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PM: Successful Lebanon maritime talks could be first step to ‘true peace’

Netanyahu calls on Beirut to complete negotiations to mark sea border; Lebanon’s parliament meets with visiting US official, day after 1st round of talks

Illustrative: The Tel Aviv city hall is lit up in the colors of the Lebanese flag in solidarity with the victims of the Beirut port explosion, August 5, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Illustrative: The Tel Aviv city hall is lit up in the colors of the Lebanese flag in solidarity with the victims of the Beirut port explosion, August 5, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed hope on Thursday that talks launched this week to settle a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon might eventually lead to a peace deal between the Jewish state and the enemy country to its north.

During his speech to open the Knesset debate on Israel’s normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates, Netanyahu acknowledged that as long as the Hezbollah terror group “effectively controls Lebanon, there can be no real peace with this country.”

But he then segued specifically to the maritime talks, the first negotiations between the countries in 30 years, which he said carry “enormous potential and economic significance, both for them and for us.

“I call on the Lebanese government to continue to complete these talks to demarcate the maritime border, and perhaps this will mark the first step toward another day that will come, in the future, [where we] achieve true peace,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset ahead of a vote on ratifying Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

“Since the beginning of Zionism, one of our hands has been holding a weapon in defense and the other hand was stretched out to everyone who wants peace,” he declared. “They say peace is made with enemies. False. Peace is made with those who have stopped being enemies. Peace is made with those who desire peace and who no longer remain committed to your annihilation.”

Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war, held unprecedented talks under United Nations and United States auspices Wednesday in an effort to clear the way for oil and gas exploration within “reasonable time.”

In a joint statement afterward, the US and the UN said the talks had been “productive” and that the delegates had “reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month.”

Hezbollah said last week that the talks with Israel do not constitute normalization or peace talks with the Jewish state.

“Despite all the talk that has been going around, the negotiating framework deals with our southern maritime borders and reclaiming our land, so as to delineate our national sovereignty,” the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah’s political wing, said in a statement October 8.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with ‘reconciling’ with the rapacious Zionist enemy, nor with the normalization that some Arab countries have adopted,” the terror group added, referring to the recent deals Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The talks, held at a UN peacekeeping force base in the Lebanese border town of Naqura, lasted for around one hour and came weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab states to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

A second round of negotiations will be held on October 28.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri met with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, who is in the country leading the talks for the US.

A United Nations ship is pictured in the southernmost area of Naqura, by the border with Israel, on October 14, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

Berri has been the main Lebanese official dealing with US mediators regarding the dispute with Israel over the past decade.

Israel has already developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, and Lebanon hopes oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it overcome the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.

Lebanon’s economic crisis is the result of decades of corruption and mismanagement, but has been dramatically worsened by the coronavirus pandemic as well as a massive blast in Beirut on Aug. 4, which killed and wounded many and caused damage worth billions of dollars.

Schenker visited Beirut after the blast and met members of Lebanon’s civil society. He did not hold talks with politicians at that time.

The international community has said it will not help Lebanon get out of its economic crisis before it implements major reforms, on top of fighting corruption.

AP contributed to this report.

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