After seven years of on and off US mediation, Lebanon and Israel seem to be inching towards setting up a framework to negotiate their maritime borders, in a bid to accelerate offshore oil and gas exploration.
As gas started being discovered off the coast of Israel in the late 1990s, Lebanon, as well as neighbouring countries such as Syria and Cyprus, moved towards setting up their exclusive economic zones to potentially explore and drill offshore.
This led to a dispute between Lebanon and Israel, two hostile countries that have never established diplomatic relations, over a triangular 860 square kilometre wedge of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2012, the US stepped in to mediate. But despite the efforts of several US diplomats, negotiations reached a dead end and were suspended after Donald Trump took office in 2017.
Tensions flared up early 2018 after Lebanon issued licences to several international companies, including in the disputed area, with Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman calling it “very provocative”.
Hezbollah responded by saying the comments were “a new aggression”. The Iran-backed party and Israel fought a month-long war in the summer of 2006.
Shortly after, US envoy David Satterfield visited Beirut, but there was little progress.
Today, the tone has changed.
On May 27, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz's office said in a statement after he met Mr Satterfield that talks to agree on a border could be "for the good of both countries' interests in developing natural gas reserves and oil".
The statement was welcomed by Lebanon, though it was not news.
Mr Satterfield had informed Lebanese officials a few weeks ago that Israel had agreed to Lebanon’s main request: that the UN supervise the talks.
"What started it all was when [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo was here" late March, Lebanese MP Yassine Jaber told The National.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun had stacked the odds in its favour a few weeks prior to Mr Pompeo’s visit by presenting a “unified” stance on the border dispute to the US ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard.
Despite previous disagreements, the president, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri finally agreed that they wanted the land and maritime borders to be discussed at the same time and not separately.
Another major potential sticking point seemed to have been resolved when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah indicated he would allow Lebanon's politicians to negotiate in the best interests of the country. But, that is now in doubt after he spoke on Friday night and accused the US of trying to use the agreement over the maritime border to disposes Hezbollah of its rocket arsenal.
He added that the group does not have missile factories in Lebanon to domestically manufactory projectiles (as has long been reported), but that he would consider establishing them if Washington uses the talks to pressure Lebanese leaders over the paramilitary force’s arms.
Lebanon also wants the UN to host the maritime border talks, something which Israel was reluctant to accept previously.
Both requests were green-lighted by Israel, according to the Lebanese officials who spoke to The National.
That means that a US representative would be invited to attend the ongoing land border talks that occur roughly once a month in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, and that discussions would be widened to include the maritime border.
The main mediation role will fall to the US, not to the UN, which is expected to take a step back.
Lebanese and Israeli representatives have discussed their land border together for more than two decades under UN supervision.
Most of it has been agreed on by the so-called “tripartite” committee.
The issue of maritime demarcation is currently outside the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.
The UN has confirmed to Lebanon that it is ready to go forward with the talks, Ali Hamdan, a close advisor to Mr Berri –also the leader of the Amal party, a Hezbollah ally – told The National.
The office of the UN special coordinator for Lebanon said that “the United Nations is ready to provide support towards the resolution of the maritime issue, and to lend assistance in this regard, provided this is agreed by all parties and provided that the United Nations is formally requested to do so.”'
When Mr Pompeo arrived in Beirut, “he had a long and frank discussion with Lebanese leaders, especially with Mr Berri, who is handling this issue with interest. That’s when it was decided to turn the page and get the UN involved via a tripartite committee”, said Mr Jaber.
Mr Hamdan said that “there is no doubt that the visit and meeting with secretary Pompeo made a difference and helped the negotiations push forward”.
After Mr Pompeo’s visit, Mr Satterfield’s shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut intensified, leading up to the Israeli Energy Minister’s statement.
Contacted by The National, a State Department official refused to discuss the substance of diplomatic discussions that occurred between Mr Pompeo or Mr Satterfield with Lebanese officials.
For the Lebanese, a US mediation is the best choice because of its proximity to both Israel and to Lebanon.
Choosing his words carefully, Mr Hamdan said that the US has “always kept in mind the stability and sovereignty of Lebanon”.
As proof of this, he mentioned the US support of the Lebanese army, which has totalled more than $2.29 billion since 2005. Over 80 per cent of the Lebanese armed forces' equipment comes from the US.
Lebanon is only the third country to operate the Bradley Fighting Vehicle troop transport – the others being the US themselves and Saudi Arabia.
“We also recognise the strong ties between the US and the Israelis”, added Mr Hamdan.
Lebanon has high hopes that income generated from offshore drilling will help its struggling economy.
“I hope the talks doesn’t take too much time. Both sides are interested in settling this issue so that they can go about their business in a stable environment”, said Mr Jaber.
However, the time frame is still a bit of a sticking point, recognised Mr Hamdan.
“We believe we need three months of serious work, but we refuse to have to abide by a deadline”, he said. “It doesn’t mean we want endless negotiations. We are here to solve something important. It’s not the time it takes that is a priority, but the result”.