MEMRI: In The Shadow Of U.S. Demands For Disarming Hizbullah And For Compromise In Lebanon-Israel Border Conflicts, U.S. Secretary Of State Tillerson Is Insulted In Lebanon Visit And Meetings Yield No Results

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In The Shadow Of U.S. Demands For Disarming Hizbullah And For Compromise In Lebanon-Israel Border Conflicts, U.S. Secretary Of State Tillerson Is Insulted In Lebanon Visit And Meetings Yield No Results
MEMRI/February 28, 2018

On February 15, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Lebanon for an hours-long stopover, as part of his Middle East tour that included Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Egypt. During his visit, he met with Lebanese President Michel ‘Aoun, Prime Minister Sa’d Al-Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. Tillerson’s treatment in Lebanon was insulting; he was met at the airport by the Foreign Ministry’s director of ceremonies, not by Foreign Minister Bassil, and, after arriving at the presidential palace for his meeting with President ‘Aoun and Minister Bassil, he was kept waiting for several minutes until they arrived – and in the meeting hall the American flag was not displayed alongside the Lebanese flag.

The nature of Tillerson’s reception may have been connected to the American demands that he brought with him in the matter of disarming Hizbullah and in the matter of the Lebanon-Israel dispute over gas drilling rights in the Mediterranean. These demands had been raised with the Lebanese several days previously by U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield.

Throughout his Middle East tour, Tillerson expressed conflicting positions vis-à-vis Hizbullah. The day before his Lebanon visit, he said, at a press conference in Amman, Jordan, that the reality of Hizbullah as part of the political process in Lebanon should be acknowledged. However, the next day, at the conclusion of his Lebanon visit, he clarified that the U.S. sees Hizbullah as a terrorist organization and does not differentiate between its political and military wings.

This report will review Tillerson’s Lebanon visit, statements he made, demands he presented, and how he was received by the Lebanese leadership.

Tillerson In Amman, Before Arriving In Lebanon: We Must Recognize The Fact That Hizbullah Is A Political Power In Lebanon

At a February 14, 2018 press conference in Amman, Jordan with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Al-Safadi, Tillerson discussed Hizbullah and its participation in Lebanese political life. In answer to a question about the anxiety over Hizbullah’s increasing influence in Lebanon, he said: “We support a free, democratic Lebanon free of influence of others, and we know that Lebanese Hizbullah is influenced by Iran. This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon’s long-term future. We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon. I think Lebanon is taking positive steps with their law on disassociation[1] that was passed last year to send a signal as to their view that they do not want to see any of Lebanese Hizbullah involved in foreign conflicts and have asked that they bring all of their people back from the conflict in Yemen.

So I think it’s a long process… We support strengthening the LAF, the Lebanese Armed Forces, so that there is a legitimate security force under full control of the Government of Lebanon…”[2]

Tillerson’s statement that the reality of Hizbullah as part of the political process in Lebanon must be acknowledged provoked the anger of several Arab and Lebanese writers, who saw it as a softening of the American position toward Hizbullah, which the U.S. designated a terror organization in 1990.

For example, Lebanese Shi’ite journalist Nadim Koteich, known for his opposition to Hizbullah, wrote in the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily: “Before he arrived in Beirut, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that ‘Hizbullah is part of the political process’ in Lebanon. This declaration is formally correct. The Hizbullah militia is a parliamentary faction and its ministers are in the government and it has officials in the government, mayors, and more. However, what Tillerson and others are missing is the fact that this militia is not a political force of the political arena so much as a security and military force in the political arena. At least since 2005, since the assassination of [former] prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, Hizbullah has been leveraging its security and military capabilities to attain political achievements… with the goal of taking control of the country, its institutions, its discourse, and its politics, and in order to exploit this control for Iran’s grand plan. The truth is that it is more accurate [to say that] the Hizbullah militia is affiliated with the Iranian plan than that it is affiliated with Lebanese political activity, as Tillerson said…”[3]

