In Beirut, Tillerson Says Hezbollah's Growing Arsenal Threatens Lebanon

U.S. secretary of state visits Lebanon amid tensions with Israel; president calls on U.S. to halt Israeli 'assaults on Lebanese sovereignty'

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) gives a press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri following their meeting at the governmental palace in Beirut on February 15, 2018.
AFP PHOTO / Anwar AMRO

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Hezbollah's growing arsenal and the group's involvement in regional conflicts a threat to the security of Lebanon.

During a press conference in Beirut on Thursday, Tillerson, who arrived in Lebanon as part of his Mideast trip, discussed the growing tensions between Israel and Lebanon, and urged Lebanese leaders to ensure the border between the two countries remains calm. 

Lebanon has an unresolved dispute with Israel over the territorial and maritime border issues, in particular concerning Block 9 in the Mediterranean sea which extends partly into waters claimed by Israel. Recently Lebanon has signed an offshore oil and gas exploration and production agreements for the contentious block.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun assured Tillerson that Lebanon was committed to preserving calm on its borders. He urged Washington to play an "effective role" to help resolve Lebanon's disputes with Israel and "work on preventing Israel from continuing its assaults on Lebanese sovereignty" by land and sea, a statement from the presidency said. He said Lebanon was sticking by its internationally recognised borders, and rejected Israeli claims over a disputed maritime zone. 

Tillerson will also be meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri.

Tillerson was expected to continue what David Satterfield, acting assistant U.S. Secretary of state, began last week when he presented a framework for mediating the maritime border question with Israel, the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar reported Thursday morning. The proposal is based on what is known as the Frederic Hof framework, after the American diplomat who was responsible for Syria and Lebanon under the former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. 

Lebanon will not be allowed to carry out oil and gas exploration and drilling in the southern maritime areas it has claimed under the Hof framework, Al Akhbar reported.

The “Hof line” between the two countries was originally proposed in 2012. It gives Lebanon about 60 percent of the maritime region under dispute. Many in Lebanon are willing to accept the framework as the only way to save the situation given the balance of power between Israel and Lebanon. Other Lebanese leaders still strongly object to the proposal, including Aoun and Berri, and are demanding a much larger area.

Satterfield made it clear to the Lebanese that the dispute over the land border with Israel can be solved easily and even proposed a land swap at 13 points under dispute along the border, reported the Lebanese media.

Some in Lebanon propose reaching a “package deal” with Tillerson that would include the status of Hezbollah, which is a central partner in the Lebanese government and has great influence over government decision making. Any decision made by the United States concerning Hezbollah’s status as a terrorist organization and its standing in Lebanon  would have a large effect on the country and the situation vis a vis Israel.

Aoun, who is an ally of Hezbollah, can use the organization as a card in the negotiations with Tillerson as a way to improve the framework and calm the tensions – or the opposite: Aoun could use Hezbollah as an excuse for escalation of the situation over the maritime border and natural resource exploitation rights, a senior Lebanese official told Haaretz on Thursday morning.