US dispatching envoy to Lebanon, Israel in bid to revive border talks after deadlock

Naqoura, south of the Lebanese city of Tyre, which is controlled by the United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL), on the border with Israel, Oct. 2, 2020. (AFP)

The United States has decided to postpone the next round of maritime border negotiations it is brokering between Lebanon and Israel, sources from Beirut and Tel Aviv said Tuesday, but analysts and officials say this was not unexpected.

Washington is now dispatching its envoy leading the mediation, Ambassador John Desrocher, to both countries to narrow the differences that came up during the first few rounds of talks held at a UN building in south Lebanon.

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The US diplomat will meet with Lebanon’s president, the Lebanese army commander and other senior officials in Beirut on Wednesday before heading to Israel for the same purpose.

“Desrocher is going to meet with both sides … to [help] restart the tripartite negotiations and see what can be done,” a senior Lebanese official told Al Arabiya English on Tuesday.

The Lebanese official said the talks were postponed after both sides rejected one another’s proposals for an expanded maritime border.

Initially, the talks were slated to discuss around 860 sq. kilometers of disputed waters, where there are believed to be large swathes of natural gas reserves.

But Lebanon quickly presented an altered map and called for an extra 1,430 square kilometers (550 sq. miles).

Israel then countered and demanded more.

This resulted in the deadlock, ultimately driving the US to inform both sides that they would not hold the meeting scheduled for Dec. 2.

Hours after the announcement was made that Washington would seek to hold more talks separately with each side, Lebanese website The Daily Star reported that Israel moved to install a naval buoy within waters claimed by Lebanon.

Ahead of Desrocher’s trip - who is also the US Ambassador to Algeria - the State Department said the maritime boundary was a decision for both Lebanon and Israel to make.

Asked for comment on Israel’s installation of buoys in disputed waters, a State Department official told Al Arabiya English: “The United States remains committed to mediating and facilitating at the request of both countries.”

Last week, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said there had been no breakthrough after four rounds of talks and that Lebanon had “so far presented positions which add up to a provocation.”

Steinitz said he expected “many more hurdles and bust-ups” but hoped a breakthrough could be reached in a few months.

However, the recent deadlock comes as no surprise to analysts who say the US elections directly impacted the decision to put the talks on hold.

“In a nutshell, this was a bargaining chip on the negotiation table between Iran and the Americans,” Sami Nader, the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs director, told Al Arabiya English.

Nader said Hezbollah conceded to start the talks earlier this year when they were under the impression that US President Donald Trump had a good chance of winning his re-election bid.

“Now there is a new [incoming US] administration, and Iran is holding back all its cards, including this one,” Nader said, in an apparent reference to Hezbollah’s influence over the decision-making in Lebanon.

Laury Hatayan, the MENA Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute, echoed Nader’s opinion.

“Now [Joe] Biden has won, so we don’t know what his position will be on these negotiations,” Hatayan said. She expects delays on any progress until Biden decides if he will use the same US delegation and same framework.

However, Hatayan was quick to point out that there were also purely technical issues at hand. “The US wants to hold bilateral meetings [separately] for the sake of rapprochement because there is a divergence on points of views.”

Nevertheless, she said the US was “definitely buying time” as a new administration prepares to take over the White House.

Read more:

Lebanon demands extra 1,430 sq. km. in US-brokered talks with Israel

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

- with Reuters

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Last Update: Wednesday, 02 December 2020 KSA 23:21 - GMT 20:21
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