Lebanon and Israel began negotiations about their Mediterranean Sea maritime borders in October to try to resolve a dispute that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area. Here's what we know:

This file photo shows the base for UN peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon. on November 11, 2020.
This file photo shows the base for UN peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon. on November 11, 2020. (Aziz Taher / Reuters)

Lebanon and Israel have resumed US-mediated talks on a dispute about their Mediterranean Sea border.

Negotiations between the old foes began in October to try to resolve the dispute which has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, but the talks stalled. Tuesday talks will reopen issues of border issues to both sides.

The countries held several rounds of talks hosted by the United Nations at a peacekeepers base in southern Lebanon, the culmination of three years of diplomacy by the United States.

Resolving the border issue could pave the way for lucrative oil and gas deals on both sides.

And Lebanon's economy needs all the help it can get. Its unprecedented financial meltdown has pushed most Lebanese into poverty since 2019 and has sent the price of staple foods soaring.  

What is the background to Lebanon and Israel talks?

Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war. They have no diplomatic relations. 

Israel invaded Lebanon twice during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war to battle Palestinians who had launched cross-border attacks, and it occupied a strip of territory in southern Lebanon until 2000. The United Nations has monitored the land boundary since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 at the end of the 22-year occupation.

In 2006, Israel and Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group fought a 34-day war to a draw.

The US  has pushed for years for negotiations to resolve the dispute and brokered deals for two Gulf Arab states to establish full ties with Israel, but to no success.

Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite indirect meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along their border.

What is Lebanon and Israel's maritime dispute about?

The issue of the shared maritime border is sensitive, mainly because of a dispute over coastal drilling rights.

They each claim about 860 square kilometres (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones.

The two nations have been negotiating based on a map registered with the United Nations in 2011.

But Lebanon considers that map to have been based on wrong estimates and in April demanded an additional 1,430 sq km (552 sq miles) of sea farther south, which includes part of Israel's Karish gas field, according to Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan. 

It also includes Block 72, a few kilometers east of Karish, which the Israeli government gave Noble Energy permission to conduct exploratory drilling in 2019.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the demarcation line should start from the land point of Ras Naqoura, as defined under a 1923 agreement, and extend seaward in a trajectory that extends the disputed area.

READ MORE: A weaponless warzone: Lebanon is already past the brink of collapse

A map shows ten offshore blocks for which the Lebanese Cabinet approved licenses for three international companies to carry out exploratory drilling off the Lebanese coast, at the Energy ministry, in Beirut, Lebanon. February 1, 2018.
A map shows ten offshore blocks for which the Lebanese Cabinet approved licenses for three international companies to carry out exploratory drilling off the Lebanese coast, at the Energy ministry, in Beirut, Lebanon. February 1, 2018. (Hussein Malla / AP)

Who benefits from the current border?

Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields elsewhere in its economic waters.

Israel’s Leviathan field, located 130 km (80 miles) off Israel’s coast, already supplies the Israeli domestic market and exports gas to Jordan and Egypt. Its shareholders include Chevron and Delek Drilling.

But Lebanon has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Two blocks (4 and 9) in the eastern Mediterranean are part of the deal, but Israel claims that part of Block 9 belongs to the Jewish state.

Lebanon began offshore drilling in early 2020 and wants to soon start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel.

Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

The financial meltdown has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.

In 2020, Lebanon’s then parliament speaker Nabih Berri Berri, said the gas discoveries on the Israeli side of the Mediterranean “prove that there are reserves and God willing this will help us pay our debt.” Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world standing at about 170 percent of its GDP.

Three of Lebanon's 10 offshore blocks are along the disputed maritime border with Israel.

READ MORE: No hope as Lebanon gazes into the economic abyss

Did the last talks achieve anything?

They ended on a relatively positive note, which the lead Lebanese negotiator described as "the first step on a thousand-mile journey."

The negotiations began last in October and were postponed in November.

They were the first non-security talks between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war.

The talks were mediated by the United States, which has pushed for years for negotiations to resolve the dispute and brokered deals last month for two Gulf Arab states to establish full ties with Israel, in a major Middle East realignment.

What are the possible hurdles?

In November, the Israeli side blamed Lebanon for “so far presenting positions that add up to a provocation”. 

A Lebanese security source said the reason for the delay was Israel’s rejection of Lebanese proposals.

Israel has accused Lebanon of changing its position seven times and of contradicting its own assertions.

Another hurdle is that Lebanon's bickering politicians are either unwilling or unable to form a government.

Earlier this month, Lebanon's outgoing public works minister, Michel Najjar, signed a decree to extend the claim to include the 1,430 sq KM (550 sq miles) at sea but the decree still requires the president's signature. 

The Lebanese government resigned in August and is acting in a caretaker capacity.  

Efforts to form a new one have so far failed. Prime-Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri has not been able to form a Cabinet six months after he was chosen for the prime minister's post amid deep disagreements between him and Aoun.

The country's leadership is also not united behind the army command’s decision regarding the extended area.

The US stepped up pressure on Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah’s allies in Lebanon, imposing sanctions on a senior politician from its main Shia ally, the Amal party.

Hezbollah continues to dominate Lebanon politics and underpins President Michel Aoun Aoun’s presidency. 

With a new administration in Washington reassessing policy towards Iran, Hezbollah has appeared reluctant to fully back a new government that might be seen as offering a concession to Saudi- and Western-backed rivals such as Hariri.

Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, could also pose a hurdle as it continues to exchange fire with Israel

Hezbollah said in October that the talks are not a sign of peace-making with Israel.

READ MORE: Is Hezbollah heading for an early exit from Syria?

Source: TRTWorld and agencies