Michel Aoun says Lebanon ready to resume talks over maritime borders

But Israel 'cannot impose its unilateral view', president tells US mediator

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Lebanon on Monday signalled its readiness to resume US-mediated negotiations with Israel's new government over disputed maritime borders.

President Michel Aoun told US mediator John Desrocher during a meeting at the Baabda presidential palace that Lebanon was keen to pursue the indirect talks to demarcate its borders in line with “international laws”.

The last round of the UN-hosted negotiations was held in early May after a gap of seven months. The negotiations stopped after Lebanon expanded its claims.

Mr Aoun said he urged the US to “push for fair talks without preconditions”, noting that Israel “cannot impose its unilateral view on the course of negotiations.”

“President Aoun expressed hope that the efforts which Ambassador Durocher will undertake with Israeli officials will yield positive results considering the presence of a new government in Israel, which may require additional efforts in order not to delay negotiations,” a statement released by his office said.

Lebanon took a step towards officially expanding its claims over the disputed areas in April, but Mr Aoun refused signing off on the amendment of the country’s exclusive economic zone. Caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab had endorsed a draft decree that 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 president argued that the amendment, which Israel said would have derailed the talks, must be first approved by the government. Lebanon has been without a fully functioning Cabinet since last August, when Mr Diab's government resigned over the explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 200 people and destroyed thousands of properties.

The blast compounded one of the worst economic and financial crises to grip the country in decades.

The crisis, which unfolded in late 2019, has plunged more than half of the population into poverty, while the national currency lost more than 90 per cent of its value against the dollar.

The dispute over marine boundaries has delayed hydrocarbon exploration in an area that could hold significant gas reserves for Lebanon, which has yet to make any commercial hydrocarbon discoveries. Israel, on the other hand, is already tapping part of its hydrocarbon wealth.

The talks between the two countries – which are technically in a state of war – are taking place at a UN post in the border town Naqoura.

The Lebanese maritime border demarcation of 2011 was also not recognised by Syria, Lebanon’s neighbour to the north.

In March, Damascus awarded a Russian company the rights to offshore oil and gas exploration in areas that overlap with Lebanon’s northern maritime blocks by an estimated area of 750 square kilometres. But Lebanon has yet to engage in negotiations with Damascus.