BEIRUT: Lebanon and Israel resumed US-mediated talks over their disputed maritime border on Tuesday with more than five hours of discussions at a UN peacekeeping base near the southern Lebanese town of Al-Naqoura.
The resumption of negotiations follows a five-month hiatus in efforts to clear the way for offshore oil and gas exploration.
Washington has described the latest talks, to be brokered by US diplomat John Desrocher, as “a positive step toward a long-awaited resolution.”
A previous round of negotiations was suspended last November after a dispute over an additional area demanded by Lebanon and its insistence on its right to its entire maritime wealth.
The US delegation arrived in the Ras Al-Naqoura border crossing in a convoy of cars from Beirut, while the Lebanese military delegation traveled aboard two helicopters.
Talks took place amid tight security by the army and the UNIFIL forces from the UN headquarters in Al-Naqoura.
President Michel Aoun followed up on negotiations with the caretaker Minister of Defense Zeina Aker in light of the directives he gave to the negotiating delegation at a meeting on Monday.
The US Embassy in Beirut is expected to issue a statement on Wednesday on the course of the negotiation session, the fifth after the resumption of the latest round.
Aoun has refused to sign Decree 6433 to amend the borders drawn by the Lebanese army, according to which Lebanon would get 2,290 square km instead of 860 square km. This disputed area is in a potentially gas-rich region.
Lebanon sent a map in 2011 to the UN relating to a claim of 860 square km. But it was later found that the map was based on wrong approximations and today Lebanon is demanding an additional area of 1,430 square km that includes parts of the Karish gas field in which a Greek company works for Israel. The current Lebanese proposal is known as Line 29. Israel accused Lebanon of obstructing negotiations by expanding the disputed area.
Aoun refused to sign the decree to amend the borders, arguing that this requires a Cabinet decision, but Hassan Diab, the caretaker prime minister, refused to hold a Cabinet session, claiming it would contravene the work of the caretaker government.
Lebanon has returned to the negotiating table against a backdrop of political, economic and financial crisis, and is counting on Israel’s need to resolve the disputed areas to accelerate gas exploration and the exploitation of northern fields, where the bulk of its gas wealth is concentrated.
According to a military source, the Lebanese army will begin demarcating the border from point B1 at the last point in Ras Al-Naqoura by land to point 29 in the sea. This demarcation adopts the standards and foundations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The head of the Lebanese delegation to the negotiations is Pilot Staff Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, and the delegation includes Navy Staff Col. Mazen Basbous, expert Naguib Masih, and member of the Petroleum Sector Administration Board, Engineer Wissam Shabat.
The Israeli delegation was headed by the Director-General of the Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri, who was appointed by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. The delegation includes Reuven Azar, foreign policy adviser to the prime minister; Alon Bar, head of the Political-Strategic Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Brig. Gen. Oren Setter, head of the Israeli army’s strategic division; lawyer Mor Halutz, chief of staff to the minister of energy; Amit Hoeman, director of the Department of International Law of the Ministry of Foreign Affair; Aviv Ayash, senior adviser to Israel’s minister of energy, and Dr. Haim Srebro, an international expert on borders who previously served as director general of the Survey of Israel.
David Hale, US undersecretary of state, who visited Beirut a few weeks ago, paved the way for the resumption of negotiations.
Agence France-Presse quoted a Lebanese presidency source as saying the negotiations “will pick up where it left, and we do not accept the line proposed by the Israeli side, and they do not accept ours, so we will see what the mediator proposes.”
Civil activists called on social media for a gathering on Tuesday in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut under the banner “Neglecting our oil rights is high treason.”