Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday signaled optimism about the prospect of an eventual peace deal between Israel and Lebanon, as the two countries hold rare indirect talks on demarcating their maritime border.
Gantz made the comments while visiting a large-scale military exercise in Israel’s north meant to simulate a war with Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iran proxy sworn to Israel’s destruction that plays a major role in Lebanese politics.
“I also hear positive voices in Lebanon that are even talking about peace with Israel, who are implementing processes with us like shaping the maritime border,” Gantz was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.
It wasn’t clear who Gantz referring to, but his comments come after the daughter of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said she was open to peace with Israel, albeit under certain conditions.
His comments came a day before representatives from Israel and Lebanon, which are still technically at war, were set to meet in southern Lebanon for rare talks aimed at resolving a maritime border dispute to allow for oil and gas exploration in the area.
Lebanon has stressed the talks are strictly technical and are not aimed at normalization with Israel, which has likewise downplayed the significance of the negotiations, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this month they could eventually yield a peace agreement.
On Tuesday, the UN’s peacekeeping force held a three-way meeting with Israeli and Lebanese officers about border issues. UNIFIL head Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col said the sides had made progress in de-escalating tensions.
“The continuation of this positive dynamic will greatly facilitate constructive engagement between the parties on outstanding issues,” he said in an official statement.
Israel recently reached agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize ties. While Israeli and US officials have said more countries will follow suit, few believe Lebanon to be open to making peace with Israel.
The two countries had a short-lived and mostly forgotten peace agreement in 1983, though it was with a government in Beirut that had been propped up by Israeli forces who invaded Lebanon a year earlier.
Hezbollah, which is a power player in the unstable world of Lebanese politics, has denounced the Gulf states treaties with Israel, though prime minister-designate Saad Hariri is backed by Saudi Arabia, which has quietly supported the Gulf’s opening toward Israel.
“Lebanese citizens need to know that Hezbollah is their problem, not the State of Israel. If Hezbollah acts against the State of Israel, Lebanon, in the end, will pay the price and we’re here to be prepared for a moment I hope will not come,” Gantz said during the military exercise.
The drill, dubbed “Deadly Arrow,” kicked off Sunday and is meant to simulate a war with Hezbollah, which the Israel Defense Forces generally considers to be its most significant military foe.
The Shiite militia, with whom Israel fought a war in 2006, is believed to maintain an arsenal of some 130,000 rockets and missiles — a larger collection of projectiles than many nations possess — and the organization has amassed considerable battle experience from fighting in Syria throughout the country’s civil war.
Judah Ari Gross and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.