Lebanon-Israel maritime border negotiations at impasse

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz says Beirut keeps changing its position; Lebanese president denies the charge.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

After last week’s third round of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Beirut’s changing positions on what it claims as its sea boundaries could blow up the demarcation talks between the two sides, Israel Hayom reported Monday.

“Lebanon has changed its stance on the subject of its maritime border with Israel seven times,” Steinitz wrote on Twitter. “Its current position not only contradicts its previous positions, but even Lebanon’s position on its sea border with Syria.”

If Lebanon does not stick to the map that was submitted to the United Nations by both countries, he said, negotiations will come to “a dead end.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun answered on the same forum that Steinitz’s claims are “baseless.”

Sources reported by Reuters said that the borderline publicly stated by Aoun on Thursday more than doubles the size of the disputed area.

After a decade of mediation efforts led by the United States, Israel and Lebanon, talks on marking their maritime borders began in mid-October. Refusing to negotiate with the Israelis directly, or solely through American auspices, the two teams have been sitting in the UN peacekeeping force’s headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon. They are at the same table, but communicate through UN and American personnel.

Lebanon presents the negotiations internally as a technical military issue in order to counter charges by the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah that it is trying to normalize relations with Israel. Solving the border issue would enable foreign companies to start exploring for natural gas in the disputed area, which could potentially bring billions into government coffers, lower Lebanon’s energy costs and create much needed jobs.

Lebanon’s economy needs such investment, as it has been in dire straits in recent years. Israel already has three active offshore natural gas fields; so far, Lebanon has none.

Steinitz then struck a conciliatory tone on his Twitter feed Monday morning, wishing President Aoun a happy Independence Day, which Lebanon celebrated on Sunday, and “a speedy recovery from the crisis you are experiencing.”

Besides dealing with an unstable economy, Lebanon’s government is still in a shambles after an explosion of poorly stored ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port destroyed part of the capital in August, causing some 200 deaths, 6,500 injuries, $15 billion in damage and leaving 300,000 homeless.

‘Enjoying the dialogue’

Steinitz also tweeted, regarding the negotiations, that he was “enjoying the dialogue,”  even if Aoun was mistaken in saying that the Lebanese line has held firm throughout the years. If the two sides could talk directly, he added, the negotiations would be more fruitful.

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“We are convinced that if we were able to meet face to face in one of the European countries in order to conduct open or secret negotiations, we would have a good opportunity to resolve the dispute over the maritime borders once and for all,” Steinitz tweeted. “In doing so, we would be able to contribute to enhancing the economic future and well-being of the two peoples.”

A fourth round of talks is scheduled for December.