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Lebanese president hints at possibility of peace talks with Israel

Michel Aoun’s comments to France’s BFM TV come as Israel and UAE announce normalization of ties

Lebanese President Michel Aoun speaks with French television network BFM TV on August 15, 2020. (Screenshot)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun speaks with French television network BFM TV on August 15, 2020. (Screenshot)

Lebanese President Michel Aoun hinted at the possibility of peace talks with Israel on Saturday, two days after the United Arab Emirates and Israel agreed to normalize relations.

Speaking with France’s BFM TV, Aoun declined to categorically rule out negotiations, stating “that depends” when asked about the possibility of ending the conflict with Lebanon’s longtime enemy.

“We have problems with Israel and we have to resolve them first,” he told the French television network without specifying.

Israel has fought two wars in Lebanon in recent decades, and Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded terror group sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction, is deeply embedded in the Lebanese government.

Aoun’s comments came after Israel and the UAE on Thursday announced an agreement to establish full diplomatic relations, marking the third such deal Israel has struck with an Arab state after Egypt and Jordan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (bottom left) at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed (bottom right) on August 13, 2020. (Above) US President Donald Trump. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Israeli and UAE delegations will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security and the establishment of reciprocal embassies, according to the White House.

Asked about that rapprochement, Aoun replied that the UAE was an “independent country” that could do as it liked — a stance contrasting to the Palestinians’ outrage over the deal, and a departure from the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which ties normalization with Israel to a full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.

Aoun’s comments came less than two weeks after a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, sparking anti-government protests and a wave of conspiracy theories pointing the blame at Israel.

Both Hezbollah and Israel denied rumors that Israel was involved in the August 4 blast, which leveled a large part of the city’s harbor, killing 170 people, injured thousands, and leaving hundreds of thousands temporarily homeless.

Many Lebanese blamed their government for the tragedy, which was caused when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials, ignited, setting off a blast that created a crater 43 meters (141 feet) deep.

Ammonium nitrate is used in the manufacture of explosives and is also an ingredient in making fertilizer.

Beirut’s port, in the aftermath of a huge chemical explosion that disfigured the Lebanese capital, on August 14, 2020. (AFP)

Reuters reported that government officials had been warned of the danger of the warehouse as recently as July. Documents allege that customs officials asked to move the vast trove numerous times, but never received a reply.

After protesters stormed several government ministries, the country’s entire cabinet resigned on August 10, with Prime Minister Hassan Diab blaming his predecessors and a political class whose “corruption is what has led to this disaster that had been hidden for seven years.”

Anti-government protesters set up symbolic nooses at Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blamed for the blast. Among the cardboard cutouts hung by protesters were those of Aoun and of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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