No breakthrough expected for continuing maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel

Both countries are buying time as they await results of US presidential elections, analysts say

UN military vehicles of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) enter the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura where the second round of of talks started on October 28, 2020 between Lebanon and Israel at a UN base 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. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
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A major breakthrough is not expected in the second round of indirect maritime border talks that began on Wednesday morning between Lebanon and Israel, two countries still technically at war.

"They are buying time and de-escalating tension as they wait for the results of the US presidential elections," Lebanese political analyst Imad Salamey told The National.

“If Joe Biden wins, the Iranians will provide him with a positive start. If [President Donald] Trump wins, I think there will be an escalation of tensions.”

Mediated by the US with help from the UN, the talks are a highly sensitive topic in Lebanon because of Iran’s influence there.

Tehran directly backs the country’s most influential party and powerful militia Hezbollah, an ally of President Michel Aoun.

An unidentified assistant of UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis led the talks in the presence of US mediator, ambassador John Desrocher, the Lebanese state National News Agency reported.

The talks were held at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura.

Delegations are said to have entered technical issues but no news yet as to what exactly

The Lebanese delegation arrived by helicopter, while the Lebanese army was heavily posted along with UN forces to ensure the security of those attending. The security precautions appear to have been justified.

Lebanon's caretaker Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad tweeted that journalists from the government-owned Tele Liban had been assaulted while covering the talks.

Ms Abdel Samad did not identify the attackers. Journalists covering South Lebanon must obtain a permit from the army and often co-ordinate with Hezbollah, which controls the region.

Karim El Mufti, professor of political science at Universite La Sagesse in Beirut, said the Lebanese and Israeli delegates were still meeting mediators separately.

"Delegations are said to have entered technical issues but no news yet as to what exactly,” Prof El Mufti said.

Tension between the US and Iran escalated during the mandate of Mr Trump, who pulled his country out of a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, which was brokered by Barack Obama in 2015.

Hezbollah and Israel, which fought a 33-day war in 2006, regularly clash along Lebanon’s southern border.

“Iran does not want to create tensions with the United States at the moment to not encourage electors to favour Trump,” Mr Salamey said.

“Trump could use any Iranian escalations in his favour.”

But Lebanon and Israel want to solve their maritime border dispute to exploit potentially lucrative oil and gas discoveries.

The two countries claim 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their respective exclusive economic zones.

After nearly a decade of attempts at mediation by the US, Lebanon and Israel sat down for a first round of talks on October 14.

A few hours before the meeting, Hezbollah and its local ally the Amal Movement, also backed by Tehran, said they disapproved of the Lebanese negotiating team, which was chosen by Mr Aoun’s office.

The two parties were unhappy because two of the four delegation members were civilians, not members of the military.

They feared this would pave the way to a more political approach to discussions and to a normalisation of relations with Israel.

The NNA reported on Wednesday that the team’s composition had not changed.

“The Lebanese delegation carried maps and documents showing points of disagreement,” it said.

Lebanon is expected to adopt a "maximalist approach" to maritime border negotiations, Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert, told AFP.

"We have to wait to see the reaction of the Israelis," Ms Haytayan said.