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US says ‘ball is in Lebanon’s court’ after border talks with Israel halted

Published: Updated:

The latest obstacle to reaching a solution between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime borders came from Beirut last week, US officials said, but the ball is in Lebanon’s court and Washington will remain patient.

After initial talks were held at the end of last year between Lebanese and Israeli officials at a United Nations base in southern Lebanon, the indirect negotiations were put on hold for several months as the US went through a presidential transition.

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But things picked up where they left off after the Biden administration dispatched US Ambassador John Desrocher to continue leading mediation efforts upon an invitation from Beirut and Tel Aviv.

The US diplomat was not expecting only one round of talks when he flew out to Beirut last week.

(L to R) UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis, US Assistant Secretary David Schenker, US ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher, and US ambassador in Lebanon Dorothy Shea, Oct. 14, 2020. (File Photo: AFP)
(L to R) UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis, US Assistant Secretary David Schenker, US ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher, and US ambassador in Lebanon Dorothy Shea, Oct. 14, 2020. (File Photo: AFP)

After a nearly six-hour meeting between Lebanese, Israeli, US and UN officials on May 4, Lebanese President Michel Aoun ordered the country’s delegation to halt participation in the talks. Aoun claimed the US was imposing pre-conditions on the Lebanese side.

US officials, who spoke to Al Arabiya English on condition of anonymity, rejected Aoun’s claims, citing Lebanon’s official stance as disputing 860 square kilometers. Aoun, and the Free Patriotic Movement he founded, recently attempted to push through a maximalist stance, which called for an extra 1,430 sq. km. But a decree on the newly claimed borders to be submitted to the UN awaits Aoun’s signature - which he says must have a consensus by the caretaker government.

It remains unclear to officials in Washington when the talks may resume. “We wouldn’t fly all the way out there [for no reason]. We are entirely well-intentioned in trying to help,” one official said.

After the latest “bump” in the border dispute, the official said the “ball is now in Lebanon’s court.”

Asked if there was frustration on the part of the US following the Lebanese president’s decision, the official said Desrocher, the US diplomat leading mediation efforts, “remains engaged.”

“We have to have patience to work around these things,” the official said.

Washington expended nearly a decade of diplomatic efforts and shuttle diplomacy between Lebanon and Israel in an attempt to get the two sides to sit down for talks. But the current talks are on a framework for the actual negotiations, not discussions on a solution to the borders specifically.

“Before, we were waiting on a breakthrough for talks about the talks [on the border]. Now we’re waiting for a breakthrough for the talks themselves,” the US official said.

A State Department official told Al Arabiya English that the decision to have another round of talks depended entirely on Beirut and Tel Aviv. “We are just there to mediate, at the invitation of both governments, and the UN is hosting the talks. We don’t suspend or resume negotiations - that is their [Lebanon and Israel’s] decision to make,” the official said.

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