U.S. diplomat David Satterfield is currently shaking things up in Lebanon. In the space of about two weeks, the acting assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs has visited Beirut twice to mediate between Lebanon and Israel on demarcating the land and sea border between the two countries. Satterfield, who speaks perfect Arabic and has served in the Middle East for about 40 years – including a stint as ambassador to Lebanon from 1998 to 2001 – is a familiar but not necessarily well-liked figure among Lebanese officials.
Now that he's representing the Trump administration in such sensitive negotiations, he's perceived as mainly serving Israel's interests, and that's precisely why the Lebanese are concerned. According to Lebanese commentators, the demarcation of the Israeli-Lebanese border may be the focus of the talks, but there's also a hidden agenda.
The newspaper Al-Akhbar has reported that at a meeting about two weeks ago, Satterfield presented hard-line conditions for continuing talks, reflecting a pro-Israel bias. According to the paper, the talks on the maritime border would be separate from those on the land border. The United States would be the only mediator and sponsor of the talks, and the negotiations would last six months at most.
Lebanon rejected most of these demands. It wants the negotiations to be unlimited in time so that all the issues are resolved. It also demanded that the talks be under UN auspices, and that the maritime and land borders be discussed together.
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Beirut believes that Israel seeks to accelerate the negotiations so it can begin signing contracts for drilling in the Mediterranean with foreign energy companies; without an agreement on the border, no company would drill.
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But this week, Satterfield reportedly arrived with encouraging responses, to the effect that the United States (meaning Israel) is willing to discuss the land and sea frontiers together and that the talks would be held under UN auspices – with the participation of U.S. representatives. A land swap between Israel and Lebanon was also proposed to settle the border stretches still in dispute, but the talks don't include the Shaba Farms area, which the UN Blue Line has as part of the Golan Heights.
What caused the United States and Israel, which have usually been insistent over every comma, to retreat from their position? In Lebanon, the amazing flexibility is attributed to Donald Trump's plan in the works for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The perception is that Washington is pressing to bring Lebanon on board with Trump's "deal of the century" by granting Lebanese citizenship to Palestinian refugees living in the country.
In the process, this is seen as defusing the issue of a right of return of refugees to Israel, which has been a major obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to UNRWA, the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, about 450,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon. Amnesty International puts the number at about 300,000, and two years ago a Lebanese panel said the real number is no greater than about 174,000, following the first census in the country's 13 official refugee camps and among concentrations of Palestinians elsewhere in the country.
The figure stirred major controversy in Lebanon, with Hezbollah and its political partners claiming that the census was conducted under American pressure designed to underreport the real numbers. This way, it would be possible to claim that Lebanon could absorb a modest-sized population.
From the Lebanese standpoint, it really doesn't matter how many refugees are living in Lebanon. The Lebanese constitution provides that the country's territory is indivisible and that refugees living there are not to receive citizenship. The official reason for this is that the absorption of Palestinian refugees would impair their claim to a right of return, remove the main basis for the fight against Israel and free it of historical responsibility for the refugee problem.
Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah movement has another reason to oppose giving the refugees Lebanese citizenship, related to the country's delicate demographic balance that dictates how political power is allocated. Simply put, the addition of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Sunni Muslims would undermine Lebanon. Hezbollah is concerned that the Trump peace plan, which according to recent leaks is expected to provide Lebanon with tens of billions of dollars either directly or through the canceling of debt, would also seek to disarm Hezbollah and foil its claim that its weapons are necessary to help the Palestinians realize their rights.
For the Lebanese government, which has not yet been invited to the late-June economic conference in Bahrain, the plan could provide a lifeline to extract Lebanon from its own economic crisis. Its debt is estimated at more than $85 billion (about 155 percent of GDP). Its tourism sector is paralyzed and its trade with the Arab world has shrunk due to the war in Syria. This has rendered the country bankrupt, unable to invest in development and barely managing to finance current operations.
But the issue of citizenship for Palestinian refugees is seen as a matter of national honor, as senior Lebanese officials deemed it recently. And that's on top of concerns that giving Palestinians citizenship might also prompt the roughly 1 million Syrian refugees in the country to demand similar status. The panic over the implications of the Trump peace plan on Lebanon has led Hezbollah to call for dialogue with the Palestinian leadership so they can work together to foil the plan.
Lebanon isn't the only country concerned about Washington dictating a solution to the refugee problem. Jordan is horrified over the prospect that the United States will demand that it absorb hundreds of thousands or even a million Palestinian refugees in the country.
Investigative journalist Vicky Ward recounts in her new book "Kushner Inc.: Greed. Ambition. Corruption" that the Trump administration's peace plan sees Jordan providing territory to the Palestinians and receiving Saudi territory in return. The Saudis, for their part, would get the islands of Sanafir and Tiran from Egypt.
It's doubtful that such a land swap would be acceptable to the countries involved. Saudi Arabia has already been transferred the islands, following a confrontation with Egypt that ended with presidential approval to return the islands to the Saudis in exchange for generous economic aid. In Jordan, any territorial concession would be considered national betrayal, particularly if it's done as part of a Trump plan viewed as an Israeli-American deal.
Land swaps appear to be the magic formula that the Trump administration has adopted, and not just for Jordan. According to Ward, it has been suggested that Egypt give up territory along the Sinai coast between Gaza and El-Arish, to which some of the Gaza population would be transferred. In return, Israel would give Egypt territory of equivalent size in the western Negev.
Israel would let the Egyptians dig an underwater tunnel between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that would include a rail line and an oil pipeline. The funding for these projects would come from European countries, the United States and wealthy Arab states. Factories, a port and an airport would be built in the Egyptian territory transferred to Gaza, and both Gazans and Egyptians would be employed there.
The Egyptians have also been promised a whopping $65 billion to help boost their economy. Meanwhile, the plan says Palestinian refugees in Syria, Iraq and other Arab countries would receive citizenship in exchange for generous assistance to the host countries.
Of course, a plan of generous financial compensation and empty tracts of land for new housing could be considered highly rational and humane. The problem is that the Palestinian refugees are the supreme symbols of Palestinian nationhood. An American deal that blatantly relies on buying up that symbol for cash, even lots of it, can't be acceptable to the Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Arab peace plan agreed on at a 2002 summit proposed that the refugee problem be resolved through a just and agreed-on solution in the spirit of UN Resolution 194 of 1948. That's a much more flexible formula than the regular Arab stance that a Palestinian right of return to Israel isn't subject to bargaining.
In the past, Israel actually negotiated over the return of about 100,000 refugees who would be taken in over a number of years, but circumstances have since changed. Israel still insists there will be no agreement on the refugee issue until a deal is reached on everything else, while the Palestinians have demanded that everything be discussed separately and that understandings reached during the negotiations be individually implemented.
But since negotiations have been suspended and the two sides aren't engaged in any contacts on the peace process – and after Trump retracted his partial support for a Palestinian state – absorbing refugees in Arab countries is apparently becoming the method with which he seeks to do away with the problem.