(JTA) — Israeli and Lebanese officials began direct negotiations over their maritime border in the Mediterranean Sea, marking the first time the two nations have consulted over a non-security issue in decades.
Officials from both sides, who met Wednesday in the Lebanese border town of Naquora, stressed that the discussions were not a step towards a normalization of relations, The New York Times reported. Two of Israel’s Arab neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have recently signed peace deals with Israel, opening the door for full diplomatic relations and increased trade and tourism.
Lebanon and Israel are technically still at war, having never signed an official peace treaty after decades of conflict beginning right after Israel’s founding. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is one of the region’s main violent aggressors against Israel.
“We’re not talking about peace talks or negotiations over normalization, but rather about the attempt to solve a technical-economic problem that for a decade has been preventing us from developing natural resources in the sea for the benefit of the people of the region,” Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Monday, according to The Times of Israel.
At stake in the talks, which are being mediated by the United Nations and the United States, is a zone of over 300 square miles full of natural gas that is claimed by both countries. Lebanon hopes an agreement could help its ailing economy, which has one of the highest GDP-to-debt ratios in the world.
The next meeting in the process is scheduled for Oct. 28.