Israel expects US-mediated Lebanese sea border talks within weeks

Israeli statements confirm Lebanese officials hopes that talks will begin soon, but sticking points remain

A picture taken from the southern Lebanese village of Meiss al-Jabal on December 16, 2018, shows United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers patroling on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel.  Israel's army said it has uncovered another Hezbollah "attack tunnel" leading from Lebanon into its territory, the fourth since it started a search-and-destroy operation this month. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
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After years of tense indirect efforts to start negotiations over a contested maritime border, Israel appears to be shifting its stance towards talks with Lebanon and they are finally setting up a framework to hash out a deal that will pave the way for unconstrained oil and gas exploration.

A senior Israeli official told Reuters news agency on Tuesday that they expect to launch US-mediated talks with Lebanon within weeks to settle their shared maritime border, naming a compound of the UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon as a possible venue.

The anonymous official’s comments come just a week after Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel was open to US-mediated talks on the sea border.

A triangular 860 square kilometre wedge of the Mediterranean Sea is disputed by Lebanon and Israel, two neighbouring hostile countries that have never established diplomatic relations but who are both intent on exploring their offshore oil and gas.

In recent weeks, US envoy David Satterfield has been shuttling between Israel and Lebanon to try to build momentum towards talks. The US has attempted several times since 2012 to act as the mediator between both countries.  But now, a year after Lebanon licenced its first international consortium to begin searching for oil and gas – including in an area close to the contested zone – there is an imperative to get a deal.

The maritime dispute. Graphic: The National
The maritime dispute. Graphic: The National

Lebanese officials previously told The National that a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Beirut in late March and then to Jerusalem sped up Mr Satterfield's mediation.

Ali Hamdan, a close advisor to Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who has been involved in the negotiations, declined to give a clear timeline but said last week that he believed the issue probably needed “three months of serious work”.

Both Mr Hamdan and Yassine Jaber, a Lebanese MP, had previously told The National that Israel had accepted that negotiations take place at a UN facility in Naqoura on the southern border between Lebanon and Israel with US mediation. Israel was initially reluctant to involve the UN and for years demanded talks be bilateral.

A US official told Reuters that Washington “stands ready to work towards solutions that are mutually agreeable to both parties” but declined to elaborate on Mr Satterfield’s discussions.

Among the bridging proposals put forward by both sides was for international energy groups, operating in both Israeli and Lebanese waters, to carry out the first seismological survey of the disputed area, the Israeli official told Reuters.

A lot of talk between the sides about who owns what resources remains hypothetical as there are no proven oil or gas resources in the disputed zone. Studies and exploratory drilling will be needed to determine if and in what quantities these exist. However, already discovered oil and gas fields nearby indicate a strong possibility that there could be reserves.

But Israel and Lebanon still seem to disagree on one point: whether negotiations will also include their disputed land border.

Several Lebanese officials told The National that Israel had accepted to negotiate both the land and maritime borders together in a bid to settle the issue once and for all.

Land border issues have been discussed on a monthly basis since 1996 between Israeli and Lebanese military representatives at the UN compound in Naqoura. Lebanon hopes that discussions would continue and simply be broadened to include the maritime issue, in the presence of a US mediator, with the UN acting as host.

But Reuters reports that although the anonymous Israeli official said that negotiations “will begin already in the coming weeks”, he added that if there were talks, they would address only the maritime border and not the land frontier.

Mr Jaber and Mr Hamdan were not available for comment on Wednesday.

Israel is currently tendering off 19 offshore blocks to exploration and production companies, but it has avoided offering areas close to the disputed border.

Lebanon signed offshore oil and gas exploration agreements early in 2018 with France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek. Total later clarified that they would avoid drilling in the disputed area.