Eastern Mediterranean: Lebanese-Israeli maritime talks

Bassem Aly , Friday 9 Oct 2020

Could talks between Israel and Lebanon on disputed maritime borders lead to a broader rapprochement between the two sides

Lebanese-Israeli maritime talks
Berri, left, the head of Mission and Force Commander of the UNIFIL, Major-General Stefano Del Col from Italy, right, and Lebanese Defence Minister Zeina Akar, centre, pat a conference in Beirut (photo: AP)

Lebanon and Israel will start 10 October negotiations to settle an ongoing dispute between them about maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, aiming to avoid a conflict over offshore gas fields.

The Lebanese army will serve as the “Lebanese negotiator”, Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri stated, while Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will represent Israel in the talks. “Our goal is to bring an end to the dispute over the demarcation of economic water between Israel and Lebanon in order to assist in the development of natural resources for the benefit of all the peoples of the region,” Steinitz said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the agreement between both states on a “common framework for maritime discussions”. “This historic agreement between the two parties was brokered by the United States and is the result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement by Ambassador David Satterfield and Assistant Secretary David Schenker,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo believes that setting a date for Israeli-Lebanese maritime talks is a “vital step forward that serves the interests of Lebanon and Israel, of the region, and of the United States”.

Each side claims roughly 330 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea as part of its exclusive economic zones. As they are looking forward to discover new gas fields in this region, meeting at the negotiating table was inevitable, though they have no official diplomatic relations since the first war between Arab states and Israel in 1948.

Talks will be held in the southern Lebanese city of Naqoura at the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL).

Asaad Abu Khalil, professor of political science at California State University, believes there will be strong internal opposition in Lebanon to this agreement, despite US pressure. “Israel, since its establishment, never respected an international agreement, and it was entirely foolish of this Lebanese government to go for talks with Israel. It is violating the Lebanese boycott of Israel and giving legitimacy to Israeli violations,” he stated.

The announced diplomatic process will take place in the context of significant regional developments. Firstly, the Beirut port explosion of 4 August deepened Lebanon’s already-existing political and socio-economic problems. A donor conference sponsored by France collected 253 million Euros ($298 million) in humanitarian support for Lebanon, which needs $15 billion — according to official estimates — to reconstruct damaged parts of the capital. In addition to this, the explosion left 200 people dead, 300,000 others homeless and thousands injured.

Secondly, on the political level, political forces remain unable to form a new government to replace Hassan Diab’s Hizbullah-backed cabinet that resigned after the explosion. World powers, including the European Union and the United States, warned that they will stop funding Lebanon if political reforms are not successfully adopted.

Hizbullah recently insisted that the new finance minister — who will lead the country’s expected talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new bundle of financial support — has to be a Shia figure, which was rejected by Sunni, Druze and Christian religious leaders in Lebanon.

Thirdly, the United States is pushing rapprochement between Israel and Arab states, successfully managing to finalise normalisation agreements between Tel Aviv and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Trump said that about nine others will join the normalisation process amid talks with Sudan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to accept this type of deal.

However, Karim Al-Mufti, professor of political science and international affairs at Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, said that “in the given balance of power in today’s Lebanon, it is difficult to imagine the country showing serious movement on Israeli normalisation, despite the regional and international pressure build-up as significant Arab countries have just signed separate agreements.”

“Hizbullah will be drawing on its usual narrative of acting as a ‘deterrent force’ to prevent attacks and future occupations from Israel, not to mention its most recently founded mission narrative: to quash IS and radical Islamism (referred to as the takfiriyeen) in the Levant,” Al-Mufti explained.

Al-Mufti noted that talks over the framework agreement on maritime borders have been going on for a while, with intermittent pauses amid changing local and regional conditions. In past decades negotiations were conducted via the Monitoring Committee for the Implementation of the April Agreement, after the Israeli Operation Grapes of Wrath against Lebanon in April 1996, or the Tripartite Committee active since the end of the 2006 aggression against Lebanon, with the participation of UNIFIL officials.

Al-Mufti states that it is not obvious which setting the new framework will resort to, saying that it won’t likely include Lebanese and Israeli officials exchanging in direct talks, as happened in the past. For Al-Mufti, the fact that the framework is negotiated by Berri — an ally of Hizbullah — is enough to “ensure no drastic policy change would result”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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