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.

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