Lebanon and Israel, long-time foes, to start talks on disputed waters
BEIRUT / JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Lebanon and Israel, formally still at war after decades of conflict, are holding talks Wednesday to resolve a longstanding dispute over their maritime border, which runs through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.
The US-brokered talks follow three years of intense Washington diplomacy and were announced less than a month after the US increased pressure on political allies of the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.
They are also coming after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to forge full relations with Israel under US-brokered agreements that are realigning some of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East against Iran.
Hezbollah, which had a five-week conflict with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace building with their longtime enemy. The Israeli energy minister also said expectations for Wednesday's meeting should be realistic.
"We're not talking about peace and normalization negotiations, we're talking about trying to resolve a technical, economic dispute that has been delaying the development of natural offshore resources for 10 years," tweeted Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Still, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the decision to continue talks historic, saying Washington looks forward to separating talks later over differences of opinion on the two countries' land borders.
The meeting on Wednesday is hosted by the United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which has been monitoring the controversial land border since Israel's military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and ended a 22-year occupation.
According to a Lebanese security source, the two sides will meet in the same room at the UNIFIL base in southern Lebanon but will conduct their talks through an intermediary.
Disagreements over the maritime border had hampered exploration for oil and gas near the disputed line.
That may be a bit of an irritation for Israel, which is already pumping gas from huge offshore fields. For Lebanon, which is not yet finding commercial reserves in its own waters, the problem is more pressing.
Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war and its currency has collapsed. The financial collapse was compounded by an explosion that destroyed part of Beirut and killed nearly 200 people in August, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Lebanese politicians fought to form a new government to deal with the numerous crises and even argued this week over the formation of their negotiating team. The Prime Minister's Office complained that this was not consulted by the Presidency.
Hezbollah's political ally, the Shiite Amal party, has also come under pressure. Last month, the United States sanctioned Amal leader Nabih Berri's top adviser for corruption and financial support for Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist organization.
For Hezbollah and Amal, the decision to open the border talks was "a tactical decision to neutralize tension and the prospect of sanctions ahead of the US election," said Mohanad Hage Ali, a Carnegie Middle East Center official.
Berri, an influential Shiite leader responsible for the border file, has denied being pushed into the talks. [nL8N2GS4DV]
In 2018, Beirut licensed a group from Eni from Italy, Total from France and Novatek from Russia to conduct the delayed offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them, Block 9, contains waters that are disputed with Israel.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Dominic Evans in Beirut and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, editing by William Maclean)
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