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Lebanese FM: US attacks on Palestinians destabilizing entire region

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, in a wide-ranging interview in New York, says aid cuts for Palestinian refugees are damaging countries such as his own.

The Donald Trump administration's pro-Israel policies are creating a crisis for the entire region, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said today.

Beyond their direct harm to the Palestinians, recent US aid cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), appear aimed at dropping the refugee issue in the lap of neighboring countries, he said.

“This is a step forward to, one, deprive them from the right to return and, two, to somehow take the title of refugee and turn them into integrated people in our country,” Bassil told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of his visit to the UN General Assembly in New York. “The world cannot follow only the wish or the will of the United States. This is a moral obligation on the international community to abide by their commitment to Lebanon, to Jordan, to Syria, to Palestine. It is a big mistake that was committed by the international community, and it's not … up to Lebanon to pay the price alone for such a big historical error.”

Bassil said Lebanon would be raising the issue in all its bilateral meetings this week in the hope of rallying friendly countries “to fill the gap that was left by the Americans.”

The Lebanese envoy also reiterated comments from late last year about not having an “ideological problem” with Israel, but clarified that what he meant was that Lebanon has “no issue with the Jews.” Still, he called Israel's commitment to a Jewish state as being from the “old days” and a recipe for regional strife that can only be alleviated through diversity.

Finally, Bassil drew on historical precedent to justify Lebanon's cooperation with Russia in voluntarily returning refugees to Syria. Just as with the return of Cypriot refugees despite the lingering crisis on the island since 1974, Bassil said the issue of return should be disassociated from a political settlement that could be years away.

“We cannot link something existential to Lebanon with something that is indefinite in time internationally,” he said.

The full text of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor’s executive editor, is below:

Al-Monitor:  The Lebanese government has prioritized returning Syrian refugees, and Russia recently announced that it is developing a plan to repatriate Syrians in Lebanon and other regional countries. Refugees were also reportedly a major topic in your talks last month with Russian FM Sergey Lavrov. In what ways are you working with Moscow on this issue, and does the Lebanese government plan to coordinate directly with Damascus?

Bassil:  You know, first, with the Russians, what is important about that initiative, that it disassociates the return from the political solution. This is what is needed in Lebanon, to have great political power, locating for the case, because we cannot link something existential to Lebanon with something that is indefinite in time internationally. So two things that cannot be linked.

Take the Cypriot example. The crisis happened in 1974. Until now it's not solved politically, but the Cypriots went back, for those who are willing.  So we cannot stay for years without a return, that's why this is of political importance of that initiative. How we are working on implementing it, we just formed last week the common committee, the joint committee, the Russian-Lebanese Committee on the return of the displaced Syrians, and we are seeing ways now to see how the Russians can help us.

Obviously, we are lacking financing, but still, we can work on providing sort of guarantees for the Syrians to go back. This is where it comes, the role of the Syrian government, to provide those guarantees, and here we're talking of different levels going from the preservation of the identity, the property, to the amnesty and passing by the exemption of military service. So any facilitation of the return that can be provided by the Syrian government is welcome — it is desired, actually. It's requested by us, to say it more clearly.

And this is where we hope that with the Russians on one hand, with the Syrians, and of course, with the hope to change the international community policy about keeping that issue of return on the side now and linking it to the political solution. So any change in that regard would be very helpful. We are aware that the return will be gradual. It is only a safe and a dignified return, but we wanted to start.

Al-Monitor:  What other bilateral issues were discussed in your Moscow meeting?

Bassil:  There are many bilateral issues with Moscow. You should notice that Moscow has a presence in the neighbor country to Lebanon. It has a military presence now. There's bases, military bases, and there's great political influence and economic influence in Syria and in the region. And Russia has always been advocating for the protection of the minorities for the diversity, and somehow it also justifies its intervention in Syria by the need to protect its own national security because for Russia the terrorists who are in Syria can infiltrate Russia. So the same applies to Lebanon with a closer distance. Lebanon, a pioneer in diversity, is risking to lose it because of the threat of terrorism with all it weighs on our — not only security, but the real rasion d'etre of Lebanon, which is its diversity.

So, definitely. On this level, we have a lot to deal on with Russia. Plus, certain bilateral issues, economy, specific agreements that we discussed, and I hope that this is not coming on the benefit of any of our relations with friendly countries. But I hope this will encourage other friendly countries to change policies, especially regarding the refugees, the Syrians.

Al-Monitor:  You met with other Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo earlier this month to discuss efforts to preserve the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, following cuts in funding from the US. Lebanon is a home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. How much of a direct impact will these cuts actually have?

Bassil:  First and most important, they have a very heavy political weight on the idea of keeping the Palestinians in Lebanon because, you know, this is a step forward to, one, deprive them from the right to return and, two, to somehow take the title of refugee and turn them into integrated people in our country. And this is translated into a financial decision that is political. It is not related to the $60 million that were paid. So this weighs a lot on us, on top of the economic weight that we have been enduring for the last 70 years.

As such, we had this meeting at the Arab League. We are having another meeting here in New York, and in all our bilateral meetings, we will be raising this issue and hope to rally the friendly countries to Lebanon in order to fill the gap that was left by the Americans.

And, again, this has another political aspect. That the world cannot follow only the wish or the will of the United States. This is a moral obligation on the international community to abide by their commitment to Lebanon, to Jordan, to Syria, to Palestine. It is a big mistake that was committed by the international community, and it's not Lebanon — up to Lebanon — to pay the price alone for such a big historical error.

