Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

Lebanon calls on the US to relaunch Israel border mediation

Lebanon hopes to pave the way for offshore oil and gas exploration.

Ghanaian peacekeepers with the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (Unifil) patrol along the border between Lebanon and Israel in the southern Lebanese town of Ramyeh. AFP
Ghanaian peacekeepers with the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (Unifil) patrol along the border between Lebanon and Israel in the southern Lebanese town of Ramyeh. AFP

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he hopes the United States will resume mediation efforts between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate a contested shared border and pave the way for increased oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea, he said on Tuesday.

President Aoun discussed the matter during a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, who was visiting Lebanon for the first time since he was nominated in June. “Lebanon hopes that the United States will resume its mediation to demarcate land and sea borders in the south where it stopped with [Mr Schenker’s predecessor] Ambassador David Satterfield,” a statement from Baabda Palace said.

Mr Schenker said that the US is keen to “renew its efforts to contribute to the land and maritime border negotiations,” according to the Lebanese state-run National News Agency.

Mr Aoun said that only “a few sticking points” remained in the deal but did not elaborate further.

External mediation is necessary because Israel and Lebanon are technically at war since Israel’s founding in 1948.

They have never established formal diplomatic relations or officially demarcated their borders. On land, they largely respect Israel’s line of withdrawal in 2000 from south Lebanon, or Blue Line, after 22 years of occupation. But no similar agreement exists regarding the maritime border which has been disputed since 2011.

While both countries have allowed the land border dispute to fester for nearly two decades, drawing an officially recognised maritime border is considered urgent because it could unlock lucrative contracts with international oil giants.

In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace, in Baabda east of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. The leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, Hassan Nasrallah, said Schenker visiting Beirut to mediate between Lebanon and Israel over a maritime border dispute is a "friend of Israel." Nasrallah urged Lebanese officials to negotiate from a point of strength. (Dalati Nohra via AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda. Dalati Nohra via AP

Israel has a number of off-shore gas and oil terminals and Lebanon has licensed its first consortium to explore for new fields. While the winners of the bid, Italy’s ENI, Russia’s Novatek and France’s Total, say they will push on with exploration, the proximity of the southern block to the disputed 860 square kilometre wedge in the Mediterranean area has been of some concern.

Two months after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s March visit to Lebanon and Israel, the Lebanese president, prime minister and speaker of parliament presented a “unified” stance on the border to the US.

The three leaders agreed that the maritime borders would have to be discussed in parallel with disputed points that remain along the land border. There had been previous disagreements about whether border and maritime disputes should be discussed separately.

Shortly after the Lebanese announcement, an Israeli official publicly stated in late May that talks would be “for the good of both countries’ interest in developing natural gas reserves and oil.”

But the US administration’s mediation efforts were put on hold a few days later when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, forcing new elections scheduled for next week, on September 17.

“The last thing Netanyahu wants to do in an election phase is to negotiate with the Lebanese government, which he believes is controlled by Hezbollah,” Laury Haytayan, Mena director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in New York, told The National.

Israel’s most important regional enemy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, denies controlling the government though it is allied with President Aoun.

Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah recently spiked as Tel Aviv intensifies its air-strikes against militias loyal to Iran in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

The US considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist organisation.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly said that the group is open to Beirut holding border negotiations with Israel as long as Lebanese officials do not make major concessions.

Hezbollah believes that its presence near the Israeli border represents a major deterrent, according to Mrs Haytayan.

In a speech on Tuesday, Nasrallah said that Lebanese negotiators should “act from a position of strength in any meeting with any American official when discussing oil, gas, water, or borders".

Settling the border dispute could potentially bring more stability and income to both Lebanon and Israel.

Disputed areas along the land border near the Shebaa Farms and the northern side of Ghajar village are often used by Hezbollah to justify its right to hold its arms despite all other Lebanese militias disarming at the end of the civil war in 1990.

Though the exact gas potential in Lebanese waters remains unclear until results of exploratory drilling are concluded, local politicians have repeatedly promised that its extraction will attract foreign investment and solve the country’s economic difficulties.

One important “sticking point” that Mr Aoun may have been alluding to on Tuesday is Lebanon’s request that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) be involved in overseeing talks between the two countries, a demand that Israel was reluctant to consent to earlier this year.

However, UNIFIL’s mandate, which focuses on maintaining a cessation of hostilities along the Blue Line that was renewed in August, does not include mediating border issues.

The ball is now in Israel’s court.

“We have to wait and see what kind of Israeli government emerges from the September 17 elections before knowing how discussions will evolve,” said Mrs Haytayan.

Updated: September 11, 2019 05:00 PM



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