Lebanon, Israel in 2nd round of maritime border talks


A UN ship is pictured in the southernmost area of Naqoura, by the border with Israel, on October 14th. [Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

A UN ship is pictured in the southernmost area of Naqoura, by the border with Israel, on October 14th. [Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war and with no diplomatic ties, launched a second round of maritime border talks Wednesday (October 28th) under UN and US auspices to allow for offshore energy exploration.

The talks, expected to last for two days, were held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, 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.

"Today's session is the first technical session," said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert. "Detailed discussions on demarcation should begin."

Lebanon is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press on with 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 area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon.

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 Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col said in a statement Tuesday.

'Positive voices'

The meetings have raised faint hopes for a thaw between the neighbours.

The Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, said 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.

When asked directly if she would object to a peace treaty with Israel, she responded: "Why would I object?"

"Are we supposed to stay in a state of war? ... I do not have doctrinal differences with anyone ... I have political differences."

Both sides insist they are narrowly focused on resolving the maritime dispute to allow for oil and gas exploration and do not mark a step towards normalisation.

The UAE and Bahrain have recently established diplomatic relations with Israel. Sudan has said it also intends to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

The accords, known as the Abraham Accords, will curb the Iranian regime's incursions and destabilising activities in the region through anticipated alliances.

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I hope that Israel improves its relations with the Arab states as soon as possible, so that it will be a thorn in the side of the Islamic Republic. But regarding the Hadid case, all media outlets that broadcast about Iran - including the BBC, the Dutch Radio Zamaneh, Iran International, etc. - resort to severe censorship, similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). For instance, they removed every comment that I wrote in support of the U.S. policies. The same goes for Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps, the reason is the influence the Islamic Republic's regime has over them. Al-Mashareq is better than them. But regardless of how long of a process it may be, the United States must intervene. The Iranian people and people like me should have the right to express their opinion. We are being censored inside [Iran] and eliminated in foreign media. The United States must intervene to protect freedom of expression and counter fake news.