Lebanon alters delegation for US-led talks with Israel after Hezbollah backlash

The Ras al-Naqoura Crossing, between Lebanon and Israel, Oct. 12, 2020. (AFP)

Lebanon announced its delegation Monday that will take part in US-led talks with Israel later this week to negotiate Beirut and Tel Aviv’s maritime borders, but removed a Foreign Ministry official after pressure from Hezbollah.

After the initial draft of names was revealed to Al Arabiya English last week, Hezbollah and pro-Hezbollah media outlets quickly criticized the inclusion of Lebanese diplomat, Hadi Hashem.

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The Iran-backed militant group has been the main obstacle to moving forward with any direct or indirect talks over disputed borders. But after softening its stance amid an aggressive sanctions program by Washington, Lebanon quickly announced an agreement, on Oct. 1, on the framework for beginning indirect talks with Israel.

An official Lebanese source told Al Arabiya English last week that representing the Lebanese army and heading the delegation would be Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassine. Col. Mazen Basbous, from the navy, was also to be present alongside Wissam Chbat, the head of the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA). Maritime affairs expert Najib Masihi and Hadi Hashem, a senior official from Foreign Ministry, were also on the list.

But after an aggressive media campaign, the list of names announced Monday excluded Hashem, the diplomat. Hezbollah said any diplomatic representation would insinuate a political aspect to the talks, rather than strictly talks on the maritime borders.

Shortly after the Lebanese presidency announced the names, the office of caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab took a jab at the president, saying the names had not been consulted with the premier.

According to political analysts, although the talks appear likely to go ahead, the public disagreement weakens Lebanon’s position going into the negotiations.

On the Israeli side, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will head the delegation. Ehud (Udi) Adiri, director-general of the Energy Ministry, Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister Reuven Azar, and Brig. Gen. Oren Setter from the army will also attend.

As for the US delegation, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker is expected to land in Beirut on Monday night. A statement from the State Department said UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis and Schenker would facilitate the opening session of the negotiations. Schenker will be joined by Ambassador John Desrocher, “who will serve as the US mediator for these negotiations.”

Desrocher is the US Ambassador to Algeria. Before his time as ambassador, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs. He also spent time at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

“As announced on October 1, the framework agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” the State Department said.

The specific dispute on the maritime border is almost a decade old. US diplomat Frederick Hoff went to Beirut in 2011 in an effort to reach a solution after potential offshore oil, and natural gas reserves were discovered.

Hoff came up with what became known as the “Hoff Line,” which would have seen Lebanon get around 550 sq. km. out of the 860 sq. km. that is disputed.

Succeeding Hoff was Amos Hochstein, who was unable to make any notable progress.

The issue sat on the back burner for years until US President Donald Trump was elected and dispatched then-Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson to have a go at getting Lebanon and Israel to reach a deal.

Tillerson’s efforts, like his tenure as the top US diplomat, were short-lived.

Nevertheless, Washington continued hammering away over the years, and Ambassador David Satterfield was handed the file.

Read more: Hezbollah softens stance on Israel maritime border dispute after Lebanese rage

Familiar with both countries and their officials, Satterfield spent significant time flying between Beirut, Washington and Tel Aviv mediating.

Before being appointed as the ambassador to Turkey, Satterfield made notable progress and laid down the initial text between Lebanon and Israel. His efforts were close to succeeding before his time ran out as acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, since 2017.

Schenker was able to push the final agreement forward in recent weeks but was quick to point out that the talks had nothing to do with normalization.

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Last Update: Tuesday, 13 October 2020 KSA 01:08 - GMT 22:08
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