Al-Monitor:  What is the real danger if these cuts are indeed implemented?

Bassil:  The implantation of Palestinians, their stay in Lebanon and forbidding them from return, from returning to their land. What bigger than this can be.

Al-Monitor:  And more broadly, what further understandings were reached in Cairo that you will be following up on this week?

Bassil:  The political position was good. Now let's see how we will fill that gap of the deficit in the budget, but again, it's not for a year. It should be sustainable in such a way to secure for the Palestinians, but somehow — somehow they will be assisted not to turn them into violent people because you're not offering them education, what will you offer them? Jobs? We have no jobs to offer them in Lebanon. What are we — where are we taking them? To which behavior. They are already in a deep frustration. We want this frustration to turn into what? To more extremism?

Al-Monitor:  More than four months have passed since Lebanon held general elections this May, yet an agreement on a new government has yet to emerge. What are the main obstacles to a government formation and when do you expect an agreement to be reached?

Bassil:  You know, the main obstacles that are internal are related to not respecting the results of the elections. In a national unity government, you only abide by the elections, and you get the formation right away. So we are afraid that this disrespect of the elections is coming out of what we heard that some foreign countries were not pleased by the results and that this would turn the equilibrium established in Lebanon, which I don't believe it's the case. In Lebanon, no one can prevail. No one. No matter how strong you look economically or militarily or in popularity, you cannot rule the country alone. So no one government, no one parliament will be under — take over one party and specifically here I mean Hezbollah, because the situation as such is very wrong.

So I believe not encouraging by itself. Unfortunately, internal parties [fear] to take the needed decision to move forward with this formation of government because we want to reinstate what was before the elections. Actually, things are not changing drastically in the representation of the political parties. So to be afraid that such a government will be losing the equilibrium — the coming Lebanese government will be reflecting the Lebanese people, which are enough diverse in their political orientations and their, let's say, affiliation, whether internally or externally, and there is no reason to have this fear.

No one can control the country. This is very essential in Lebanon. No one party can do this.

Al-Monitor:  In late December of last year, you said there was no ideological problem with Israel. Given your position, what are your thoughts on what needs to happen in order to achieve peace in the Middle East?

Bassil:  You know, I said this in the sense that we have no issue with the Jews. We have — even we accept as a state the presence of Israel because we are accepting to make peace with Israel. When we accept to make peace agreement with Israel, it means that you accept its existence based on the Arab initiative that was announced in Beirut, based on the main concept of exchanging rights, and I think what's hindering peace is Israel is not abiding by the rights of its neighboring countries. So Israel cannot exist only by force because force will never be on the side of one country forever, and peace can be made only on equilibrated, you know, on the balanced rights of each country. In that sense, when we are not only accepting to have peace, we are eager to make peace because we are a country who wants to live in peace with its neighbors, but we will never surrender to Israel with its policy of, one, aggressing us and, two, on trying to turn Lebanon into a place of violence whether afflicted by Israel or whether encouraging other groups like what we saw with the terrorist groups to change the aspect of Lebanon.

So our main problem with Israel is that it is seeking to turn the region, including Lebanon, into a place of permanent conflict between monolithic entities fighting each other. That's weakening themselves and strengthening Israel and, thus, justifying the existence of Israel as a monolithic entity. This is very essential, you know. This is declaring a Jewish state. For us, for Lebanon, declaring a Christian state, declaring an Islamic state, a Jewish state, this is from old days. This is not the language of the future. This is not Lebanon. This is not humanity, what should be. Humanity is diversity. It is not this unilateralism, this unilateralism that can be only joined with violence and extremism and all what we are seeing. This is not the humanism.

Al-Monitor:  In your position as minister of foreign affairs and emigrants, you’ve worked to actively engage the Lebanese diaspora abroad. Can you tell us about initiatives the government is using to connect Lebanese in the diaspora with the homeland and what role do they have, whether economically, culturally or otherwise?

Bassil:  There are many. A lot should be done. We did a little, like allowing them by law to participate in the elections, and this is progressing. Like allowing them to restore their nationality, again by law. These are the two major steps. Now I hope the next phase will be for economic legislation. That will encourage them to go back to the country or at least to be connected to the country, not to mention the cultural aspects and activities. They are encouraged by the government, but they are left for the person with individual initiatives, of the communities of each place, and you see a lot of them.

I hope in our next LDE [Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference] in North America, which will be the fourth one in Washington — it will be in Washington in September [2019] — I hope we will be able to highlight two main aspects, one that is related to politics where we try to talk with the policymakers in D.C. on how to lobby for Lebanon, to advocate for the role of Lebanon, and another one that is more academic related to the youth to take advantage of the presence of so many Lebanese students here on the East Coast, mainly in Boston and Washington. So to meet and to explore more the ways to be connected to Lebanon, like we did in the last LDE, to encourage them to stay connected.

Al-Monitor:  What sectors is Lebanon working to encourage the diaspora to invest in for foreign direct investment?

Bassil:  Tourism, but also in energy.

Al-Monitor:  Given the large number of Lebanese abroad, how does the diaspora play a role in Lebanon’s foreign policy or decisions and strategy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Bassil:  It's mainly carrying the message of Lebanon, means the importance of Lebanon. I wouldn't imagine that Lebanon would have survived as such a small country with so many problems if we didn't have the awareness of its importance. This awareness has definitely gone beyond our capacity to carry to the whole world. This is where we highlight the importance of — it's not the importance. The diaspora for us means the universality of Lebanon. Lebanon is universal because of its diaspora.