Lebanese Hizbullah-Affiliated Daily Al-Akhbar: Tillerson Was Kept Waiting For Five Minutes For The President, And The Lebanese Prime Minister Deliberately Turned His Back On Him

Even though Tillerson appeared to have softened his tone vis-à-vis Hizbullah, he was humiliated by top Lebanese officials during his February 15 visit. First, as noted, he was not received at the airport by Foreign Minister Bassil, but by the Foreign Ministry’s director of ceremonies; the latter also saw him off at the airport at the conclusion of his visit. The low point was when he came to the presidential palace to meet with President Aoun and Foreign Minister Bassil, and was forced to wait several minutes until they arrived. During the meeting with them, the American flag was missing. Later, the presidential spokesman explained that the president had not arrived late, but that Tillerson had arrived early.[4]

Tillerson waits for President Aoun, with no American flag (Source: Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, February 16, 2018.

The Hizbullah-affiliated Al-Akhbar daily published an article touting the insulting treatment of Tillerson during his brief visit to Lebanon, and stating that this set a precedent in U.S.-Lebanon relations, as Lebanon was unwilling to submit to U.S. dictates. It stated:

“[Upon his arrival at the Beirut airport], the American secretary of state found no head of state, minister, or ministry director-general to receive him. He arrived yesterday morning around 9:50 AM, and found on the ground at the Beirut airport, next to the steps of the private American plane, the Foreign Ministry’s director of ceremonies, Assaf Dhomat, and U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, who accompanied her guest in the motorcade of the U.S. Embassy, which made its way directly to the presidential palace at Baabda. Next to the outside door of the palace, Tillerson and his delegation found the presidential palace’s director of ceremonies, Dr. Nabil Shadid, who greeted him. The American guest entered the palace, under the lenses of the media – some of which broadcast this ‘reception’ live.

“Tillerson entered the ambassadorial hall, and shook hands with the people who there to receive him, that is, the members of the Lebanese delegation who participated in the official talks [with him]: presidential office general director Dr. Antoine Shaqir, general security secretary-general Abbas Ibrahim, [presidential] advisors Mireille ‘Aoun Al-Hashem, Paul Matar, and Charbel Wahba, director of the foreign minister’s office Hadi Hashem, and presidential spokesman Rafiq Shalala.

“[But] where are the president of the country, Michel ‘Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil? That is the question that Tillerson’s companions silently asked themselves again and again, as [Tillerson] stood before the chair set out for him, looking to the right and the left as he waited for either ‘Aoun or Bassil. Both sides were embarrassed. Suddenly, Tillerson decided to sit down. He took a bundle of papers out of his jacket pocket, read them, put them back, smiled all around and for the cameras and those present, and waited. The waiting grew heavy. After five minutes, his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil entered at a fast clip from the main door, his jacket unbuttoned, and shook his hand. A few seconds later, Aoun came in through the side door separating his office from the ambassadorial hall, and shook Tillerson’s hand – but it was noticeable that he did not shake the hands of the members of the American delegation… The doors of the hall closed, and the talks began. Half an hour later, the American guest left, after writing a few words in the guest book. After meeting with his counterpart [Tillerson], Gebran Bassil deliberately turned his back on him and went to joke around with the journalists. And again, the director of ceremonies, Nabil Shadid, was in charge of [bringing] the American guest to the outer door of the palace and bidding him farewell.

“After the American delegation left Beirut, there was a media uproar. Some rebuked the U.S. Ambassador for poorly coordinating [the visit] with the Lebanese [director of] ceremonies. The embassy replied that what had happened [with Tillerson] at the presidential palace was only a small example of what happens at the [Lebanese] foreign ministry on a daily basis with most of the [foreign] guests and ambassadors, and that things are so [bad] that Ambassador Elizabeth Richard recently decided not to visit the foreign ministry unless officially summoned or dispatched there by her country.

