Israel-Lebanon maritime talks productive, mediators say

SARAH EL DEEB
·4 min read
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, a helicopter flies over a base of the U.N. peacekeeping force, in the southern town of Naqoura, Lebanon. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, Lebanon and Israel held a second round of U.S.-mediated talks over their disputed maritime border and agreed on a third meeting. The U.S.-mediated talks are being held in a tent at the U.N. post along the border known as Ras Naqoura, on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, a helicopter flies over a base of the U.N. peacekeeping force, in the southern town of Naqoura, Lebanon. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, Lebanon and Israel held a second round of U.S.-mediated talks over their disputed maritime border and agreed on a third meeting. The U.S.-mediated talks are being held in a tent at the U.N. post along the border known as Ras Naqoura, on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — Talks between Israel and Lebanon over disputed maritime borders were productive and are expected to resume next month, the U.S. and the United Nations said Thursday.

The U.S.- mediated indirect talks, hosted by the U.N. in a tent in a southern Lebanese border town, convened for a second straight day Thursday after their launch earlier this month.

The talks are the first non-security ones between the two countries, which are technically at war. Israel confirmed the talks are to reconvene next month. No date was set.

Lebanon’s official delegation, led by the army, had no immediate comment. After nearly four hours of talks Thursday, the delegation went to brief President Michel Aoun.

Lebanon brought new maps to the talks, pushing for what local media and experts called a “maximalist stance” aimed at rectifying previous positions that pushed for a smaller area to be part of the country's territorial waters.

“Building on progress from their October 14 meeting, on October 28 and 29 representatives from the governments of Israel and Lebanon held productive talks mediated by the United States and hosted by ​the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon,” a joint statement said. “The United States and UNSCOL remain hopeful that these negotiations will lead to a long-awaited resolution.”

Lebanese and Israeli officials have declined to comment on the secret, indirect talks. But Lebanese media, quoting informed officials, said the government is pushing for new maps to demarcate disputed maritime borders that involve potentially lucrative oil and gas deals.

The Lebanese delegation — a mix of army generals and professionals — offered a new map Wednesday that pushes for an additional 1,430 square kilometers (550 square miles).

This area is to be included in Lebanese territory on top of the already disputed 860 square kilometer- (330 square mile-) area of the Mediterranean Sea that each side claims is within their own exclusive economic zones, according to local media. The Lebanese military later said the talks are secret, and any leaks attributed to the team were not official.

An Israeli official informed about the negotiations said Thursday the Israeli delegation wouldn’t discuss Lebanon’s maximalist proposal, which effectively lays claim to parts of Israel’s Karish gas field.

The Israeli official said the negotiations should be on the lines previously submitted by the two countries to the U.N. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert, said members of the Lebanese delegation have been known to adopt the maximalist approach that sought to rectify Lebanon’s previous positions on where to draw the maritime border.

The new pitch is based on adopting the same starting line as that set in 1923 between British Mandate over Palestine and French Mandate over Lebanon as the demarcation line, instead of the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Lebanon and Israel. It is also including new areas, ignoring claims by Israel to reefs there.

With the new claim, Lebanon is aggressively seeking to change the starting approach to the talks, she said.

Thursday’s meeting included a lunch hosted by the United Nations in a tent on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, according to Lebanon's LBC TV station. It said there were no direct talks between the two delegations during the lunch. During the opening ceremony, the Lebanese delegation did not attend lunch and refused to appear in a joint photo with the Israeli team and the U.S. and U.N.

The talks are held amid tight security, including patrols by U.N. peacekeepers, Lebanese army patrols and Israeli navy ships.

Lebanon hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome a historic economic and financial crisis. The talks come amid heated U.S. elections, the results of which could impact the pace of the negotiations.

They also come against the backdrop of U.S. sanctions that recently included two influential former Cabinet ministers allied with the militant Hezbollah group. Israel, the United States and some other Western and Arab countries consider the Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organization. A Hezbollah ally, Lebanon's parliament speaker, is viewed as the guardian of the Lebanese negotiating position.

Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighboring Egypt and Jordan.

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Associated Press writers Mathew Lee in Washington and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed reporting.