Decide on border talks with Israel, nonchalant Schenker says
U.S. official says talks key to unlocking resources that can benefit economy
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.