Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war and with no diplomatic ties, launched a second round of maritime border talks under United Nations and United States auspices to allow for offshore energy exploration.
Local news reports described the meeting on Wednesday as “serious” as the two sides got down to technicalities and the Lebanese delegation pushed for an additional 1,430sq km (550sq miles) to be included in Lebanese territory.
The talks, expected to last for two days, were being held at a base of the peacekeeping group the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) – in the Lebanese border town of Naquora, guarded by army roadblocks and with UN helicopters circling above.
After years of quiet US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel this month said they had agreed to begin the negotiations in what Washington hailed as a “historic” agreement.
The announcement came weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
Lebanon – which last saw military clashes with Israel in 2006 – insists the negotiations are purely technical and do not involve any soft political normalisation with Israel.
“Today’s session is the first technical session,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert who said she expected “detailed discussions on demarcation”.
Talks later wrapped up and were set to resume at 10am (08:00 GMT) Thursday, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press on with its offshore quest for oil and gas.
The search for hydrocarbons has already heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean following repeated Turkish exploration and drilling operations in waters claimed by both Cyprus and Greece.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, Eni and Novatek.
Exploration of one of the blocks is more controversial as part of it is located in an 860sq km (330sq mile) area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon.
Lebanon is expected to adopt a “maximalist approach,” said Haytayan.
The energy expert explained that Lebanese negotiators will likely try to claim areas that fall beyond the disputed zone, including parts of the Karish gas field currently operated by Israel.
“We have to wait to see the reaction of the Israelis,” she said.
An Israeli government statement on Tuesday said its aim was to “examine the possibility of reaching an agreement … between the countries in a way that will enable the development of natural resources in the region”.
While the US-brokered talks look at the maritime border, a UNIFIL-sponsored track is also due to address outstanding land border disputes.
“We have a unique opportunity to make substantial progress on contentious issues along” the border, UNIFIL head Major General Stefano Del Col said in a statement Tuesday.
The meetings have raised faint hopes for a thaw between the neighbours who have repeatedly clashed on the battlefield.
The Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, said on Tuesday that he was “hearing positive voices coming out of Lebanon, who are even talking about peace with Israel”.
Gantz, speaking during a tour of northern Israel, did not specify which Lebanese comments he was referring to.
But they came a day after Claudine Aoun, daughter of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, told Al Jadeed TV that peace with Israel would be conceivable if outstanding issues were resolved.
“We have the maritime border dispute, the issue of Palestinian refugees, and another topic which is more important, which is the issue of natural resources: water, oil and natural gas which Lebanon is depending on to advance its economy,” she said.
When asked directly if she would object to a peace treaty with Israel, she responded: “Why would I object?”
“Are we supposed to stay in a state of war? … I don’t have doctrinal differences with anyone … I have political differences.”
The armed movement Hezbollah, a major force in Lebanese politics, has criticised the maritime talks.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006, and both sides still exchange sporadic cross-border fire.
On Wednesday, Lebanese journalists covering the border talks in Naqoura were forced out of the town by three men who also attacked Lebanon state TV crew members and destroyed their equipment.
One of the journalists in the area said the men introduced themselves as Hezbollah supporters.
Outgoing Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad condemned the “assault” against Tele Liban and said the unidentified perpetrators do not have the authority to bar journalists from accessing the area.
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