US announces resumption of Lebanon-Israel maritime negotiations

Diplomatic sources told Al Arabiya English that Lebanon backed off its maximalist stance after pressure from Washington

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The United States announced Friday the resumption of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime borders, describing the talks as a “positive step towards a long-awaited resolution.”

Beirut and Tel Aviv had been a decadeslong back and forth over their respective maritime borders before years of US diplomatic efforts led to the first negotiations between Lebanon and Israel last year. Despite officials in Lebanon dubbing the talks “indirect,” representatives from both countries have held several rounds of discussions in the same room at a UN building in south Lebanon.

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But the US suspended the talks last December when Lebanon reneged on its original demands and presented a maximalist stance calling for an extra 1,430 square kilometers (550 sq. miles). The entire disputed area had been over close to 860 sq. kilometers, where there are believed to be large swathes of natural gas reserves.

Lebanon’s new stance was issued in a government decree and signed by ministers in the current caretaker government, but awaits the president's final signature. President Michel Aoun has not signed it, claiming that a cabinet meeting must be held to have it signed.

However, diplomatic sources told Al Arabiya English that pressure from Washington led to Aoun holding off. It was the Free Patriotic Movement, which Aoun founded, that reportedly pushed through the maximalist stance in an effort to “garner popular support as the defender of Lebanon’s rights,” a Lebanese political source said.

David Hale, the outgoing number three official at the State Department, visited Beirut two weeks ago. Al Arabiya English first reported that Hale’s trip was meant to revive the stalled talks.

On Friday, the State Department said that it would mediate talks between Beirut and Tel Aviv next week. John Desrocher, recently the US ambassador to Algeria, will continue heading the US team.

The talks are set to begin on May 4, the State Department said, and they are set to be open-ended, according to diplomatic sources. “The resumption of talks is a positive step towards a long-awaited resolution,” the State Department said.

Multiple US administrations have dispatched envoys to try to broker a deal between the two neighboring countries, but ultimately the breakthrough came during the Trump administration.

It had been unclear if the Biden administration would replace Desrocher and sources close to the US diplomat said he was eager to continue his efforts in mediating. “He has been waiting for the call,” one of Desrocher’s former colleagues said.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s presidency appears to have halted its efforts to push through the previously submitted maximalist stance. “The delegation will not be changed, and the talks will pick up where they left off,” a source from the presidential palace told Al Arabiya English.

The president’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, recently called for a new team to head Lebanon’s delegation. The current delegation includes military officials, oil and gas experts and maritime affairs experts.

Read more: Lebanon’s president says draft maritime decree needs government approval

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