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An Israeli naval boat off the coast near the border with Lebanon. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty

Israel and Lebanon announced today they will launch direct talks on their maritime border — mediated by the U.S. and under the auspices of the UN — to attempt to resolve a dispute over natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Why it matters: These will be the first such talks in 30 years between the countries, and the revenues at stake could reach the tens of billions of dollars.

What to expect: The talks are expected to begin in two weeks at a UN base on the border of Israel and Lebanon, Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz said.

  • The Lebanese military will lead the talks from the Lebanese side, while Israel will be represented by officials from its Energy and Foreign ministries, as well as the Israeli army.
  • U.S. assistant secretary for Near East Affairs David Schenker and his team will mediate, with UN diplomats also participating in the talks as monitors.

The big picture: There have been major natural gas discoveries off the coasts of both countries over the last decade, and the border dispute has halted gas exploration in an area that has attracted the interest of U.S. energy companies.

  • Similar negotiations nearly began last June, before the Lebanese government withdrew under pressure from Hezbollah.
  • The U.S. decided to renew its efforts in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion and Lebanon's economic crisis, and with Hezbollah facing growing domestic criticism.
  • Schenker visited Jerusalem and Beirut several times in recent weeks and managed to get both parties to agree to talks.

What they're saying: Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said the talks were three years in the making and would not have been possible without the "dedicated efforts" of the U.S. and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

  • Pompeo welcomed the talks, which he said have “the potential to yield greater stability, security and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike."
  • Schenker said in a briefing with reporters that the talks will begin the week of Oct. 12 in the village of Naqoura in southern Lebanon. He said the talks would not deal in any way with normalization between Israel and Lebanon but only with the maritime border.

What’s next: Pompeo said the U.S. also looks forward to separate expert-level talks to define unresolved issues related to the land border between Israel and Lebanon.

Go deeper

Jan 7, 2021 - World

Scoop: Netanyahu demands full control over Israel's Iran policy, sparking pushback

Netanyahu (R) and Biden in 2010. Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO via Getty

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding full control of Israel's Iran policy as Joe Biden prepares to assume the Oval Office, setting off a fierce fight at the highest echelons of Israel's government, senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to take a very hard line over Biden's plan to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, in contrast with the more moderate approach favored by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and the heads of Israel's security services.

Jan 6, 2021 - World

Netanyahu aides fret that "Obama people" will shape Biden's Iran policy

Some members of Netanyahu's inner circle aren't happy to see Susan Rice and John Kerry back in the White House.

Members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner circle are concerned that President-elect Joe Biden is filling his administration with veterans of the Obama administration, some of whom they've had difficult relations in the past, particularly over Iran.

Why it matters: The Biden and Netanyahu administrations are on course for an early clash over the Iran nuclear deal. Several of Netanyahu’s aides at the Israeli National Security Council have been grumbling about the fact that Biden will be surrounded by "Obama people" — including the deal's architects and some of its fiercest advocates.

The Biden protection plan

Joe Biden announces his first run for the presidency in June 1987. Photo: Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

The Joe Biden who became the 46th president on Wednesday isn't the same blabbermouth who failed in 1988 and 2008.

Why it matters: Biden now heeds guidance about staying on task with speeches and no longer worries a gaffe or two will cost him an election. His staff also limits the places where he speaks freely and off the cuff. This Biden protective bubble will only tighten in the months ahead, aides tell Axios.