Lebanon and Israel, technically warring neighbors, on Thursday announced UN-mediated talks over their disputed maritime borders, an agreement the United States called “historic”.
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Deputy US Secretary of State for the Middle East David Schenker said the talks would begin the week of October 12.
The demarcation of these maritime borders is linked to hydrocarbon exploration projects in the eastern Mediterranean.
“On the issue of maritime borders, meetings will be held continuously at the UN headquarters in Naqoura,” a town bordering Israel, Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri said at a press conference in Beirut.
They will take place “under the auspices of the office of the UN special coordinator for Lebanon,” he added. Israel and Lebanon “have called on the United States to play the role of mediator and facilitator in the delimitation of maritime borders, and the United States is ready for it. “
The deal is “the result of almost three years of intense diplomatic effort” on the part of Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, calling it “historic.”
The last bilateral negotiations between Israel and Lebanon headed by Washington took place in 1983, in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. They had resulted in an agreement to start peace talks, but it was repealed after its rejection by several Lebanese parties.
The maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon concerns an area of 860 km2. In 2018, Lebanon signed its first oil exploration contract for two offshore blocks (4 and 9) with a consortium led by the French group Total and including the Italian ENI and the Russian Novotek. Part of Block 9 is in a disputed maritime area with Israel.
Negotiations are also due to cover the disputed territories along the Blue Line, a border drawn by the UN after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000, according to Berri.
They aim to reach an agreement “on the land border in connection with the Blue Line”, he said.
Mr Schenker said on Thursday that land borders would be the subject of separate discussions.
“We welcome (…) the new steps taken by the parties to resume discussions at expert level on the unresolved points of the Blue Line with the aim also of reaching an agreement on the issue,” he said. -he says.
But “this is a separate component and (…) discussions that will have to be conducted between the Israelis, the Lebanese and UNIFIL”, the UN interim force for Lebanon, underlined the American official. .
The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis confirmed “the discussions on the delimitation of the maritime border”, adding that “a separate series of talks, on the Blue Line, will also take place”.
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazy thanked “Mike Pompeo and his team for their dedicated efforts” on Thursday.
For years, Washington shuttled between the two countries to initiate talks.
” Necessary “
A resolution of the border dispute is vital for Lebanon, lagging behind in the exploration of its offshore resources and mired for a year in its worst economic crisis.
“The delimitation of (maritime) borders is necessary because it will first facilitate work in block 9 and may arouse the interest of international companies in block 8, more than half of which is in the disputed area”, explains Laury Haytayan, an expert on oil management in the Middle East.
The announcement of these negotiations comes as Lebanon, in default since March, is paralyzed by a political deadlock after the failure to form a new government awaited by the international community which is demanding reforms to unblock all financial aid.
The country’s dire socio-economic situation was compounded by the devastating explosion of August 4, for which a large part of the population blames a ruling class, almost unchanged for decades and denounced as incompetent and corrupt.
Israel and Lebanon are technically at war and their common border remains the scene of sporadic incidents.
On July 27, heavy exchanges of fire at the border recalled, in the story of a day, the specter of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, an armed movement close to Iran and a dominant political force in Lebanon.