Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war and with no diplomatic ties, held a new round of maritime border talks Wednesday under U.N. and U.S. auspices to allow for offshore energy exploration.
A joint statement released by the United States and the Office of the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon described the talks as “productive.”
“We remain hopeful that these negotiations will lead to a long-awaited resolution. The parties committed to continuing negotiations in early December,” the statement added.
LBCI television said the next round of negotiations will be held on December 2.
The talks were held at a base of the U.N. peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, guarded by army roadblocks and with U.N. helicopters circling above.
Local news reports had said Wednesday’s talks were expected to be “decisive,” and that they could be “brought to a halt shall they fail to make any progress.”
Reports said the atmosphere preceding the round suggested that negotiations have begun to take a difficult turn. Israel has reportedly begun to “pump a negative” atmosphere about the negotiations, they said.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, recently said he “wasn’t optimistic” about the border demarcation talks, because Lebanon was allegedly imposing “difficult” demands that may lead to a conflict instead of a solution.
Steinitz said there is a split in opinions “concerning the borders between the two countries 10 years ago. Lebanon wants a certain line, and Israel wants another line. There is a gap of 5 kilometers between the borders,” according to Steinitz.
Moreover, reports said Israel had “leaked” the secret meeting minutes to its media. They spoke of a “widening” gap between Israel and Lebanon, which, according to reports, requests to obtain 1,500 square kilometers in addition to the disputed 850 square kilometers area.
The Lebanese delegation has documents and maps on the negotiation table proving Lebanon’s right to the borders of its marine waters, in accordance with the recognized law of the sea.
The Lebanese delegation is clinging to Lebanon’s right to a maritime area of 1,430 square kilometers.
Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan has the new phase of talks as a “war of the maps.”
She said the additional area extends into part of the Karish gas field which Israel has assigned to Greek firm Energean for exploration.
– ‘New lines’ –
An Israeli source close to the talks said that, meanwhile, Israel has demanded the sea frontier be moved further north, deeper into areas claimed by Lebanon.
“The Israeli delegation itself presented a line that is north of the border of the dispute, and clarified that no talks will be held on a line that is south of the border of the dispute,” the source said.
The head of the Israeli delegation, energy ministry director general Udi Adiri, earlier this month in a letter to Energean said discussing any areas outside the initial disputed area was out of the question.
“There is no change, and no perspective of change about the status of the Israeli commercial waters south of the disputed area, including of course, Karish and Tanin” gas fields, Adiri wrote in a letter to CEO Shaul Tzemach.
On Wednesday, Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar quoted a well-informed source as saying the talks stood a 50-50 chance of success.
“Both sides went to the talks over 860 kilometers square, but then new lines started to be produced, after the enemy decided the Lebanese demand was a ‘provocation’ and in exchange granted itself the right to put forward new lines not based on any rules in international law,” the newspaper said.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas in Block 9 and Block 4 with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.
Lebanon in April said initial drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves.
Exploration has not started in Block 9, part of which lies in the disputed area.