De­cide on bor­der talks with Is­rael, non­cha­lant Schenker says

U.S. of­fi­cial says talks key to un­lock­ing re­sources that can ben­e­fit econ­omy

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Haboush

AWKAR, Le­banon: A top U.S. diplo­mat tasked with help­ing to find a so­lu­tion to the bor­der dis­pute with Is­rael threw down the gaunt­let Wed­nes­day, call­ing on the Le­banese govern­ment to take a de­ci­sion on start­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with Is­rael.

“I mean, I want to make it so that you can en­ter into ne­go­ti­a­tions with your neigh­bors. It would be great if you did, but if you don’t, I’m go­ing to go back home and eat din­ner. It’s not go­ing to keep me awake,” the newly ap­pointed U.S. As­sis­tant State Sec­re­tary for Near Eastern Af­fairs David Schenker said.

Le­banon has been locked in a bat­tle with Is­rael over land and mar­itime borders, with the United Nations peace­keep­ing force in Le­banon tak­ing on the chal­lenge of defin­ing the land bor­der. In re­cent years, Wash­ing­ton has been asked and vol­un­teered to help ne­go­ti­ate mar­itime borders, af­ter po­ten­tial oil re­serves were dis­cov­ered be­tween Le­banese and Is­raeli ter­ri­tory.

Cur­rently, Le­banon dis­putes 13 points along the U.N.-de­mar­cated land bor­der, known as the “Blue Line.” There are close to 850 square kilo­me­ters of dis­puted waters be­tween the two coun­tries, which has dis­cour­aged in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies from in­vest­ing in ex­plo­ration in the area.

Speak­ing to a group of jour­nal­ists at the U.S. Em­bassy in Le­banon, Schenker struck a stern tone through­out, while em­pha­siz­ing the will­ing­ness of the U.S. to help.

“If you want your econ­omy to de­velop your re­sources, which you so des­per­ately need to im­prove your econ­omy, you are wel­come to do so. All you have to do is ne­go­ti­ate a bor­der,” he said.

Schenker has been tasked with pick­ing up where his pre­de­ces­sor, David Sat­ter­field, left off in me­di­at­ing be­tween Le­banon and Is­rael.

While Sat­ter­field spent over a year try­ing to reach an agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries, Schenker says he will not.

“Am­bas­sador Sat­ter­field is an in­cred­i­bly gifted, tal­ented and pa­tient diplo­mat. I don’t think I have the pa­tience of Sat­ter­field and I am happy to look at this a bit, but he spent more than a year on this. I will not do so,” Schenker vowed.

Asked why Wash­ing­ton was adamant about these talks, he said: “Adamant about what? Do I seem adamant? I’m ac­tu­ally some­what dis­in­ter­ested.”

When asked what the stick­ing points were, Schenker refused to re­veal the de­tails of his dis­cus­sions with Le­banese of­fi­cials.

He said that talks are still in the early phase of de­ter­min­ing a frame­work for the ne­go­ti­a­tions and threw the ball in Le­banon’s court.

“We haven’t talked about ne­go­ti­a­tions, we are talk­ing about a frame­work for ne­go­ti­a­tions that both Le­banese and Is­raelis have to de­cide on. Right now, the Le­banese govern­ment hasn’t de­cided to take that de­ci­sion to pro­ceed with ne­go­ti­a­tions,” Schenker said.

Asked whether he be­lieved Hezbol­lah was pres­sur­ing the Le­banese govern­ment against reach­ing a de­ci­sion, he refused to spec­u­late.

How­ever, he did say, “You should spec­u­late that. You are wel­come to spec­u­late that and I think it would be healthy for Le­banese to think about why their govern­ment is hav­ing dif­fi­culty even start­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

Le­banon is the world’s third-most-in­debted na­tion, a fact that Schenker made note of in re­la­tion to the oil and gas dis­pute.

“When your govern­ment agrees that they are will­ing to en­ter into a ne­go­ti­a­tion, then the ne­go­ti­a­tions will start. We think that it’d be a great idea for you to en­ter into ne­go­ti­a­tions. As you know, you have some­thing like 165 per­cent debt-to-GDP ra­tio, one of the high­est in the world,” Schenker said.

How­ever, he warned that even agree­ing to a so­lu­tion on the bor­der dis­pute wouldn’t be enough, cit­ing Is­rael’s “45 years of nat­u­ral re­serves of gas.”

“So if you want to un­lock these funds, it will take you years to do so, even af­ter you reach an agree­ment. It’s in your in­ter­est to do so,” he said.

“I think if you agree to ne­go­ti­ate, and you re­ally want to find a so­lu­tion, I be­lieve the Is­raelis would like to find a so­lu­tion. I am op­ti­mistic if you re­ally want to find a so­lu­tion you will.”

He told re­porters that his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with Le­banese peo­ple was promis­ing and that they were “some of the smartest peo­ple I know.” He also de­scribed the Le­banese as some of the great­est ne­go­tia­tors of the world. “You are the Phoeni­cians,” Schenker said. And if Le­banon isn’t com­pletely sat­is­fied with any agree­ment, it doesn’t have to sign on “un­less [Le­banon is] 100 per­cent sat­is­fied on ei­ther the land or mar­itime bor­der.”

The diplo­mat as­serted that sanctions would con­tinue against Hezbol­lah and those sup­port­ing the group, as per U.S. law.

Schenker said that go­ing for­ward, the U.S. would des­ig­nate in­di­vid­u­als, re­gard­less of their reli­gion, and re­jected the no­tion that the U.S. is tar­get­ing the Shi­ite com­mu­nity.

Schenker also spoke about U.S. hopes for the Le­banese Army to de­velop its ca­pa­bil­i­ties and be in a po­si­tion to fully ex­ert sovereignt­y over Le­banese ter­ri­tory. “Right now, they [Le­banese Army] do not,” he said.

This will take time, he ad­mit­ted, but that’s “ul­ti­mately what our goal is and we want Le­banon to be able to be a sov­er­eign state.”

No talk of a na­tional de­fense strat­egy was brought up in his talks with Le­banese of­fi­cials, Schenker said.

He called on the Le­banese govern­ment to make tough de­ci­sions to cor­rect the coun­try’s eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion. Schenker cited mea­sures car­ried out by re­gional coun­tries in­clud­ing Jor­dan and Egypt, such as in­creas­ing value-added tax, re­duc­ing sub­si­dies (pre­sum­ably to the state-run Elec­tricite du Liban) and cut­ting the num­ber of pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ees.

Le­banon was pledged more than $11 bil­lion in soft loans and grants by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity at the 2018 CEDRE con­fer­ence in Paris, on the con­di­tion that the state im­ple­ments badly needed eco­nomic re­forms.

Schenker spoke of the fail­ure to un­lock these funds more than a year later, yet said that the nec­es­sary re­forms would be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to make.

Also Thurs­day, Schenker met with Army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun, For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil, Le­banese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and vis­ited the Army’s Land Bor­der Reg­i­ment in north Le­banon.

Schenker and El­iz­a­beth Richard visit a Land Bor­der Reg­i­ment of the Le­banese Army in north Le­banon.

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