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New American approach to Hezbollah?

FILE - In this November 12, 2010 file photo, Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags, as they parade during the opening of new cemetery for colleagues who died in fighting against Israel, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

The political outlook in the region continues to remain cloudy, especially in Egypt and Syria, while Lebanon grapples with several political and economic challenges.

Diplomatic sources in Beirut link the country’s political paralysis and drift to the situation in Syria, which is mired in a political and military stalemate. They expressed concerns that the Lebanese arena would itself fall into chaos if it continued to remain linked to the crisis in its neighbor to the north and east.

The refugee situation is straining Lebanon’s ability to cope, as top leaders are warning, and observers expect even more Syrians to stream across the border into Lebanon, where sharp political disputes and gridlock in the Cabinet could mean an uptick in worrying security incidents.

Some observers expect dramatic developments in Syria in the coming weeks, amid the lack of any political solution on the horizon.

Against this backdrop, a number of local politicians are concluding that Washington is embarking on a new approach to Lebanon, based on recent developments. They are basing this on comments by a high-ranking Lebanese official who believes that “the Americans have suddenly discovered that the Cabinet, which has been around for two years, is the ‘government of Hezbollah,’” and are talking about two options for Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

One is to see Mikati dismiss Hezbollah’s two ministers, Mohammad Fneish and Hussein Hajj Hasan, while the second is for the entire Cabinet to step down and re-form with no representatives of Hezbollah, so that it can impartially oversee parliamentary elections in June.

The official believes that Washington has made it clear that stability in Lebanon, rather than the holding of elections, is its top priority, which sets it apart from other Western countries such as the United Kingdom, which supports the current government as well as stability.

The official says the Syrian crisis has come dangerously close to destabilizing Lebanon, meaning that politicians should do their utmost to spare the country the repercussions of the war next door, “before getting involved in the details of a parliamentary election law that has no chance of being adopted.”

As for addressing the challenges, the official cited this week’s visit to Lebanon by two American officials as highlighting a set of objectives. Lawrence Silverman, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, and Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for energy diplomacy, stressed during their meetings with top officials and politicians that the U.S. was prepared to continue supporting Lebanon as it received Syrians fleeing their country’s conflict.

According to sources familiar with the discussions, the two officials also addressed Lebanon’s foray into oil and gas exploration, as they encouraged Beirut to move ahead quickly with settling the issue of its Exclusive Economic Zone, to avoid any future conflict with Israel, which would stall the long-awaited exploration process.

The official said the American visitors also encouraged local leaders to prepare well for an upcoming stage of “political settlements” in the turbulent Middle East.

And as the war in Syria continues to rage, the two American officials said Lebanon should make every effort to protect itself from the spillover of violence, and discussed the possibility of enhancing the state’s monitoring of its northeastern border with Syria. While the possibility of deploying international peacekeeping troops to the porous border areas was broached, the idea wasn’t advanced as a formal proposal, the sources said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2013, on page 3.

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