An Israeli naval vessel patrols the Mediterranean border with Lebanon in 2006 as Israeli fishermen cast their lines. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Signs of a Breakthrough on Border-dispute Talks between Israel and Lebanon

Common desire to exploit offshore gas deposits could lead hostile parties to cooperate

Israel and Lebanon have been in a formal state of war for more than seven decades, but the two neighbors are hopeful that significant progress on their disputed border could be near.

The United States has been quietly mediating efforts between Israel and Lebanon on delineating their maritime frontier in an area where large deposits of natural gas have been found.

These efforts are being headed by acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, who has visited both countries several times in the last few months in an attempt to lower tensions and kick-start talks.

According to the Lebanese foreign minister, Satterfield delivered an Israeli response to Lebanese proposals, and the atmosphere was “positive.” But the Lebanese government wants the talks to cover the countries’ land border dispute, too, and Israel and Lebanon seem to be at loggerheads on this point.

The Lebanese Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued last week, said the two countries were close to establishing a framework for negotiations on demarcating their land and maritime borders. The statement added that the United Nations would supervise the talks, while Washington would be the chief mediator.

Defense and government analyst Amir Oren told The Media Line the talks had been in the works for some time.

“Perhaps the agreement has either been reached, or is in its final stages, but Lebanon wants it done under U.N. auspices,” he said.

Oren added that the international organization’s role was symbolic.

“The UN is only going to provide them the venue. It’s the U.S. that is heavily involved in the talks,” he explained.

Retired Lebanese Maj.-Gen. Hisham Jaber, head of the Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations, told The Media Line that Beirut was insisting that the U.N. play a major role.

“This is a big development because it’s a big issue. And it’s serious because the talks are being conducted under the auspices of the U.N. and the U.S.,” he said.

Jaber added that Lebanon was adamant that the talks include both land and sea borders, saying Satterfield was conducting shuttle diplomacy between the two countries in an attempt to bridge the gap, adding that the former U.S. ambassador to Beirut was fully aware of Lebanon’s position.

“Lebanon will not accept any talks without discussion of land and maritime borders, and what is surprising is that all of Lebanon is in agreement on this,” Jaber said.

Oren told The Media Line that despite rising tensions in the region, the two countries did seem ready to talk.

“The reported progress can be attributed to the large volume of gas deposits in the disputed eastern Mediterranean,” he said, adding that the issue had the potential to become very serious because a lot of money was involved.

“It’s very significant, because the dispute over what is called Block 9 of the gas field is one of three friction points that could cause Israel and Hizbullah to escalate matters,” he explained.

Since 2012, the U.S. has made numerous attempts to bridge the gaps between the two countries, but Washington increased its efforts after Lebanon licensed its first international consortium to begin searching for oil and gas in the Mediterranean, including in an area close to contested zone.

In December 2017, Lebanon approved a bid from a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two of five blocks put up for tender, including Block 9, which borders Israeli waters.

Hizbullah, the powerful Lebanese Islamist movement, has members in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet. Its armed militia is regarded as better trained and equipped than the state’s army. Israel and the U.S. regard it as a terrorist organization.

Oren insists that the Shi’ite movement didn’t see these developments coming.

“Hizbullah was taken aback by the news,” he said.

Jaber, nevertheless, disagrees, saying Hizbullah is playing the role of spectator by choice, leaving the complex negotiations to the government.

“Let’s not forget that Hizbullah is part of the government, and nothing can go through without its approval,” the former general said.

Despite the apparent breakthrough, however, Jaber thinks no agreement is in sight.

“It’s going to take time. I don’t have high expectations. I’m not optimistic that the talks will progress quickly,” he said.

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