Aoun calls for 'Levantine common market,' safe return of Syrian refugees

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Article Summary
Lebanon's president outlines a regional approach to combating poverty and extremism; Mahmoud Abbas nears moment of truth regarding Dahlan’s role in Fatah-Hamas talks.

Aoun: Hezbollah linked to "regional crisis"

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an “economic common Levantine market” to support economic and social policies to combat regional poverty and extremism. He also spoke about the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and other countries, saying, “It would be better if the United Nations assisted them in returning to their homeland rather than helping them remain in camps.”

Aoun had told Al-Monitor prior to his speech, “If the international community wants to help them [Syrian refugees], they may help them in Syria. It will be more economic. The cost will be lower than in Lebanon. That's what we are asking now from the international community: not to help us, but to help the people go back to their homes.”

The Lebanese president acknowledged the difficulties of assuring the safe return of refugees while insisting that planning for their return should begin immediately. Displaced Syrians, he said, should not face the same plight as Palestinian refugees, who have remained in UN camps for decades.

Aoun spoke expansively of a regional approach to combat poverty and extremism, an “economic common Levantine market” under UN auspices, as well as the establishment of a center for tolerance, coexistence, forgiveness and peace, based in Lebanon.

Aoun rejected US calls to have the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) take on an expanded role to curb Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon, saying, “UNIFIL is not a military force to be used; they are observers. We cannot give them a combat mission or a mission to inspect the homes of the people to see if they have weapons or not. They are there to observe the borders of Lebanon and Israel and to count how many times Israeli aircraft cross Lebanese borders.”

 He added, “Hezbollah has become a component of the regional crisis. If we have to solve the problem of Hezbollah, it would be within a general solution to the Middle East crisis, especially in Syria.”

Linkages involving the Syria crisis, the role of Hezbollah and regional diplomacy have been consistent themes in Al-Monitor’s reporting and commentary. We wrote over 3½ years ago in this column that “a calming of the situation in Syria would have direct consequences for Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. You can’t solve Lebanon, or Hezbollah, without solving Syria. Gen. Michel Aoun, the head of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement and a key broker of the deal this week that allowed formation of a new Lebanese government, began discussions of a plan to assimilate Hezbollah’s forces into the Lebanese army. This deal could be picked up again, at the right time, and might facilitate progress on development of energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, where cooperation is stymied in part because Lebanon and Israel do not have relations.” Aoun was elected president on Oct. 31 of last year.

Mahmoud Abbas moves to restore authority

Adnan Abu Amer writes, “The Palestinian situation is worsening in the face of an unprecedented political stalemate with Israel, which could push the Palestinian leadership to threaten more revolutionary actions, such as dissolving the PA. Perhaps this revolutionary rhetoric could restore the popularity of an authority that has lost its momentum and public support.

Daoud Kuttab writes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, taking an assertive tone in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly session last week, saluted “'our glorious martyrs and our courageous prisoners in Israeli jails' … in defiance of a US anti-Palestinian congressional bill, the Taylor Force Act, which would cut off US aid to Palestinians if the Palestinian Authority continues in its decades-old policy of providing stipends to prisoners and the families of those who were killed in the Palestinian struggle.”

While Abbas made numerous references to the “occupation,” “State of Palestine” and a “two-state solution,” Kuttab notes that “neither US President Donald Trump nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke before Abbas, ever mentioned Palestine, the occupation or the two-state solution in their respective speeches at the General Assembly.”

Abu Amer adds, “As Fatah officials talk about reinventing the PA and changing the image it has had since it was established in 1993, more Palestinians have come to criticize its performance. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre in September, 54% of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank consider the PA's performance to be poor; still, 65% oppose its dissolution. There is other talk, however — disturbing talk. Israel and the United States are discussing alternative options to a Palestinian state, such as establishing a self-rule enclave or a confederation with Jordan.”

Shlomi Eldar writes that Hamas’s decision to disband the Gaza administration and consider general elections is a sign of its own failure of governance. “Hamas is, indeed, undergoing changes and is willing to bend somewhat to extricate itself from the isolation it faces,” Eldar writes. “What seems to its leader to be a tremendous compromise, verging on ideological sacrifice, is still far from what Abbas is willing to accept. This is not to mention the international community, which regards Hamas as a terror organization. Nonetheless, Abbas will probably keep up the ‘reconciliation talks’ being conducted in Cairo, even after the grim report by his envoys, for one simple reason. Like Hamas, he is playing the reconciliation game to prove to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that they, Fatah, are the good guys. The Hamas leadership is between a rock and a hard place. They have to prove that they are willing to accept the conditions imposed by Egypt in return for opening its border and ending the siege of the beleaguered enclave.”

Eldar argues that former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan is key to any reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. “Dahlan and his supporters in the West Bank and Gaza may have been purged from Fatah,” he writes, “but in private conversations with Al-Monitor, they reiterated that Abbas’ decision was illegal, and they were and continue to be loyal members of the movement. One of them claimed that Dahlan, whom they admire, is doing everything for ‘the sacred cause’ of mitigating the suffering of his people in Gaza. He added that one way of doing so is to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah so that the two movements can wage a joint struggle against the blockade on Gaza and the Israeli occupation.”

Ahmad Melhem suggests that Abbas’ move to convene the Palestinian National Committee (PNC) “will deal a severe blow” to the Hamas-Dahlan alliance. “If convened,” Melhem adds, “new blood would be brought into the PNC. This means Abbas will make sure to block any interventions by Arab countries in the council, and maintain the independent Palestinian decision-making process. The PNC session would also guarantee the council’s legitimacy to play a pivotal role in the future in case of any emergency presidential vacuum and block all possibilities for Hamas-affiliated PLC speaker, Aziz Dweik, to make it to the presidency in the event of the death of Abbas, as provided by the Palestinian law.”

The crisis in Gaza and the divisions within the Palestinian leadership are occurring as tensions escalate between Israel and the Palestinians. Mohammed Othman writes, “Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman granted Aug. 29 hundreds of Jewish settlers in settlements in the Old City of Hebron independence from the city’s municipality affiliated with the Palestinian Authority. His decision raised Palestinian public and official ire due to its serious repercussions on the city’s already deteriorating geographic and humanitarian situation. … Liberman’s move would lead to the establishment of an Israeli-run municipality. Settlers would receive services from Israeli authorities, whereas they were previously tied to the Palestinian-run municipality of Hebron granting services to Palestinian residents and settlers alike.”

Melhem reports that “in a closed meeting Sept. 14, the Jerusalem religious authorities, which consist of four Islamic institutions, warned that measures will be taken in protest against Israel, in case the latter does not retract its decision to close down the Bab al-Rahma building inside Al-Aqsa Mosque and to bring the Islamic Religious Endowments before the Israeli court, considering it to be a terrorist organization.”

Abu Amer adds that “this is not to mention that the Jewish National Union Party, a partner in the Israeli government, approved Sept. 13 a plan to deport Palestinians from the West Bank in exchange for financial compensation. While he did not comment on the plan specifically, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a congratulatory message to the party convention where the plan was approved."

Correction: Sept. 25, 2017. An earlier version of this piece quoted an article stating Netanyahu had blessed the National Union Party's plan to deport Palestinians. Netanyahu only sent a congratulatory message to the convention where the plan was approved.

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