Lebanese government must endorse maritime border claim, says president

Country's expansion of claimed maritime territory delayed, threatening stalled UN negotiations with Israel

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since the massive explosion that destroyed parts of Beirut last August. Reuters
Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since the massive explosion that destroyed parts of Beirut last August. Reuters

Lebanon’s amendment of its maritime borders to claim an additional disputed area with Israel must be endorsed by the caretaker government, the Lebanese president said on Tuesday, a day after receiving the proposal from the caretaker prime minister’s office.

President Michel Aoun’s position delays Lebanon’s official expansion of its maritime claims, a move that could have further complicated stalled UN-sponsored indirect negotiations with Israel.

The US-mediated talks were suspended late last year after the Lebanese delegation claimed an additional 1,340 square kilometres on top of the already disputed 860-square-kilometre area, based on a map that Lebanon sent to the UN in 2011.

“The amendment of decree 6433 requires a collective decision by the council of ministers … even in the case of a caretaker government due to its importance and repercussions,” the president’s office said.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since the explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large parts of the capital last August, despite the economic urgency.

But caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab is reluctant to convene his Cabinet, despite the constitution allowing for exceptional meetings to address urgent matters.

Mr Diab threatened to refrain from assuming his caretaker duties to pressure the country’s political leaders into swiftly forming a new Cabinet to contain one of the worst economic and financial crises to sweep the country since the end of the civil war.

The government formation talks stalled after disagreement between Mr Aoun and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri over its makeup and reform agenda.

Mr Hariri will be holding talks in Moscow this week where he intends to ask Russia for economic assistance to restore Beirut’s port and to build electric power stations, a Russian news agency reported on Tuesday.

An Israeli navy corvette is pictured from the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura as it patrols the waters on October 28, 2020 during talks between Lebanese and Israeli delegations on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries. - 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. (Photo by Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)
An Israeli navy corvette is pictured from the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura as it patrols the waters on October 28, 2020 during talks between Lebanese and Israeli delegations on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries. - 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. (Photo by Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

Meanwhile, Lebanese officials were set to meet US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale in Beirut on Wednesday.

Mr Hale is the most senior US official to visit the Lebanese capital since Joe Biden became president in January.

American sources told The National Mr Hale is expected to carry “a firm message from the Biden team on the government formation” and to reaffirm the US position towards Hezbollah, the Iran-backed armed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organisation.

Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Mr Aoun, called on Mr Hariri to form Cabinet of experts and politicians, which the prime minister has so far opposed.

Mr Hariri says he is committed to forming a Cabinet of non-partisan experts that undertakes reforms in exchange for international financial support.

Mr Hariri’s visit to Moscow comes as Lebanon is preparing for negotiations with Syria over the country’s northern maritime borders, which was the focus of discussions on Tuesday between Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister and Syria’s ambassador.

Last month, Damascus ratified an agreement awarding Russian company Kapital the right to explore oil and gas in two Syrian-demarcated blocks that overlap with what Lebanon says are its northern maritime blocks by an estimated area of 750 square kilometres.

Syria does not recognise the 2011 Lebanese demarcation.

Updated: April 14, 2021 10:29 AM

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