BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri Thursday announced that a framework has been agreed upon to begin indirect US-mediated talks with Israel on land and maritime border demarcation, which will be led by the Lebanese Army.
"The United States was asked by both sides, Israel and Lebanon, to act as a mediator and facilitator to draw up the maritime borders, and it is ready to do this," Berri told a news conference in Beirut.
"On the issue of maritime border, continuous talks will be held at the UN headquarters in Naqoura under UN sponsorship," he said.
"The US representatives and the UN 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," Berri said, adding: "This is a framework agreement, and not a final one."
“We encourage both sides to take advantage of this opportunity to reach a mutually beneficial agreement,” US Embassy spokesperson Casey Bonfield told The Daily Star.
“The talks are not about normalizing relations or establishing diplomatic relations [between Israel and Lebanon], but they are part of an important step forward,” Bonfield stressed, adding, “The issue of sanctions is separate from this announcement.”
UNIFIL in a statement welcomed the announcement, adding that it “stands ready to extend to the parties all the support at its disposal and facilitate efforts toward a resolution of this issue.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also hailed the decision, saying it “will allow both countries to begin discussions, which have the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike."
President Michel Aoun welcomed the news in a statement, saying he was hopeful that the US would “continue its honest mediation.”
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed in a statement that Israel and Lebanon would hold US-mediated talks after Oct. 9.
Berri announced the border talks initiative after US sanctions were imposed on his right-hand man for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, the heavily armed group that Washington deems a terrorist organization.
He also said that he had asked French President Emmanuel Macron to press energy firm Total not to delay exploration for gas in the offshore area that runs along the disputed maritime border region.
Berri’s announcement comes two weeks before US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker is expected to arrive in Beirut.
Despite the agreement, Shenker told reporters after the announcement that there would be no final negotiations with Hezbollah regarding the demarcation of the borders, saying: "The negotiations to demarcate the borders will be under our auspices and will start soon because we are keen on security and stability in the Middle East."
He stressed that the US would continue to impose sanctions on Lebanese individuals allied with Hezbollah or engaged in corruption.
The United States has been leading the efforts to mediate the border talks between Lebanon and Israel as the two countries have been in a state of war since 1948.
Currently, Lebanon disputes 13 land points along the U.N.-demarcated land border, known as the “Blue Line.” While at sea, approximately 856 square kilometers of waters are disputed, and Lebanon and Israel each claim the area to be part of their own exclusive economic zone. Because a land border will ultimately influence where a maritime border begins, it is a key demand of the Lebanese government that both be demarcated simultaneously.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas in two blocks in the Mediterranean. In April Lebanon said that drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves. Exploration of Block 9, has not yet begun and is more controversial as ownership is disputed.