Lebanon, Israel launch talks over maritime border dispute

Short session held on Wednesday, with state media reporting second round to take place on October 28.

The talks were held at the UNIFIL headquarters in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura [File: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

Lebanon and Israel held a short opening round of indirect talks over their disputed maritime border on Wednesday, breaking up after an hour with Lebanese state media reporting a second round to be held on October 28.

Wednesday’s session was mediated by US officials and both sides insisted the series of talks are purely technical and not a sign of any normalisation of ties.

The opening round of discussions was held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura.

Lebanon’s delegation head said he hopes the talks will resolve the maritime border dispute within a “reasonable time”.

The talks mark a “first step in the thousand-mile march towards the demarcation” of the maritime frontier, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin was quoted as saying in a statement issued after the session.

“Based on the higher interests of our country, we are looking to achieve a pace of negotiations that would allow us to conclude this dossier within reasonable time.”

INTERACTIVE: Israel Lebanon maritime border

The talks came against the backdrop of Lebanon’s spiralling economic crisis, the worst in its modern history, and following a wave of US sanctions that recently included two influential former cabinet ministers allied with the armed Hezbollah group.

Israel, the US, as well as some other Western and Arab countries consider the Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

Israel has said that there will be “direct negotiations”, something Lebanese officials have denied.

Israel sent a six-member team, including the director-general of its energy ministry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser and the head of the army’s strategic division.

Lebanon’s four-member delegation comprised two army officers, a Lebanese oil official and a maritime border law expert.

Hezbollah and its ally Amal criticised the delegation representing Lebanon at the talks.

A statement from Lebanon’s two main Shia parties, coming just hours before the meeting was due to start, called for reform of the negotiating team which they said must include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Naqoura, said that “the US has been engaged in intense diplomacy over recent years to get these two sides to the negotiating table”.

“It’s significant because this is the first time since 1990 that the Israelis and the Lebanese are talking about the civilian matter,” she said.

“Both sides have been saying that these talks are not about peace, normalising ties or recognising each other. But they are about a technical issue. Whether or not that is possible that is another question. Both sides have commercial interests at stake. Lebanon more than Israel, because Israel has already started to drill and explore its waters but Lebanon has not.”

On Monday, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon” and argued that Israel was the real “beneficiary”.

The talks come weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt did so in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war.

They each claim about 860 square kilometres (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.

Lebanon’s outgoing Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi said Lebanese negotiators will be “more fierce than they expect because we have nothing to lose”.

He added that if Lebanon’s economy collapses, “there is no interest in making concessions”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies