NAQOURA, Lebanon (Reuters) - Long-time foes Lebanon and Israel launched talks on Wednesday over their disputed sea border in a brief meeting which the lead Lebanese negotiator described as “the first step on a thousand-mile journey.”
The talks were mediated by the United States, which has pushed for years for negotiations to resolve the dispute and brokered deals last month for two Gulf Arab states to establish full ties with Israel, in a major Middle East realignment.
Both Lebanon and Israel had played down expectations for Wednesday’s meeting which was held outdoors under blue canvas covers near the two countries’ land border.
The talks, the first to be held over the disputed sea boundary, broke up after barely an hour and both sides agreed to meet again in two weeks.
The United States and United Nations, which hosted the meeting, described it as productive, while Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said the Israeli delegation would push ahead with the talks “to give the process a chance”.
Agreement to hold the talks was announced weeks after the United States stepped up pressure on allies of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, imposing sanctions on a senior politician from its main Shi’ite ally, the Amal party.
Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace-making with its long-time enemy.
Graphic: Overlapping claims in disputed east Med exploration area
“Our meeting today will launch the train of technical, indirect negotiations, and represents the first step on a thousand-mile journey for demarcating the southern borders,” the Lebanese army quoted delegation head Brigadier General Bassam Yassin as saying.
“We look forward...to achieving this file within a reasonable timeframe.”
Disagreement over the sea border had discouraged oil and gas exploration near the disputed line.
Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.
The financial meltdown has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.
Wednesday’s meeting was hosted by the United Nations, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 at the end of a 22-year occupation.
Lebanese sources originally said the next talks will be held on Oct 28, but a statement from President Michel Aoun’s office said they would take place two days earlier on Oct. 26.
Hours before the meeting, Hezbollah and Amal called for changes to the Lebanese negotiating team to ensure it included only military officials. The Lebanese presidency has said the talks would be purely technical.
The talks come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under U.S.-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.
Reporting by Dominic Evans, Ellen Francis and Issam Abdallah in Lebanon and Ari Rabinovitchin Jerusalem; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, William Maclean
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