Lebanese and Israeli delegations Wednesday began US-mediated indirect talks to demarcate the maritime border between the two feuding countries after years of wrangling over how to approach negotiations on how to allocate the potentially hydrocarbon rich waters.
The talks are being held at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, just north of the UN-demarcated Blue Line separating Israel and Lebanon. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis are attending the historic opening session.
Negotiators from each side will sit at the same table but will not talk directly to each other. Instead, a UN mediator will relay each team's messages to the other. The talks will focus on how to allocate the approximately 856 square kilometers of disputed waters that both Lebanon and Israel claim to be part of their own exclusive economic zone.
Both Schenker and Kubis have said that a separate track of talks will later be organized to cover the 13 disputed land points along the Blue Line.
Lebanon signed its first contract in Feb. 2018 for offshore drilling for hydrocarbons in two blocks in the Mediterranean. The Energy Ministry said in April that drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves. Exploration of Block 9 has not yet begun and is more controversial as ownership is disputed.
The framework for the long-awaited border negotiations was announced Oct. 1 by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who said at the time that the Lebanese delegation would be a military one.
President Michel Aoun nevertheless appointed Monday a delegation that included two civilians, prompting Hezbollah and the Amal Moment to issue an 11th hour statement Wedesday demanding that the delegation be redrawn to include only military officials.
“The formation of the Lebanese delegation to include civilian personnel is contrary to the framework agreement ... and represents a recognition of the Israeli logic that wants any form of normalization,” they said in an overnight statement.
The statement noted that the Israeli team was “composed mainly of political and economic personnel” and went on to demand “the immediate revocation of this decision and the reconstitution of the Lebanese delegation in line with the framework agreement.”
The four members of the Lebanese delegation are: Air force Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, who will head the team and communicate the Lebanese position to the UN mediator; Navy Col. Mazen Basbous; Lebanese Petroleum Administration board member Wissam Chbat; and maritime affairs expert Najib Massihi.
Aoun’s seemingly unilateral approach to forming the delegation also came under fire Monday from caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose media office said that Aoun violated the constitution by failing to consult with the outgoing PM on the matter.
Aoun rejected this criticism Tuesday, countering in a statement released by his press team that “the President of the Republic is the only competent authority to handle negotiations.”
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