“[So] what was the reason for the president’s behavior? One of his advisors says that, during his visit to New York last year to attend the United Nations General Assembly, ‘Aoun expressed displeasure about the ‘difficulties’ that had accompanied the reception held by the American President for the [foreign] presidents attending the General Assembly. ‘Aoun did not attend the reception, [citing] ‘a meeting with members of the Lebanese community in New York.’ Others claimed that his behavior was meant to protest the fact that the Americans have not extended him an official invitation to visit the U.S. As for the official sources, they treated the affair as routine, explaining that ‘Tillerson was [simply] early to arrive at the palace. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil was caught up in traffic and the President entered the hall precisely on time.’

“Despite this, the incident constitutes a precedent in Lebanon-U.S. relations. [Tillerson’s] was the first visit by an American secretary of state to Lebanon in four years. The last [secretary of state] to visit was John Kerry, who came during the period Lebanon had no president. During the term of [former president] Michel Suleiman, relations were normal. And during the term of [former president] Emile Lahoud, the Americans were appalled when he hung up the phone on [then U.S.] secretary of state Madeleine Albright. In his [biography], Lahoud wrote that, in May 2000, on the eve of the liberation [i.e., Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon], his daily phone call with the American secretary of state lasted five hours; it was their last phone conversation. She called him that night, and when the argument between them became heated, she said to him: ‘Do you realize who you are speaking to? You are speaking to the U.S. secretary of state. Do you know what that means, Mr. Lahoud?’ Lahoud writes that he replied at once, ‘It means that it is five in the morning. I am sleepy and want to go to bed,’ and hung up on her.”[5]

Lebanese Officials Refuse Tillerson’s Demands

According to the Lebanese press, in his meetings with top Lebanese officials, Tillerson discussed several issues and presented a number of demands, which had already been presented to these officials by his assistant David Satterfield, who had prepared the visit. Chief among the issues discussed were a proposal for settling the disputes with Israel over the two countries’ shared land and maritime borders; Hizbullah’s disarmament and withdrawal from Syria, and the drying up of this organization’s sources of funding; the preservation of calm on the Israeli border, and the continued U.S. aid for the Lebanese military.[6]

The Lebanese press reported that the officials refused all of Tillerson’s demands. In the matter of the maritime border with Israel, Tillerson reportedly reiterated the proposal already presented to the Lebanese by U.S. diplomat Fredric Hof: to divide Block 9 (the offshore area in dispute) between the two countries so that Lebanon receives 60% of the territory and Israel 40%, but the Lebanese once again rejected the proposal. According to the Al-Akhbar daily, Foreign Minister Bassil told Tillerson that this proposal was “unacceptable to Lebanon.”[7]

The reports claimed further that the Lebanese officials also rejected Tillerson’s demands to disarm Hizbullah and end its military involvement in Syria. ‘Aoun told him that “the role of the resistance’s weapons will end when a just and comprehensive peace [with Israel] prevails and all the refugees return to their homes.” As for Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria, he said that it was part of the war on terror, which transcends the narrow interests of Lebanon, and added: “The more the peace efforts on the Syrian front and in the region advance, the more the situation in Lebanon and the area will improve, and [eventually] there will be no more need for weapons and they will be replaced by the language of dialogue.”[8]

According to Al-Akhbar, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said that Tillerson had spoken to him at length about Hizbullah, and he had replied that Israel was an enemy occupying Lebanese land and this justified popular resistance against it. Berri also told Tillerson: “We cannot not remain silent in light of Israel’s attacks on us. That is why the resistance took up arms to defend our land.”[9]

