Tiller­son up­beat on Mideast peace plan; ac­knowl­edges role of Hezbol­lah in Le­banon

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

AMMAN: US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son yes­ter­day con­ceded that Iran­backed Hezbol­lah is part of the “po­lit­i­cal process” in Le­banon, ap­pear­ing to soften Wash­ing­ton’s tone ahead of a visit to the coun­try. “We sup­port a free, demo­cratic Le­banon free of in­flu­ence of others, and we know that Le­banese Hezbol­lah is in­flu­enced by Iran. This is in­flu­ence that we think is un­help­ful in Le­banon’s longterm future,” Tiller­son said at a press con­fer­ence in Jor­dan. “We also have to ac­knowl­edge the reality that they also are part of the po­lit­i­cal process in Le­banon.”

Shi­ite move­ment Hezbol­lah - the only fac­tion to have re­tained its weapons after Le­banon’s civil war - is a mem­ber the Le­banese gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri. De­spite be­ing branded a “ter­ror­ist” or­ga­ni­za­tion by the United States and tar­geted with eco­nomic sanc­tions, Hezbol­lah has risen to play a de­ci­sive role in re­gional con­flicts in­clud­ing Syria. The US Jus­tice Depart­ment in Jan­uary an­nounced the cre­ation of a spe­cial task force to in­ves­ti­gate what it called “nar­coter­ror­ism” by the pow­er­ful move­ment.

The United States levied sanc­tions in early Fe­bru­ary against six in­di­vid­u­als and seven busi­nesses with al­leged links to Hezbol­lah fi­nancier Ad­ham Tabaja. The group’s in­flu­ence was last year at the heart of a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in Le­banon that saw Hariri quit - and then later re­scind his res­ig­na­tion - amid a tug-of-war be­tween

re­gional ti­tans Iran and Saudi Ara­bia. In the wake of the cri­sis, Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal play­ers - in­clud­ing Hezbol­lah - agreed to stick to the coun­try’s of­fi­cial pol­icy of “dis­as­so­ci­a­tion” to stay out of re­gional con­flicts. Tiller­son is due to meet Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship to­day as part of a tour of the Mid­dle East.

Mean­while, Tiller­son said yes­ter­day work on a new Mid­dle East peace plan is “fairly well ad­vanced”, though he pro­vided no details on an ini­tia­tive which comes amid deep Pales­tinian skep­ti­cism about US in­ten­tions. Tiller­son, who was speak­ing dur­ing a visit to Jor­dan to sign a five-year $6.4 bil­lion aid pack­age that ex­tends US sup­port to a key Arab ally, said Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump would de­cide when to an­nounce the peace plan.

The United States in­fu­ri­ated even its Arab al­lies in De­cem­ber when Trump rec­og­nized Jerusalem as the cap­i­tal of Is­rael and ini­ti­ated the move of the US em­bassy from Tel Aviv. Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas said he would not co­op­er­ate with the United States in its ef­forts as a me­di­a­tor. “I have seen the (ad­min­is­tra­tion’s peace) plan... It’s been un­der devel­op­ment for a num­ber of months. I have con­sulted with them on the plan, iden­ti­fied ar­eas that we feel need fur­ther work. I will say it’s fairly well ad­vanced...” Tiller­son said.

There has been lit­tle de­tail on the plan so far. Of­fi­cials told Reuters in De­cem­ber it would deal with all ma­jor is­sues, in­clud­ing Jerusalem, bor­ders, se­cu­rity, the future of Jewish set­tle­ments on oc­cu­pied land and the fate of Pales­tinian refugees, and would also urge Saudi Ara­bia and other Gulf states to pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial sup­port to the Pales­tini­ans. The plan is be­ing crafted by a team led by Jared Kush­ner, Trump’s son-in-law and se­nior ad­viser, and US Mid­dle East en­voy Ja­son Green­blatt, both of whom have trav­elled to key re­gional cap­i­tals since the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion came to of­fice.

Pales­tini­ans have grown in­creas­ingly con­cerned that any plan Trump un­veils will short­change them, a fear ex­ac­er­bated by his move on Jerusalem, which up­ended decades of US pol­icy that the sta­tus of the an­cient city must be de­cided in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Jerusalem is home to sites holy to Mus­lims, Jews and Chris­tians. Jor­da­nian King Ab­dul­lah’s Hashemite dy­nasty is the cus­to­dian of the Mus­lim holy sites, mak­ing Amman par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to any changes of sta­tus there. The king has warned that Trump’s de­ci­sion could un­der­mine sta­bil­ity and fuel rad­i­cal­ism.

Jor­da­nian for­eign min­is­ter Ay­man Al-Safadi re­it­er­ated yes­ter­day that a two-state so­lu­tion to the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict was the “only so­lu­tion we be­lieve can work”. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has said it would back a two-state so­lu­tion if the par­ties agreed to it. Trump had threat­ened to cut off fi­nan­cial aid to coun­tries that backed a UN res­o­lu­tion call­ing for Wash­ing­ton to re­verse its Jerusalem de­ci­sion. Jor­dan backed the res­o­lu­tion. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has courted King Ab­dul­lah, a mod­er­ate pro-Western Arab leader whose king­dom has long up­held US in­ter­ests in a tur­bu­lent re­gion.

Yes­ter­day, Tiller­son met the king at his per­sonal res­i­dence where the two em­pha­sized strong US-Jor­da­nian ties. Com­ment­ing on the me­moran­dum of un­der­stand­ing signed for $6.375 bil­lion in aid yes­ter­day, the US State Depart­ment said: “(It) high­lights the piv­otal role Jor­dan plays in help­ing foster and safe­guard re­gional sta­bil­ity and sup­ports US ob­jec­tives such as the global cam­paign to de­feat ISIS, counter-ter­ror­ism co­op­er­a­tion, and eco­nomic devel­op­ment.” ISIS is an acronym for the mil­i­tant Is­lamic State group. Con­flicts in neigh­bor­ing Syria and Iraq have dam­aged Jor­dan’s econ­omy, forc­ing it to bor­row heav­ily from ex­ter­nal and do­mes­tic sources. Jor­dan has been an im­por­tant part of the US-led coali­tion bat­tling Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Tiller­son is also ex­pected this week to visit Turkey, with which US ties have be­come badly strained over Wash­ing­ton’s sup­port for the Kur­dish YPG mili­tia in Syria, re­garded by Ankara as a ter­ror­ist group. Tiller­son said Wash­ing­ton had to “find a way to con­tinue to work in the same di­rec­tion”. He also ex­pressed con­cern over Satur­day’s con­fronta­tion be­tween Is­rael and “Ira­nian as­sets” in Syria. Syr­ian air de­fenses shot down an Is­raeli F-16 jet after it bombed a site used by Iran-backed forces in Syria.

Tiller­son said Iran should with­draw its forces and mili­tias from Syria, where Tehran backs Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad. Re­spond­ing to the com­ments, a se­nior Ira­nian of­fi­cial, Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati, said Iran’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria was le­git­i­mate and based on an in­vi­ta­tion from Da­m­as­cus. He called on US forces to leave Syria.—

— Pe­tra

AMMAN: Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah (right) meets US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son at his res­i­dence yes­ter­day.

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