BEIRUT — Lebanon and Israel said on Thursday they will hold US-brokered negotiations on their disputed land and maritime borders, in what Washington hailed as a “historic” agreement between two sides technically still at war.
The United States will act as a facilitator during the UN-backed talks to be held in the southern Lebanon border town of Naqoura, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told a news conference in Beirut, without giving a date.
US envoy David Schenker said the negotiations would start in the week of October 12.
In Israel, Energy Minister Youval Steinitz said in a statement that there would be “direct negotiations”.
According to Israel, bilateral negotiations with Lebanon have been suspended since 1994.
But an adviser to Berri, Ali Hamdan, said the talks would be “indirect”.
“They will sit in the same room, but there will be no direct conversation between both sides. It will rather be via the UN team,” he told AFP.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed what he called a “historic” agreement between the two countries to discuss their disputed borders, a “result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement”.
Berri said a framework agreement had been reached to start the negotiations, and read out a September 22 copy of it.
The United States was asked “by both sides, Israel and Lebanon, to act as a mediator and facilitator to draw up the maritime border, and it is ready to do this,” he quoted it as saying.
Blue Line up for discussion
“On the issue of the maritime border, continuous talks will be held at the UN headquarters in Naqoura under UN sponsorship,” Berri said.
“The US representatives and the US special coordinator for Lebanon are prepared to provide meeting minutes together that they will sign and present to Israel and Lebanon to sign at the end of each meeting,” he added.
Talks would also address disputed areas along the Blue Line, a UN-drawn land border between the two countries established in 2000 after Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon.
They aim at an agreement “on the land border in relation to the Blue Line, after the signature of Lebanon, Israel and UNIFIL”, the UN peacekeeping force patrolling the shared frontier.
The Lebanese president welcomed the negotiations.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi thanked “Pompeo and his staff for their dedicated efforts that have led to the beginning of direct talks”.
“I believe that success in the talks will significantly contribute to the stability of the region and promote prosperity for the citizens of both Israel and Lebanon,” he said.
UNIFIL said in a statement that it welcomed the announcement “of a framework agreement to launch negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on maritime and land boundary demarcation between the two countries”.
Israel and Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement fought a devastating war in 2006.
At the time, then prime minister Fouad Siniora said that Lebanon would be the “last Arab country to make peace with Israel”.
The issue of the maritime border is particularly sensitive due to the possible presence of hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas in two blocks in the Mediterranean 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 of the other one, Block 9, has not started and is more controversial as ownership is disputed.
Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan said both sides agreeing on the maritime frontier was in Lebanon’s interest so it could press forward with oil and gas exploration off its coast.
The maritime “border demarcation is necessary because first it will facilitate work on Block 9, and could also spark interest from international firms for Block 8, more than half of which lies in the disputed area”, she said.