Lebanon, Israel to begin negotiations over maritime border

UniqueThis 18 Oct 1

Lebanon and Israel said on Thursday that they would hold direct negotiations to resolve a long-standing maritime border dispute, the latest in a series of U.S.-brokered breakthroughs in the region.

Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz welcomed the news and said: "Our goal is to end the dispute over the demarcation of economic water between Israel and Lebanon in order to help develop natural resources for the benefit of all peoples in the region."

If the direct talks go ahead it will be the first time in 30 years that civil-political negotiations will take place between Israel and Lebanon, according to Steinitz's office.

The talks are expected to be held after the Jewish Sukkot holiday, which ends on Oct. 9, and will be mediated by the U.S. and hosted by the United Nations, according to the statement.

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Lebanon's Parliament speaker Nabih Berri announced the talks during a press conference in Beirut.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and each claim about 330 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea as within their own exclusive economic zones. Both countries hope to explore and develop new gas fields in the area.

The U.S. welcomed the decision, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling it a "historic agreement" and "the result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement."

The maritime boundary discussions are slated to start soon in Naqoura in southern Lebanon under the United Nations flag, Pompeo said in a statement.

Pompeo added that the U.S. looks forward to "separate expert-level talks to define unresolved issues related to the Blue Line," the boundary between Lebanon and Israel demarcated by the U.N. after Israeli forces withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 following an 18-year military occupation.

Pompeo did not give further detail but said the talks "offer the promise of another positive step for regional stability."

Lebanon is currently in the midst of its most severe economic crisis in its modern history and would doubtless welcome access to new economic resources.

Another diplomatic feat in the region, comes after the U.S. brokered agreements to normalize relations between Israel and two Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The agreements — called the Abraham Accords — which were signed last month, were Israel’s first agreements to normalize relations with Gulf states. Israel has historic normalization agreements with two other Arab countries — Egypt and Jordan.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun welcomed the announcement Thursday in a statement from his office, saying he hoped America would continue with its "honest mediation."

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi thanked Pompeo and his staff on Twitter for "their dedicated efforts that led to the beginning of direct talks to mark the sea line between Israel and Lebanon."

"This is an important step that came after three years of diplomatic contacts and would not have been possible without the mediation of the United States," he said, adding that the success of the talks would significantly affect the stability of the region and promote the prosperity of both peoples.

There have been two wars between Israel and Lebanon since Israel was established in 1948 following the Second World War.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the latter’s 1975-1990 civil war to fight Palestinian militants who launched attacks across the border. It occupied a strip of territory in southern Lebanon until 2000.

In 2006, Israel waged a monthlong war with Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group and Iran’s most powerful regional proxy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Saphora Smith

Saphora Smith is a London-based reporter for NBC News Digital. 

Mustafa Kassem is a producer for NBC News.

Paul Goldman is a Tel Aviv-based producer and video editor for NBC News.

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