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An Israeli soldier walks past a sign at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Israel and Lebanon, in northern Israel, on Oct. 14, 2020.

Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press

Lebanon and Israel began indirect talks on Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties.

The U.S. has been mediating the issue for about a decade, but only earlier this month was a breakthrough reached on an agreement for a framework for U.S.-mediated talks.

The development comes against the backdrop of Lebanon’s spiralling economic crisis, the worst in its modern history, and following a wave of U.S. sanctions that recently included two influential former Cabinet ministers allied with the militant Hezbollah group. Israel, the United States, as well as some other Western and Arab countries consider the Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

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Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome the crisis and pay back its massive debt that stands at 170 per cent of the GDP, making it one of the highest in the world.

Israel already has developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.

The U.S.-mediated talks began at a UN post along the border known as Ras Naqoura, on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura. The Lebanese delegation will speak through UN and U.S. officials to the Israelis.

Wednesday’s talks took place in an outdoor setting because of the coronavirus. Lebanon and Israel have been hit hard by the virus, and both have reported thousands of new cases in recent days.

Later, local media in Beirut reported that the Lebanese delegation refused to appear in a joint photo with the Israeli team and the U.S. and UN officials. A photo released after the meeting showed the U.S. and UN officials without the Lebanese or the Israelis.

Lebanon’s state news agency said Wednesday’s session ended around noon and that the next session will be held on Oct. 28. A statement by the president’s office said the next session will take place on Oct. 26. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

The Lebanese delegation headed back to Beirut immediately after the session and did not attend a lunch hosted by UN officials. The Israeli delegation also did not take part in the lunch, according to a UN official, who spoke condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the talks.

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Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometres (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.

A joint statement released by the U.S. State Department and Jan Kubis, the UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon, said the two teams “held productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month.”

The head of the Lebanese delegation, Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, said it was “the first step of a thousand-mile journey,” according to a text released the Lebanese army.

Yassin said Beirut hopes that the talks will be concluded within a “reasonable period,” adding that the negotiations will be based on international law, the 1949 Lebanon Israel Armistice Agreement, and the 1923 Paulet–Newcombe Agreement between France and Britain that drew the boundaries between the British mandate of Palestine and the French mandate of Lebanon.

The Israeli delegation was led by the director-general of the Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri. A statement by the Israeli delegation said the sides discussed Wednesday the “processes for continuing the discussions and set the agenda for future talks.” The team members reported back to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who approved they continue with the talks in the coming weeks.

“We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalization or some kind of peace process,” said a senior official with Israel’s energy ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations. “Our aim is very strict and limited and therefore hopefully achievable.”

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Lebanon, which began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months, has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocs, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top American diplomat for the Middle East, and American Ambassador John Desrocher who serve as the U.S. mediators for these negotiations, attended Wednesday’s meeting.

The Lebanese team had met Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun on Tuesday, who stressed the talks “are technical negotiations that only deal with marking the maritime border.”

Hezbollah said last week the talks do not indicate a reconciliation with Israel. Its bloc in parliament said that defining the border of “national sovereignty” is the job of the Lebanese state.

Early Wednesday, Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, the Amal group of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, released a joint statement expressing reservations that the Lebanese team includes civilians, and called for the delegation to be reformed so that it only includes members of the military.

Ras Naqoura already hosts monthly tripartite, indirect Israel-Lebanon meetings over violations along the land border.

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Israel and Lebanon also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s, when Arab states and Israel worked on peace agreements. The Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel at the time but Lebanon and Syria did not.

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