Currently, a string of buoys extends into the water, placed there by Israel as a de facto border that is not recognized by Lebanon or the United Nations. Lebanon considers the boundary an extension of the land border. The result is a disputed 860-square-kilometer triangle in the sea.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who appointed the Israeli delegation, said before the talks that the main goal was to create “security and stability in the region.” He was less optimistic that they would spark a peace process between the two countries, which have repeatedly been embroiled in war over the decades.
Hezbollah, an Iran-aligned militant group and Lebanon’s most political powerful party, said in a statement last week that the negotiations are “in no way at all connected” to reconciliation or normalization with Israel.
The announcement of talks came at a tumultuous time in Lebanon, which is grappling with a severe economic crisis and the aftermath of a massive blast in August that ripped through the capital, Beirut. The talks also come after recent agreements between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
“We have been trying for a while to agree on a direct negotiation mechanism with the Lebanese,” Steinitz said. “We could have reached an agreement in 2011, but they rejected it. They lost nine years where they could have explored, developed and enjoyed the benefits of natural gas that Israel has already utilized for the past seven years.”
He added, “Clearly, the Lebanese have realized now that there will be no exploration and development of their territory until this dispute is over.”
Israel is operating two natural gas fields in the Mediterranean — Tamar and Leviathan — that Chevron acquired in a multibillion-dollar deal finalized earlier this month. Israel also signed agreements in January with Cyprus and Greece linking the offshore gas reserves to Europe and has reached similar export arrangements with Egypt and Jordan.
In 2018, Lebanon granted license to three international energy companies — Eni, Total and Novatek — to carry out offshore exploration in two blocks.
“We were hoping that we would find wonders in [block] number 4,” said Ali Hamdan, an adviser to Lebanese parliament speaker. But the findings fell short of expectations, Hamdan said.
Exploration has moved onto block 9, which includes a small area — about 7 percent — disputed with Israel because of how it has drawn the boundary. Another block, number 8, poses an even larger issue, Hamdan said. “For us, it’s not a disputed area,” he said. “We are facing an Israeli allegation, a fake allegation [over the border], and the purpose of this meeting that began today is to defeat this Israeli allegation.”
The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, was the result of intensive U.S. efforts to bring the sides together. David Schenker, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and U.S. Ambassador John Desrocher attended the meeting and served as mediators.
“During this initial meeting, the representatives held productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, the lead Lebanese negotiator, said the session was the first step in what he called “indirect, technical negotiations.” He said, “For our country’s benefit, we look forward for the wheel of negotiations to move at a pace that enables us to close this file within a reasonable time period.”
An Israeli statement said an agenda had been set for further discussions with the next meeting expected in the coming weeks. Steinitz has “approved the continued participation of Israel in the following meetings to continue to give the move a chance,” the statement said.
The talks follow the U.S. move to impose sanctions on a top aide to Nabih Berri, who heads the Amal movement allied with Hezbollah. Berri has said that the decision to hold talks is not related to U.S. sanctions and that he had been seeking “a white line in the blue sea” since 2010.
Marwan Abdallah, the co-founder of the Lebanese group Organization for Petroleum and Energy Sustainability, criticized Lebanon’s approach to the talks. He said Lebanon is trying in part to keep the United States from imposing any more sanctions on Lebanese figures and buy time until after the U.S. election.
“If they were moving toward technical negotiations, not just political negotiations, they would have added one line to the agreement addressing what they would do in case they found a joint well,” Abdallah said. The absence of such a detail in the framework agreement suggests the talks are merely for political positioning, he said.
“Lebanon is losing time,” he said, adding, “We are not tackling this file from a purely technical perspective, but are working on it as a political file.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.