Long-time foes Lebanon and Israel launched unprecedented talks on Wednesday over their disputed sea border in a brief meeting which the lead Lebanese negotiator described as “the first step on a thousand-mile journey.”
The talks were mediated by the United States, which has pushed for years for negotiations to resolve the argument over potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.
Two Lebanese military helicopters were seen bringing the delegation to the meeting. The Lebanese team was led by a military officer, and the Israeli side by the director general of its energy ministry.
They broke up after barely an hour and agreed to meet again in two weeks.
Agreement to hold the talks was announced weeks after the United States stepped up pressure on allies of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, imposing sanctions on senior politician from its main Shi’ite ally, the Amal party.
Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace-making with its long-time enemy. Israel’s energy minister has also said expectations should be realistic.
“Our meeting today will launch the train of technical, indirect negotiations, and represents the first step on a thousand-mile journey for demarcating the southern borders,” the Lebanese army quoted the head of the delegation, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin, as saying.
“We look forward…to achieving this file within a reasonable timeframe.”
The talks come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under U.S.-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.
Wednesday’s meeting was hosted by the United Nations, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 and ended a 22-year occupation. The next talks will be held on Oct 28.
Hours before the meeting, Hezbollah and Amal called for changes to the Lebanese negotiating team to ensure it included only military officials. The Lebanese presidency has said the talks would be purely technical.