mediated talks by Washington followed three years of diplomacy and were announced weeks after Lebanon increased pressure on Iran-backed Hezbollah’s allies.
They also come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under US-brocade deals that pitted some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.
Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of making peace with its long-time enemy. The Israeli Energy Minister also said that expectations should be realistic.
“We are not talking about negotiations for peace and normalization, but rather an attempt to resolve a technical, economic dispute that has been delaying the development of offshore natural resources for over 10 years,” Minister Yuval Steinitz Tweeted.
Nevertheless, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the decision to move forward, calling the talks historic, and said Washington looked forward to separate talks later on disagreements over the land border.
Wednesday’s meeting will be conducted by UNIFIL, a UN peacekeeping force that has monitored the land border since Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, ending 22 years of occupation.
A Lebanese security source says the two sides will meet in the same room at UNIFIL’s base in South Lebanon, but will direct their negotiations through an intermediary.
Disagreements on the maritime border discouraged the discovery of oil and gas near the disputed line.
This could be a minor irritation for Israel, which already pumps gas from large offshore areas. For Lebanon, yet to find commercial reserves in its own waters, the issue is more pressing.
Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since the 1975–1990 civil war. The financial meltdown has been mitigated by the COVID-19 epidemic and nearly 200 people were killed in an August blast that devastated the Swath of Beirut.
Struggling to form a new government to deal with several crises, some Lebanese politicians also argued this week over the formation of their negotiating team, complaining with the Prime Minister’s Office that it was not consulted by the president .
Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said, “It will be far more fierce than you might think of a Lebanese negotiator.”
Hezbollah’s political ally, the Amal Party, has also come under pressure. Last month, the United States approved the top ally of Amal leader Nabih Berry, a recognized terrorist organization, to enable corruption and financially Hizbollah.
The US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, who landed in Beirut on Tuesday, said more restrictions remained in play.
For Hezbollah and Amal, the decision to begin border talks is “a strategic decision to neutralize tensions before the US election and the possibility of sanctions before the US elections”, said Mohanad Haig Ali, a partner at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Berry, a Shia leader who is leading the border file, denies being pushed into negotiations.
In 2018 Beirut licensed a group of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatec for the discovery of long-closed offshore energy in two blocks. One of them has disputed water.
(Editing by Ellen Francis and Dominic Evans in Beirut, and Ari Rabinovich, William McLean and Gareth Jones in Jerusalem)