Lebanon and Israel to hold 'historic' maritime border talks

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A United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) naval ship is pictured in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, close to border with Israel (19 March 2018)Image source, AFP
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Lebanon and Israel have declared overlapping boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea

Lebanon and Israel are to hold talks to end a long-running maritime border dispute between the two countries, which remain formally at war.

The speaker of the Lebanese parliament said a "framework" had been agreed for the negotiations, which will take place under the auspices of the UN.

Israel's energy minister said the talks would begin after mid-October.

The US welcomed what it called an "historic agreement" following almost three years of mediation.

"This offers the potential for greater stability, security, and prosperity for citizens in both nations," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted.

Lebanon and Israel have declared overlapping boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and a resolution of the dispute would allow them to exploit offshore natural gas fields.

The neighbouring states have technically remained at war since the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948-49.

While there is no agreed land border between them, they are committed to a ceasefire along the so-called Blue Line.

The boundary was drawn up by the UN after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending 22 years of occupation.

It is one of the region's tensest frontiers, where Israel forces face those of the Lebanese army and the Shia militant group, Hezbollah, and peacekeepers from the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (Unifil) attempt to maintain calm.

In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war that killed some 1,190 Lebanese and 163 Israelis. The conflict ended in a UN-brokered ceasefire.

Image source, EPA
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Nabih Berri read out a copy of the framework agreement at a news conference in Beirut

Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri - who heads the Shia Amal movement, an ally of Hezbollah - told reporters in Beirut on Thursday that the border talks would take place at the headquarters of Unifil in the southern Lebanese coastal town of Naqoura.

Mr Berri read out a copy of the framework agreement, which he stressed was "not a final one".

"This framework agreement draws the way for the Lebanese negotiator, which will be the Lebanese army with its efficient leadership and its specialised officers, sponsored by the Lebanese president and any future government."

Mr Berri said the agreement was reached before the US imposed sanctions on several Lebanese politicians. They included one of his senior aides, outgoing Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who the US accused of providing material support to Hezbollah and engaging in corruption.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who will lead the Israeli delegation, said the "direct negotiations" were expected to start after the Jewish festival of Sukkot ends on 10 October.

"Our goal is to bring an end to the dispute over the demarcation of economic water between Israel and Lebanon in order to assist in the development of natural resources for the benefit of all the peoples of the region," he added.

Image source, Reuters
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Israel is developing natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea

The announcement comes only weeks after Israel and two Gulf Arab states signed US-brokered agreements to normalise their relations.

It also follows a massive explosion in Lebanon's capital in August that killed almost 200 people and caused as much as $4.6bn (£3.6bn) of physical damage to buildings and infrastructure.

The disaster, which is still under investigation, happened when a fire triggered the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at the city's port.

Lebanon was already reeling from an economic crisis that had caused its currency to collapse, driven up unemployment and plunged many into poverty.

The government resigned in the wake of the Beirut blast and Western powers are demanding that its replacement implement reforms to unlock financial aid.

On Saturday, Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib stepped aside after failing to agree a cabinet line-up. His difficulties reportedly centred on Amal and Hezbollah, who demanded the right to nominate some ministers.