Lebanon and Israel began indirect talks Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties.
The U.S. has been mediating the issue for about a decade, but only earlier this month a breakthrough was reached on an agreement on a framework for U.S.-mediated talks.
The development comes against the backdrop of Lebanon’s spiraling economic crisis, the worst in its modern history, and following a wave of U.S. sanctions that recently included two influential former cabinet ministers allied with the militant Hezbollah group. Israel, the United States, as well as some other Western and Arab countries consider the Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome the crisis and pay back its massive debt that stands at 170 per cent of the GDP, making it one of the highest in the world.
The U.S.-mediated talks began at a UN post along the border known as Ras Naqoura on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. The Lebanese delegation will speak through UN and U.S. officials to the Israelis.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
“We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalization or some kind of peace process,” a senior official with Israel’s energy ministry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“Our aim is very strict and limited and therefore hopefully achievable,” he added.
Lebanon’s outgoing Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi said Lebanese negotiators will be “more fierce than they expect because we have nothing to lose.” He added that if Lebanon’s economy collapses, “there is no interest in making concessions.”
It is unclear how long the talks will last but Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months. Lebanon has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.