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah likewise rejected the suggestions presented by Tillerson and his assistant Satterfield, on the grounds that the Americans were trying to safeguard Israel’s interests at the expense of Lebanon’s. He said: “We must realize that the main dispute [with Israel] today is not about the land borders. That issue is easy to resolve. [The main dispute is over] the maritime border and the economic waters. The Americans and others want to give us [the land] to which we are entitled… in the disputed areas along the land border, and in return deprive us of our rights… in the sea, [rights pertaining to] oil, and we must be alert to this.” It is very important, he added, “that the state, and with it the Lebanese people, address this issue from a position of strength, not weakness. If the Lebanese think of themselves as weak, they will begin to grow weak, and we will lose the battle…We must negotiate [from a position of] strength… The only strength you Lebanese possess in this battle for the gas and oil [in the sea] is the resistance [i.e., Hizbullah and its weapons], because the Lebanese military is not allowed to have surface-to-surface, surface-to-air or surface-to-sea missiles… for the Americans forbid this… [But, thanks to Hizbullah,] today Lebanon and every Lebanese can say [to Israel]: no way! Hold back! If you want to deprive us [of our oil and gas], we will prevent you [from having them]. If you bomb us, we will bomb you. If you attack us, we will attack you… We expect the state and its powerful [leaders] to take the decision, and we [Hizbullah] will carry it out… I promise you that, [if] Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council officially decides that the gas and oil rigs in the Palestinian sea, which is occupied by Israel, must stop functioning, a few hours later they will stop functioning…”

Nasrallah stated further: “The U.S. is not a fair mediator, and you [Lebanese officials] must treat the American mediators like Israel’s attorneys. There are not three [parties] here. Lebanon is negotiating with Israel, which is represented by Tillerson or Satterfield… That is the truth, so this mediation cannot be trusted. The Americans are not interested in Lebanon’s good, They are interested in the good of the Zionists… They came to give orders, to impose [terms] on us and to threaten us that if Lebanon does not agree to this or that, they will [punish it] – and I will not go into details.”[10]

Tillerson At Conclusion Of Lebanon Visit: Hizbullah Is A Terrorist Organization, With No Distinction Between Its Political And Military Wings

Following his meeting with President ‘Aoun, Parliamentary Speaker Berri, and Foreign Minister Bassil, Tillerson met with Prime Minister Hariri. In a joint press conference with Hariri after the meeting, he harshly denounced Hizbullah and stated unequivocally that the U.S. regards it as a terrorist organization. Possibly, this was an attempt to correct the impression made by his statements on the eve of the visit, in which he recognized Hizbullah as part of the Lebanese political process.

He said: “It’s impossible to talk about stability, sovereignty, and security in Lebanon without addressing Hizbullah. The United States has considered Hizbullah a terrorist organization for more than two decades now. We neither see nor do we accept any distinction between its political and its military arms. It is unacceptable for a militia like Hizbullah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese Government. The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese Armed Forces. Hizbullah is not just a concern for the United States. The people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hizbullah’s actions and its growing arsenal bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon. Hizbullah’s entanglement in regional conflicts threatens the security of Lebanon and has destabilizing effects in the region. Their presence in Syria has perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people, and propped up the barbaric Assad regime. Their presence in Iraq and Yemen has also fueled violence, and the consequences of their involvement in these far-off conflicts – which have nothing to do with Lebanon – are felt back here at home.

That’s why we’re urging all Lebanese leaders during my visit to uphold the Government of Lebanon’s commitment to disassociating itself from foreign conflicts. The international community expects all parties in Lebanon to fulfill this commitment, including Hizbullah, which should cease its activities abroad in order to help reduce tensions in the region.”[11]

[1] This was actually a government decision, passed in December 5, 2017.
[2] State.gov, February 14, 2018.
[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 16, 2018.
[4] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), February 15, 2018; Al-Akhbar, Al-Liwa (Lebanon), February 16, 2018.
[5] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 16, 2018.
[6] Al-Akhbar, Al-Liwa (Lebanon), February 16, 2018; Al-Mudun (Lebanon), February 17, 2018.
[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 16, 17, 2018.
[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 16, 17, 2018.
[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 16, 17, 2018.
[10] Alahednews.com.lb, February 16, 2018.
[11] State.gov, February 15, 2018.