Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

Lebanon-Israel to meet again after brief border talks while Hezbollah demands new negotiators

The statement came as sides gathered at a UN outpost on Wednesday for discussions on demarcating the maritime borders

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) stand together in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah
UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) stand together in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah

A convoy of black SUVs with tinted windows drove at speed towards the Unifil base in Naqoura in south Lebanon early on Wednesday, while a helicopter circled overhead. The vehicles carried officials going to meet the delegation from Israel to begin thrashing out the demarcation of borders.

The high-profile meeting under UN and US mediation lasted only an hour but negotiators agreed to meet again on October 28, Lebanese defence sources said.

Shortly before it began, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal criticised the move. The statement from Lebanon's two main Shiite parties called for reform of the negotiating team, which they said must include only military officials, with no civilians or politicians.

A convoy of vehicles passes from Naqoura ahead of talks between Israel and Lebanon on disputed waters, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
A convoy of vehicles passes from Naqoura ahead of talks between Israel and Lebanon on disputed waters. Reuters

The two countries have no formal relations, never officially ended years of hostilities and remain technically at war. Hezbollah waged a bloody insurgency against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon until they withdrew in 2000. The two sides fought again in 2006.

The small UN peacekeeper base on the southern coastal tip of Lebanon offers the only avenue for Lebanese military heads to negotiate, indirectly through the Unifil force commander, with Israel in an attempt to maintain quiet on the frontier.

“The current form of the Lebanese delegation, which includes civilian figures, is contrary to the framework agreement,” the Hezbollah press office said. That framework is “based on the regular [tripart] meetings between military officers exclusively”, Hezbollah said.

Amal head and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri previously announced the acceptable framework for the parties that talks are undertaken by the military.

A picture taken on October 13, 2020, shows the southernmost stretch of Lebanese coastline in the area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations on October 14 over the shared frontier, a particularly sensitive issue as Lebanon wants to drill for hydrocarbons in a part of the Mediterranean disputed by Israel. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
The southernmost stretch of Lebanese coastline in the area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. AFP

“[This] represents a recognition of the Israeli logic that wants to obtain any form of normalisation. Therefore, the two parties call to immediately revoke this decision and reconfigure the delegation in line with the framework agreement,” Mr Berri said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the first round of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on the maritime border on Wednesday, saying that Washington will continue along with the UN to broker these talks in a second round in November.

“We welcome the launch of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel,” Mr Pompeo said from the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker took part in these deliberations in south Lebanon.

A statement from the US government and the UN Special Co-ordinator for Lebanon said: "During this initial meeting, the representatives held productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month."

Lebanon and Israel agreed this month to negotiate over a long-running row relating to a sea border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The talks in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura will be hosted by the UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, and US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs David Schenker will facilitate the opening session, the State Department said on Tuesday. US ambassador John Desrocher will serve as the main US mediator.

A United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) convoy advances towards the last checkpoint for the Lebanese army in the southernmost area of Naqura, by the border with Israel, on October 13, 2020. Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations on October 14 over the shared frontier, a particularly sensitive issue as Lebanon wants to drill for hydrocarbons in a part of the Mediterranean disputed by Israel. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
A United Nations peacekeeping force convoy advances towards the last checkpoint for the Lebanese army in the southernmost area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. AFP

“The agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” the State Department said.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that the negotiations with Lebanon do not deal with the normalisation of relations, or peace. Rather, he said, they are negotiations to resolve technical-economic differences related to natural resources at sea.

Lebanon and Israel each claim about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their respective exclusive economic zones.

A general view shows the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. Lebanon and Israel are to begin indirect talks Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A general view shows the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura. AP

Lebanon began offshore drilling outside this contested zone this year and is expected to start drilling for gas near the disputed area with Israel in the coming months.

Lebanon and Israel have since 1948 been technically in a state of war and Lebanon hosts tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees – most were displaced during the creation of the Israeli state.

The idea of normalisation with Israel is deeply unpopular in Lebanon, particularly among Hezbollah and Amal supporters.

At the same time, Lebanese politicians have repeatedly promised the Lebanese that offshore oil and gas discoveries can help the country to recover financially from its worst economic crisis yet. But experts said that even if oil and gas were located in viable quantities this year, it could take upward of a decade to begin seeing a return even without the regular political battles that paralyse government.

President Michel Aoun announced on Monday that the Lebanese team would be led by air force officer Brig Gen Bassam Yassin. The three other members are Col Mazen Basbous, from the navy, Lebanese Petroleum Administration chairman Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi.

Contacted by The National on Monday, Mr Massihi’s father answered and said his son was not allowed to speak to the media.

Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite meetings in Naqoura to discuss breaches along the Blue Line, which is not an internationally recognised border but rather a UN-agreed line that shows where Israeli forces were stationed in 1978, prior to the invasion of Lebanon that lasted until the year 2000, to assess the full withdrawal. The Blue Line is patrolled by 10,480 UN peacekeepers from 41 countries.

Lebanon and Israel also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s when Arab states and Israel were working on reaching peace agreements. Although the Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Syria did not. – additional reporting by agencies

Updated: October 14, 2020 10:14 PM

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