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Lebanon, Israel in second round of maritime border talks

AFP/Naqura, Lebanon
Filed on October 28, 2020
A woman photographs Israeli soldiers as they stand behind a barricade close to a military base leading to the border crossing with Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra, northern Israel October 28, 2020.

(AMIR COHEN)

The talks, expected to last for two days, were being held at a base of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war and with no diplomatic ties, launched a second round of maritime border talks Wednesday under UN and US auspices to allow for offshore energy exploration.

The talks, expected to last for two days, were being held at a base of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqura, guarded by army roadblocks and with UN helicopters circling above.

After years of quiet US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel this month said they had agreed to begin the negotiations in what Washington hailed as a "historic" agreement.

The announcement came weeks after Bahrain and the UAE became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

Lebanon -- which last saw military clashes with Israel in 2006 -- insists that the negotiations are purely technical and don't involve any soft political normalisation with Israel.

"Today's session is the first technical session," said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert who said she expected "detailed discussions on demarcation".

Talks later wrapped up and were set to resume at 10 am (12pm UAE) Thursday, the state-run National News Agency reported.

A Lebanese source familiar with negotiations said that the first round of technical talks were "positive."

- 'Maximalist approach' -

Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press on with its offshore quest for oil and gas.

The search for hydrocarbons has already heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, following repeated Turkish exploration and drilling operations in waters claimed by both Cyprus and Greece.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Exploration of one of the blocks is more controversial, as part of it is located in an 860-square-kilometre (330-square-mile) area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon.

Lebanon is expected to adopt a "maximalist approach," said Haytayan.

The energy expert explained that Lebanese negotiators will likely try to claim areas that fall beyond the disputed 860-square-kilometre zone, including parts of the Karish gas field currently operated by Israel, she told AFP.

"We have to wait to see the reaction of the Israelis," she said.

An Israeli government statement on Tuesday said its aim was to "examine the possibility of reaching an agreement ... between the countries in a way that will enable the development of natural resources in the region".

While the US-brokered talks look at the maritime border, a UNIFIL-sponsored track is also due to address outstanding land border disputes.

"We have a unique opportunity to make substantial progress on contentious issues along" the border, UNIFIL head Major General Stefano Del Col said Tuesday.

- 'Positive voices' -

The meetings have raised faint hopes for a thaw between the neighbours, who have repeatedly clashed on the battlefield.

The Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, said on Tuesday he was "hearing positive voices coming out of Lebanon, who are even talking about peace with Israel".

Gantz, speaking during a tour of northern Israel, did not specify which Lebanese comments he was referring to.

But they came a day after Claudine Aoun, daughter of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, told Al Jadeed TV that peace with Israel would be conceivable if outstanding issues were resolved.

"We have the maritime border dispute, the issue of Palestinian refugees, and another topic which is more important, which is the issue of natural resources: water, oil and natural gas, which Lebanon is depending on to advance its economy," she said.

But Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri on Wednesday said that a peace deal was "out of the question," ruling out the possibility that maritime talks could lead to a soft normalisation with Israel.

The Shiite Muslim armed movement Hezbollah, a major force in Lebanese politics, has criticised the maritime talks.

Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006, and both sides still exchange sporadic cross-border fire.

On Wednesday, Lebanese journalists covering the border talks in Naqura were forced out of the town by three men, who also attacked a Lebanon state TV crew and destroyed their equipment.

One journalist said the men introduced themselves as Hezbollah supporters, but AFP could not independently verify this.

Outgoing Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad condemned the "assault", and called on security forces to protect journalists.





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