Israel and Lebanon Begin Talks on Sea Border, With U.S. as Mediator

Israel and Lebanon Begin Talks on Sea Border, With U.S. as Mediator

Israel and Lebanon Begin Talks on Sea Border, With U.S. as Mediator

Israel and Lebanon Begin Talks on Sea Border, With U.S. as Mediator

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon and Israel kicked off their first negotiations in 30 years on nonsecurity issues, aiming to end a long-running dispute over their maritime border in the gas-rich Mediterranean Sea.

The brief first session on Wednesday was hosted by the United Nations and mediated by the United States, whose diplomats worked for years to get the negotiations going before the two sides announced on Oct. 1 that they had agreed on a framework for talks.

At issue is more than 330 square miles in the Mediterranean that Israel and Lebanon both claim is in their exclusive economic zone. Pressure to resolve the dispute has mounted as Israel and Cyprus have begun exploiting offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon has sought to do the same, hoping the new industry can assuage its profound economic woes.

It was not immediately clear whether any progress was made during the first session in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, near the Israeli border. The meeting lasted about an hour and the teams are expected to gather again on Oct. 28.

The Lebanon-Israel talks follow normalization agreements between Israel and two Gulf States — Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. They were the third and fourth Arab states to recognize Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.

But officials on both sides of the talks said that they sought to address only the maritime border and that normalization was not on the table.

The Israeli team was headed by the director general of its energy ministry, Udi Adiri, and the Lebanese delegation was headed by Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, the army’s deputy chief of staff for operations.

The talks were held in a United Nations base where representatives from Lebanon and Israel have regular talks about security issues along their disputed border. Under the framework agreement, the delegations were not supposed to address each other directly, but instead to communicate through intermediaries from the United States.

General Yassin said in a statement released by the Lebanese Army before the talks began that they were “technical, indirect negotiations.” He called the talks “the first step on a 1,000-mile journey,” but added that he hoped the issue would be resolved “within a reasonable time frame.”

The idea of negotiating with Israel has not been without controversy in Lebanon, because the two countries are still technically at war and many Lebanese feel deep animosity toward their neighbors to the south.

After President Michel Aoun named the four members of the Lebanese delegation this week, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that the president’s doing so without consulting him violated the Constitution. Mr. Aoun’s office responded that such statements weakened the Lebanese negotiating position.

And early Wednesday, Hezbollah and Amal, two powerful Shiite political parties in Lebanon who are staunchly anti-Israel, released a statement saying that the inclusion of civilian officials in the Lebanese negotiating team was “a surrender to the Israeli logic that wants any form of normalization.” They called for the committee’s members to be changed.

That opposition did not derail the start of the talks, but could undermine broad acceptance of any accord the negotiators might reach.

Israel has three objectives for the talks, said Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin of the Institute for National Security Studies, an independent research organization in Tel Aviv: to deny Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful military force, an excuse for war with Israel; to diminish the possibility that Hezbollah will target its gas drilling platforms; and to show the Lebanese that they can benefit from cooperation with Israel.

Among Hezbollah’s grievances against Israel are disputes over land and maritime borders.

For Lebanon, a maritime border agreement would facilitate the search for oil and gas in its territorial waters and their potential exploitation, which could earn the country much needed income. Lebanon’s currency has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar over the last year, and its debt-to-G.D.P. ratio is one of the world’s highest.

Lebanon’s leaders have said that developing an oil and gas industry could help the country pay its debts.

David M. Halbfinger contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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