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Are quiet Lebanon-Israel talks a harbinger of peace?

Are quiet, below-the-radar talks between Lebanon and Israel a harbinger of broader rapprochement? In Lebanon’s capital city and across the border in Israel, there’s a gathering consensus that something like peace is possible.

“Looking at it from a political and economic lens, we as Lebanese are sinking by ourselves, so it is now time that we think what would be best to save our Lebanon from the economical crash, and if opening the borders with Israel helps it, then let it be,” said Zina M, a Lebanese activist who requested anonymity. “It doesn’t mean that we are becoming allies; we still need to sort our 75 years of enemy culture, but we need to think about business in 2020 and save Lebanon economically and financially. Opening the borders will help Lebanon breathe in many ways.”

Defining those borders is one sensitive item on the table at talks that opened Oct. 14 — the first in 30 years — between the two long-time foes. It’s the most serious attempt yet to come to an agreement over the disputed Lebanese-Israeli maritime borders and gas drilling operations.

“Israel’s interest is truly and really for the Lebanese people to enjoy a better life – hence the win-win nature of the probable compromise on the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) question,” said Dr. Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “But it also in Israel’s long-term interest that there should be a Lebanese People—capital ‘P’—rising above the miasma of sectarian hatreds that today enables Iran’s mullahs, through the services of their Hezbollah proxies, to use Lebanon’s soil for their purposes.”

The first session of the long-awaited talks were held at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, and mediated by US officials. It marked the first time in history the two sides held direct negotiations over civilian matters.. The talks are scheduled to resume on October 28, when maps will be laid out.

According to Lebanon, there is an estimated 96 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and 865 million barrels of oil offshore near the disputed borders. The talks aim to reach an agreement over 2,290 square kilometers. Israel would like to have a percentage of the contested area of 860 square kilometers that Lebanon is claiming.

This is not the first time that the two warring states have discussed boundary issues.

Following the 1996 Israeli-Lebanese Ceasefire Understanding, commonly known as The Grapes of Wrath Understandings—an informal written agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, mediated by the US, which ended the 1996 military conflict between the two sides—a Monitoring Committee was set up to discuss violations of understandings between the two states. A tripartite committee was also established at the end of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war under the auspices of the UNIFIL (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon). It regularly meets in south Lebanon in an effort to manage the ongoing conflict between both sides.

The current negotiations take place during one of Lebanon’s darkest moments in modern history. Just over two months ago, a tragic blast at Beirut’s port on August 4 tore Lebanon’s capital to pieces. Lebanese are rebuilding their city against the backdrop of the country’s spiraling economic crisis and an accelerating rise in coronavirus cases. Lebanon’s bleak outlook has been further clouded by a wave of US sanctions against Hezbollah, which it considers to be a terrorist group.

The Israeli Lebanese maritime negotiations also come one month after the historic Israel-United Arab Emirates normalization agreement, officially known as the Abraham Peace Agreement, was signed at the White House in Washington D.C. As of late, much change has been brewing between Israel and the Arab world. On Friday, Sudan announced it will normalize ties with Israel.

Could the successful negotiation of these maritime borders signal the start of rapprochement between two great foes? Both Israelis and Lebanese hint that the negotiation of these borders does not mean that both countries are ready for normalization. Yet if the borders are successfully resolved, it could be the start of a new chapter in the relation of both states.

Saleh Barakat, an art collector and gallery owner in Beirut

Saleh Barakat, an art collector and gallery owner in Beirut Image by ©Sueraya Shaheen

“Of course, we are all looking for peace and to find a peaceful place to live in,” said Saleh Barakat, an art collector and gallery owner in Beirut. “We want to normalize relations with Israel, but we need to sort out various problems between the two nations. Until then, we’d better stick to the Truce treaty of 1949 that defines clearly the relationship between Lebanon and Israel, instead of being in a perpetual state of war that doesn’t allow for stability in education and economy.”

Across the border in Israel, Dr Udi Evental, a senior research fellow at the IDC Herzliya, a private research college in Israel, echoed the sensitivity that discussions regarding normalization could bring up.

“Given the extreme sensitivity in Lebanon vis-à-vis the issue of the maritime negotiations with Israel, it is paramount that official Israeli leaders maintain a low profile and refrain from statements regarding the possibility of moving towards normalizing relations with Lebanon,” he said.

While all agree that it is too early to normalize relations between both countries, Ruth Wasserman Lande, founder and executive director of Ruth Strategic Consultancy and former senior advisor to the late President Shimon Peres, notes that there is“an inherent kinship” between Israel and Lebanese due to cultural and geographic factors.

“It is yet too early to speak about normalizing relations or anything close to this between Israel and Lebanon, and yet I know that many Israelis, much like myself, yearn to visit the country and embrace its people,” she said. “Perhaps if the border disputes between the two countries could be solved, we might begin to see the very initial seeds of what the future holds.”

Rebecca Anne Proctor is a journalist based in Dubai and Beirut.

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