The United States and United Nations expressed their satisfaction with the first round of talks over the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border dispute held at a UN peacekeeping base in the Lebanese border town of Naqura.
“During this initial meeting, the representatives held productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month,” a joint US and UN statement said after the one-hour meeting.
The next meeting is planned for October 28.
Lebanon expressed hope it could resolve the maritime border dispute with Israel within a “reasonable time.”
The unprecedented talks mark a “first step in the thousand-mile march towards the demarcation” of the maritime frontier, Lebanese Brigadier General Bassam Yassin said during the inaugural session, according to an army statement.
“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.”
Wednesday’s talks, which lasted for around one hour, came at a sensitive time as Lebanon, battered by multiple crises, hopes to continue exploring for oil and gas in a part of the Mediterranean also claimed by Israel.
The session was held under the auspices of the United Nations and the United States.
Yassin praised US efforts to “help establish a positive and constructive atmosphere” during the talks.
He also lauded the United Nations, saying he hopes it will exert “a fundamental and effective effort to organise the mechanism of talks and (secure) a smooth negotiation process.”
Israel said it would continue to negotiate with Lebanon on their maritime border after a brief, initial meeting earlier in the day.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement he agreed that the Israeli delegation would push ahead with the talks “to give the process a chance.”
In Lebanon, the makeup of the Lebanese delegation has been assailed by the two Shia parties who seemed to be trying to dispel suspicions of normalisation intent that could be lying behind the talks.
Iran-backed Hezbollah and its political ally Amal criticised Wednesday the delegation which represented Lebanon, hours before the first meeting.
The statement said the negotiating team should include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians.
“This harms Lebanon’s position and interests… and amounts to giving in to the Israeli logic that seeks some form of normalisation,” the statement said.
Formally still at war after decades of conflict, Lebanon and Israel agreed this month to negotiate over a long-running row relating to a sea border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.
The talks come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under US-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.
This has prompted suspicions that the flurry of US-sponsored diplomacy relating to Israel is linked to US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
Wednesday’s meeting was hosted by the United Nations, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 and ended a 22-year occupation. The next talks will be held on October 28.
The talks on Wednesday exclusively focused on the disputed sea frontier.
Security was tight, with roads in the area blocked by UN peacekeepers and Lebanese troops, and helicopters flying overhead.
US envoy David Schenker facilitated the opening session along with US Ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher, who was the mediator in the talks.
Israel said there would be “direct negotiations,” something Lebanese officials have denied.
Israel sent a six-member team, including the director general of its energy ministry, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser and the head of the army’s strategic division.
Lebanon’s four-member delegation comprised two army officers, an official and a maritime border law expert.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and Wednesday’s talks were a rare official interaction.
Lebanon insists that the negotiations were purely technical and did not involve any soft political normalisation with Israel.
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 its offshore quest for oil and gas.
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.
A senior source at Israel’s energy ministry said that the border dispute “can be concluded hopefully in a few months time.”
“This is a limited effort to resolve a well-defined, limited problem,” he said.
“We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalisation or peace process.”
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said that an agreement between the two sides is the “best option for Lebanon so that it could start work in Block 9.”
Reactions to the talks have been mixed in Lebanon, still reeling from a huge August 4 explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 190 people and dealt another crippling blow to Lebanon’s economy.
The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily on Monday called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon,” arguing that Israel is the real “beneficiary.”
Hezbollah is both an armed group that has fought several wars against Israel and a major force in Lebanese politics, with seats in parliament.
Last Thursday, its parliamentary bloc stressed that demarcating Lebanon’s disputed maritime border with Israel does not signify “reconciliation” or “normalisation.”
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