Lebanon and Israel are to begin indirect talks over their disputed maritime border, with US officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely technical and not a sign of any normalisation of ties.
The talks will be held at the headquarters of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura from Wednesday. It is unclear how long they will go on for.
The development comes against the backdrop of Lebanon’s spiralling economic crisis, the worst in its modern history and following a wave of US sanctions that recently included two influential former cabinet ministers allied with the armed Hezbollah group.
Israel, the US, as well as some other Western and Arab countries consider the Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
Israel has said that there will be “direct negotiations”, something Lebanese officials have denied. It is expected the two delegations will be sitting in the same hall.
Israel has sent a six-member team, including the director-general of its energy ministry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser and the head of the army’s strategic division.
Lebanon’s four-member delegation comprises two army officers, a Lebanese oil official and a maritime border law expert.
Hezbollah and its ally Amal have criticised the delegation that will represent Lebanon at the talks.
A statement from Lebanon’s two main Shia parties, coming just hours before the meeting was due to start, called for reform of the negotiating team which they said must include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians.
On Monday, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon” and argued that Israel was the real “beneficiary”.
The talks come weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt did so in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
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.
Lebanon’s outgoing Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi said Lebanese negotiators will be “more fierce than they expect because we have nothing to lose”.
He added that if Lebanon’s economy collapses, “there is no interest in making concessions”.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top American diplomat for the Middle East, arrived in Lebanon on Tuesday afternoon to attend the opening session of the talks.
Schenker will be joined by American Ambassador John Desrocher, who will serve as the US mediator for these negotiations.