Lebanon, Israel reach ‘framework agreement’ to hold border talks

The US State Department said it “welcomes the decision by the governments of Israel and Lebanon to begin discussions on the maritime boundary".
Thursday 01/10/2020
Lebanon’s Army chief General Joseph Aoun, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s caretaker Defence Minister Zeina Akar and UNIFIL Head of Mission Major General Stefano Del Col at a news conference in Beirut, October 1. (Reuters)
Lebanon’s Army chief General Joseph Aoun, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s caretaker Defence Minister Zeina Akar and UNIFIL Head of Mission Major General Stefano Del Col at a news conference in Beirut, October 1. (Reuters)

BEIRUT – Lebanon and Israel agreed to a framework for US-mediated talks aimed at ending a long-running dispute along the border between the two nations that have fought several conflicts.

Still in a formal state of war, Lebanon and Israel have contested their land and maritime borders for decades, namely over an area in the sea on the edge of three Lebanese offshore energy blocks. Israel said the talks would cover the sea border.

Washington has mediated between the two sides.

“This is a framework agreement, not a final one,” Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told reporters, less than a month after the United States imposed sanctions on his top aide for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese group which Washington deems a terrorist organisation.

 Lebanese soldiers on a watch tower along a new wall on the Israeli-Lebanese border. (AFP)
Lebanese soldiers on a watch tower along a new wall on the Israeli-Lebanese border. (AFP)

The heavily armed Hezbollah and Israel, sworn enemies, last fought a war in 2006.

The announcement comes with Lebanon facing its worst crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The country’s financial meltdown was compounded by a massive port explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed the two sides would hold US-brokered talks on the maritime border, a major point of contention. He said negotiations were expected to start after October 9.

The US State Department said it “welcomes the decision by the governments of Israel and Lebanon to begin discussions on the maritime boundary,” adding that the framework agreement for talks had taken three years of diplomacy to achieve.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the discussions between the two countries “have the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike.”

He added that the agreement is the result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement by US officials.

An Israeli official said last week that a deal had been reached, but there was no immediate Lebanese or US confirmation at the time. The official said Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation.

“We are hoping to start direct negotiations in the near future. Our presumptive goal is to arrive at a peaceful resolution on the matter of the Exclusive Economic Zone bordering between Israel and Lebanon in a way that benefits both neighbouring nations,” Steinitz said in a statement.

The Israeli-Lebanese agreement to hold talks follows deals signed last month, brokered by Washington, between Israel and two Gulf Arab states to normalise relations.

Indirect talks mean that Lebanese Army negotiators will not be speaking directly to members of the Israeli delegation but through UN and US officials.

The UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, welcomed the agreement, saying it stands ready “to extend to the parties all the support at its disposal and facilitate efforts towards a resolution of this issue.”

Berri, a Hezbollah ally and influential Shia leader in charge of the border file, said talks would be held under the auspices of the United Nations at a UN base in Naqoura near the boundary with Israel, known as the Blue Line.

He told a news conference in Beirut that Washington would push for an agreement as soon as possible.

Berri mentioned the land and maritime border at the news conference, while Israel and the United States only mentioned the maritime boundary. One reason previous efforts to launch talks floundered was the two sides disagreeing over which frontier to discuss, analysts say.

A Lebanese official source suggested Berri was prompted to make the announcement now because of the economic crisis and US sanctions imposed last month on his right-hand man, Ali Hassan Khalil. A Western diplomat echoed this.

Berri denied being swayed. “I, Berri, cannot be softened by force,” he told reporters.

In 2018, Beirut licensed a group of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out Lebanon’s first offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them, Block 9, contains waters disputed with Israel.

Berri said he had asked French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been at the centre of foreign efforts to help Lebanon out of crisis, to press Total not to delay exploration for gas in the offshore area.

Berri also said the gas discoveries on the Israeli side of the Mediterranean “prove that there are reserves and God willing this will help us pay our debt.”

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri speaks during a press conference to announce a framework for indirect talks with Israel on the long-standing issue of maritime and land border demarcations between the two countries, On October 1, Beirut, Lebanon. (dpa)
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri speaks during a press conference to announce a framework for indirect talks with Israel on the long-standing issue of maritime and land border demarcations between the two countries, On October 1, Beirut, Lebanon. (dpa)

Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world standing at about 170% of its GDP.

Three of Lebanon’s 10 offshore blocks are along the disputed maritime border with Israel.

As well as the maritime border row, the two countries disagree over a border wall Israel started building in 2018. A UN peacekeeping force monitors the boundary since Israel’s military withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation.