BEIRUT - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to arrive in Beirut Thursday for talks with Lebanese leaders. Discussions will likely focus on heightened tensions in the southern border region fueled by Israel’s construction of a wall and its threats over Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration near a disputed maritime boundary, official sources said Sunday.
Tillerson arrived in Cairo Sunday as part of a regional tour that will also take him to Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey. The start of the tour coincided with spiraling regional tensions and a serious escalation in the 7-year-old war in Syria.
Tillerson’s visit to Egypt came one day after Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes in Syria in response to an Iranian drone’s infiltration of Israel’s airspace. Syrian anti-aircraft units subsequently downed an Israeli F-16. It was the most serious Israeli engagement in Syria since the war there began in 2011.
During his one-day visit to Beirut, Tillerson is scheduled to meet separately with President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri for talks centering on regional developments, including the escalation of Israeli saber rattling against Iran and Syria as well as Israel’s threats against Lebanon over the right to explore and exploit oil and gas wealth in its territorial waters, and the Syrian refugee crisis and its negative impact on the country’s stability and economy, an official source told The Daily Star.
Likewise, the upcoming parliamentary elections, as well as the U.S. role in two international conferences in Rome later this month and in Paris in March or April to bolster the Lebanese Army and security forces and shore up Lebanon’s ailing economy will figure high in Tillerson’s talks with Lebanese leaders, the source said. A third international conference to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis is planned in Brussels later in the spring.
Lebanese leaders are expected to raise with the top U.S. diplomat Israel’s construction of a controversial “separation wall” on a disputed area along the Lebanon-Israel border, as well as Israel’s threats over Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration, the source added.
The source said that acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, who visited Beirut last week and held talks with
Aoun, Berri and Hariri as part of a U.S. mediation effort in the oil and gas and wall construction disputes with Israel, had presented Aoun with some proposals to resolve the problems.“The proposals are still being studied, but President Aoun insists on asserting Lebanon’s right to its full sovereignty over its territory, both in land and in sea,” the source said.
The source declined to comment on media reports that Tillerson, himself an oil and gas expert, would seek to mediate in the oil dispute between Lebanon and Israel in exchange for Lebanese officials acting to rein in Hezbollah’s powerful role in Lebanon.
Hezbollah officials could not be reached to comment on Tillerson’s visit to Beirut.
Berri ruled out the outbreak of an all-out war between Israel and Syria following the downing of the Israeli F-16 jet by Syrian air defense units.
“What happened was bigger than a battle and smaller than a war. It will lead to the creation of new balances [of power] and rules of engagement in the region. No further escalation is expected and it will not develop into an all-out war,” Berri told visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence Sunday night.
Berri described his relations with Aoun as “good,” days after resolving a two-month dispute over a decree promoting a number of Army officers. He said he will meet Aoun soon to address developments and Israeli threats.
On the oil and gas issue, Berri said: “There is no fear for our oil rights. The president of Total company told us that the oil consortium that will drill for oil and gas will not be affected by the Israeli threats and will continue preparations for drilling.”
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently that oil and gas exploration projects in Lebanon’s maritime Block 9 were “very provocative.” He urged international firms not to carry out work in the block that he claimed partly belongs to Israel.
Defying the Israeli threats, Lebanon last Friday signed its first offshore oil and gas exploration and production contracts for two energy blocks, including the disputed Block 9.
During the signing ceremony attended by Aoun, ministers and other officials, Energy and Water Minister Cesar Abi Khalil said there would be full exploration in an offshore energy block that partially lies in waters disputed by Israel. “We have confirmed and reaffirmed that Block 9 is located within the Lebanese maritime waters and is fully subject to the sovereignty of the Lebanese state,” Abi Khalil said. “And its exploration activities will be fully implemented.”
A consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek signed the agreements for the two blocks, which are among five that Lebanon put up for tender in the country’s much-delayed first licensing round.
Meanwhile, Hariri is expected to underline the importance of protecting Lebanon from the reverberations of regional turmoil during a keynote speech this week marking the 13th anniversary of the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The Future Movement is planning to hold a rally on the occasion at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure complex Wednesday afternoon to be attended by senior officials, ministers, lawmakers, representatives of various political parties and Future Movement supporters.
“Prime Minister Hariri will focus in his speech on Lebanon’s protection through reiterating his call on all the political parties to abide by the government’s policy of dissociation from regional conflicts and noninterference in the internal affairs of Arab countries,” Future Movement MP Atef Majdalani told The Daily Star Sunday.
“Political stability and security will help protect Lebanon and its economic recovery,” he said. Majdalani stressed that without political stability, “we cannot expect good results from international conferences [in Rome and Paris] to help Lebanon.” He added: “Stability is the key to shield Lebanon from the fallout of what is happening in the region.” Similarly, he said, Hariri will reassure the Lebanese that parliamentary elections, slated for May 6, will be held on time in “a calm and democratic atmosphere.”
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