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Israel and Lebanon Resume Maritime Border Talks

Israel and Lebanon resumed stalled talks over their disputed maritime border, looking to finally resolve a decades-old conflict involving potentially billions of dollars in gas exploration rights.

The third round of negotiations was kicked off on Tuesday in a United Nations facility in the southern Lebanese coastal town of Naqoura, and are brokered by United States officials.

“After about a six-month break, six hours of discussions were held today,” a spokesman for Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told The Media Line. “The minister was updated by the delegation and consulted with its members about the next steps in the process.”

“We don’t know how long these talks will last, we’ll see how it progresses and we’ll go from there,” another official inside the Energy Ministry told The Media Line earlier in the day.

“One day at a time. Nothing is clear at this point,” the official said.

The US State Department in a statement released over the weekend called the resumption of talks “a positive step toward a long-awaited resolution,” and added that the American team is led by career diplomat, Ambassador John Desrocher.

This is the first time the delegations have met since President Joe Biden assumed office in January, after the initial two rounds of discussions ended without making any demarcation advancements.

The hope in Beirut is that the Americans and Europeans will hand them the economic relief they so desperately need if they just negotiate with Israel

Israel and Lebanon, still technically enemy states, both claim large swaths of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, thought to be rich with valuable gas deposits. During last year’s negotiations, Beirut surprised the Jerusalem team by producing new maps, outlining a territory nearly twice as large as Lebanon initially demanded.

While Israel has in recent years discovered and exploited three offshore reserves in its territorial waters, Lebanon has yet to strike proverbial gold.

Israel’s representative to the delineation talks, Energy Ministry Director General Udi Adiri, will try to “reach an agreement on a maritime border and find a solution that will enable the development of natural resources to the benefit of all the region’s residents,” Jerusalem’s Energy Ministry said in a statement on Monday.

Col. (ret.) Jacques Neriah, an expert on Lebanese politics at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, explained why Lebanon has a new interest in reentering negotiations.

“They’ve been refusing to hold indirect talks with Israel for years, but with the country’s ongoing economic and social crises, the past year has forced them to change course, at least temporarily,” Neriah told The Media Line.

Lebanon currently is experiencing one of its worst economic downturns in its history, with the global pandemic and the deadly August explosion in Beirut only exacerbating the unprecedented collapse.

“The hope in Beirut is that the Americans and Europeans will hand them the economic relief they so desperately need if they just negotiate with Israel,” Neriah said.

The US government, as well as the EU and international monetary institutions, have pressed Beirut to agree to pass a series of political and financial reforms in order to receive millions of dollars in aid.

“They also hope the natural gas in the Mediterranean will lift them out of the crisis, which is basically an energy crisis,” added Neriah, who served as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s foreign-policy advisor and participated in several rounds of peace negotiations.