Lebanon and Israel to begin indirect talks over maritime border
Lebanon and Israel are to begin indirect talks on Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely
technical and not a sign of any normalisation of ties.
The U.S. has been mediating the issue for about a decade, but only earlier this month a breakthrough was reached on an agreement on a framework for U.S.-mediated talks.
The development comes against the backdrop of Lebanon's spiralling economic crisis, the worst in its modern history, and following a wave of U.S. sanctions that recently included two influential former Cabinet ministers allied with the militant Hezbollah group.
Israel, the United States, as well as some other Western and Arab countries consider the Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome the crisis and pay back its massive debt that stands at 170% of the GDP, making it one of the highest in the world.
The U.S.-mediated talks are to take place at a U.N. post along the border known as Ras Naqoura on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. The Lebanese delegation will speak through U.N. and U.S. officials to the Israelis.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.
"We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalisation or some kind of peace process,'' a senior official with Israel's energy ministry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "Our aim is very strict and limited and therefore hopefully achievable,'' he added.
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.''
It is unclear how long the talks will last but Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months. Lebanon has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.
Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top American diplomat for the Middle East, arrived in Lebanon on Tuesday afternoon to attend the opening session of the talks. Schenker will be joined by American Ambassador John Desrocher, who will serve as the U.S. mediator for these negotiations.
The Israeli delegation will be led by the director-general of the Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri, while the Lebanese four-member team will be led by Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, the army's deputy chief of staff.
Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organisation
Hezbollah, or Party of God, was conceived by Muslim clerics in the 1980s in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982. The Shia group has a political and military wing.
National support against Israel: Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s as an amalgamation of Shia militias and played a major role in the Lebanese civil war. It used guerrilla warfare to drive Israeli forces out of South Lebanon – Israel withdrew in 2000. Israel and Hezbollah fought another war in 2006. Its defence of Lebanon against Israel won it cross-sectarian support and acceptance in Lebanese society
Backed by Iran: since its creation, Hezbollah has received military, financial and political support from Iran and Syria. Today, Hezbollah's military wing is more powerful than Lebanon's own army and has become a major regional paramilitary force
Political apparatus: Hezbollah turned its focus to politics following the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. It represents a large section of the Lebanese Shia population and is allied with other sectarian groups, including Christians. Their political development has mostly come under Hassan Nasrallah (pictured), who became the group's leader in 1992
Armed wing: unlike other parties in Lebanon's multi-sided 1975-1990 civil war, Hezbollah did not disband its armed wing. Some Lebanese political groups, such as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, want Hezbollah to put down its arms. Hezbollah argues its militant wing is necessary to defend against Israel and other external threats
Terror group? A number of countries and bodies, including the United States, Israel, Canada, the Arab League and, most recently, Germany, consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. However, Australia and many European Union countries differentiate between its legitimate political activities and its militant wing
Hezbollah enters Syria's civil war: Hezbollah has been one of the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war. Its entrance into the war helped save Assad, one of its chief patrons; secured weapons supply routes from Syria and formed a buffer zone around Lebanon against Sunni militant groups it feared would take over Syria. As a result it has won considerable support from Shia communities in Lebanon
Sectarianism: Lebanon has long been at the centre of regional power struggles, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, Hezbollah's military and political ascendancy, as well as its intervention in Syria, have also helped stoke Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions in Lebanon and across the region
Renewed conflict with Israel? Iran and Hezbollah have increased their political and military strength through the war in Syria. Israel views this as a threat and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iran/Hezbollah targets in Syria. Israel has vowed to not let Iran and Hezbollah create a permanent presence in Syria. There is growing concern of another war between Hezbollah and Israel that could draw in Iran. (Author: Chase Winter)
The Lebanese team met Lebanon's President Michel Aoun on Tuesday who stressed the talks "are technical negotiations that only deal with marking the maritime border.''
Hezbollah said last week the talks do not indicate a reconciliation with Israel. The Hezbollah bloc in parliament said that defining the border of "national sovereignty'' is the job of the Lebanese state.
Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech two years ago that if asked by the government, his group is ready to use its arsenal, consisting of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, to defend Lebanon's economic rights.
Early on Wednesday, Hezbollah and its Shia ally, the Amal group of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, released a joint statement expressing reservations that the Lebanese team includes civilians, and called for the delegation to be reformed so that it only includes members of the military.
Former Lebanese army general and military expert Elias Farhat wrote this week that the Lebanese team is heading to the talks "armed with the support of the political leadership, the people, and the power of the resistance that guarantees deterring the enemy from carrying any act that infringes on Lebanon's sovereignty.''
The town of Naqoura already hosts monthly tripartite, indirect Israel-Lebanon meetings over violations along the land border.
Israel and Lebanon also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s, when Arab states and Israel worked on peace agreements. The Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel at the time, but Lebanon and Syria did not. (AP)