Delegations from Beirut and Tel Aviv have commenced the opening round of indirect negotiations on the demarcation of the disputed maritime border between the two countries and related issues. After brief discussions, the delegations agreed to meet again on 28 October.
The two sides met briefly for negotiations at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese city of Naqoura on Wednesday.
The negotiations are being hosted by the UN and mediated by the US.
The four-member Lebanese team is headed by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Lebanese Army for Operations Brigadier General Pilot Bassam Yassin, while the six-member Israeli delegation is led by the director general of the energy ministry.
According to a statement by the Lebanese army, Beirut’s delegation expressed hope during the session that the dispute with Israel would be settled within a “reasonable time.”
The talks mark a “first step in the thousand-mile march towards the demarcation” of Lebanon’s maritime frontier, he said. “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 reasonable time.”
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri had previously announced a framework agreement for the conduct of negotiations with Israel to resolve the maritime and land borders, related to the temporary border demarcation of the April 1996 ceasefire understanding with Israel and UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
Berri further argued that an agreement on the maritime boundary would help Lebanon economically.
Earlier on Wednesday, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Amal movements expressed their opposition to the composition of their country’s delegation.
Hezbollah and Amal released a joint statement, calling for an immediate change to the members of Lebanon’s delegation as it includes two civilians.
The statement argues that the inclusion of civilians in the Lebanese delegation contravenes the framework agreement, which stipulates that only military officers will attend meetings on the demarcation of the border between Lebanon and Israel.
Hezbollah and Amal “announce their explicit rejection of what happened and consider that it deviates from the framework agreement, harms Lebanon’s stance and supreme interests, transgresses all the nation’s strengths, deals a major blow to its role, resistance and Arab position, and represents a surrender to the Israeli logic which aims at reaching any form of normalization.”
Lebanese officials have reiterated that the limited border talks are completely separate from and do not signify a step towards “normalization” or “reconciliation” with Israel. LINK
The disputed area in the Mediterranean Sea covers approximately 860 square kilometres, and is thought to be rich in oil and gas.
Lebanon fought two wars against Israel in 2000 and 2006. The battleground contribution by the Hezbollah resistance movement proved to be a decisive factor, forcing the invading Israeli military forces to retreat on both occasions.
Lebanon and Israel have been in a state of war since 1967 when Israel invaded and occupied a border area the Lebanese refer to as Shebaa Farms.
The day before the negotiations were due to commence, Lebanon’s official National News Agency carried a statement issued by the Army which reported an incursion on Monday by an Israeli warship into the maritime area claimed by Lebanon, adjacent to the Ras al-Naqoura region in southern Lebanon.
According to the Army, the incident involved an Israeli navy vessel which entered several hundred metres into Lebanese territorial waters on Monday, before targeting a Lebanese fishing boat.
The Army said it was investigating the issue along with UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force that has been deployed in Lebanon since the end of the 2006 war. LINK
The initiation of negotiations has prompted mixed reactions in Lebanon, which is at a clear disadvantage given the social, economic and political turmoil that has overtaken the country and the devastation caused by the massive explosion at Beirut’s main port in August.
Also on Wednesday, President Michel Aoun once again postponed the pending parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister. The consultations, which were due to commence on Thursday, are now scheduled for October 22.
A statement issued by the Presidency said Aoun took the decision “at the request of some parliamentary blocs, after difficulties emerged.” LINK
It is however far from certain that anything will be resolved during the additional week.
Another factor that seems to be pushing the accelerated effort to reach an agreement is the pending elections in the US.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, has argued that a Lebanese-Israeli agreement on maritime border demarcation is the “best option for Lebanon so that it could start work in Block 9.”
But he questioned the timing, saying it was likely scheduled by the Trump administration ahead of presidential elections so it can chalk up a “new foreign policy accomplishment.” LINK
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