Lebanon sets starting point for sea border negotiations with Israel

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Michel Aoun on Thursday specified Lebanon’s starting point for demarcating its sea border with Israel under U.S.-mediated talks, in the first public confirmation of a stance sources say increases the size of the disputed area.

Israel and Lebanon launched the negotiations last month with delegations from the long-time foes convening at a U.N. base to try to agree on the border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area.

A presidency statement said Aoun instructed the Lebanese team that the demarcation line should start from the land point of Ras Naqoura as defined under a 1923 agreement and extend seaward in a trajectory that a security source said extends the disputed area to some 2,300 square km (888 sq. miles) from around 860 sq. km.

Israel’s energy minister, overseeing the talks with Lebanon, said Lebanon had now changed its position seven times and was contradicting its own assertions.

“Whoever wants prosperity in our region and seeks to safely develop natural resources must adhere to the principle of stability and settle the dispute along the lines that were submitted by Israel and Lebanon at the United Nations,” Yuval Steinitz said.

Any deviation, Steinitz said, would lead to a “dead end”.

Last month sources said the two sides presented contrasting maps for proposed borders. They said the Lebanese proposal extended farther south than the border Lebanon had years before presented to the United Nations and that of the Israeli team pushed the boundary farther north than Israel’s original position.

The talks, the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, are due to resume in December.

Israel pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. envoy: Lebanon’s Bassil was open to breaking ties with Hezbollah

By Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S. envoy to Lebanon said on Monday that Lebanese Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who has been sanctioned by the United States, had voiced willingness to sever ties with Hezbollah, challenging his assertion that he rejected the idea outright.

Washington on Friday blacklisted Bassil, son-in-law of Lebanon’s president and leader of its biggest Christian bloc, over charges of corruption and ties with the Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah, which Washington deems a terrorist group.

Bassil slammed the sanctions as unjust and politically motivated, saying they were imposed after he refused to submit to a U.S. demand to break ties with Hezbollah as that would risk Lebanon’s national unity and peace.

U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea told Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV that Bassil, in exchanges with her, had “expressed willingness to break with Hezbollah, on certain conditions.

“He actually expressed gratitude that the United States had gotten him to see how the relationship is disadvantageous to the party,” said Shea, without elaborating on the conditions.

Bassil did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He, along with an array of the political elite, have been the target of mass protests since October 2019 against widely perceived corruption, waste and mismanagement of state funds.

Bassil denied corruption charges and said he would fight the sanctions in U.S. courts and sue for damages. President Michel Aoun said Lebanon would seek evidence from Washington.

“We endeavor to make as much information publicly available as possible when announcing designations, but, as is often the case, some of this information is not releasable,” said Shea, adding that Bassil was welcome to legally contest the blacklisting.

Bassil was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets human rights abuses and corruption. Shea did not rule out further sanctions against him or others in Lebanon.

Washington in September blacklisted two former Lebanese government ministers it accused of directing political and economic favors to Hezbollah.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)