BEIRUT: The international community will assess its relationship with any Lebanese government based on the makeup of the next Cabinet, its policy statement and the actions it takes concerning Lebanon’s international obligations, including the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, visiting U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman said Friday.
In a statement after holding talks with Lebanese leaders, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and North African affairs also said Washington viewed the current wave of popular revolutions in the Arab world as a “historic opportunity” for democratic change and voiced his country’s concern over the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on pro-reform protesters.
Feltman, who arrived in Beirut Thursday evening, met separately with President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt to discuss the four-month-long Cabinet deadlock and security on the Lebanon-Syria border.
U.S. Embassy spokesperson Ryan Gliha told reporters the purpose of Feltman’s visit was to convey the new U.S. policy in the Middle East as articulated by President Barack Obama in his Thursday speech, as well as to tackle the government formation and the issue of security on the Lebanon-Syria border.
In an interview broadcast by LBCI television Friday night, Feltman said the reasons for his Beirut visit were linked to developments in the region and the new U.S. policy in the Middle East. He added that he wanted to meet with members of the Lebanese leadership to tell them about the U.S. foreign policy and “what is our position on Syria.”
Feltman rejected claims that the U.S. was exerting pressure on Mikati to form a new government. “We’re staying out of the formation process,” he said.
“We are not prejudging the new government. We are not prejudging the prime minister. We are not prejudging anything,” Feltman added.
Feltman said the U.S. would continue to work to strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces to enable them to exercise their responsibility. On whether the two-month popular uprising in Syria will affect Lebanon, Feltman said the best way to protect Lebanon was for Syria to begin the process of reforms.
During his meeting with Feltman, Sleiman stressed the need for the U.S. to play “a serious role” to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East region.
“President Sleiman underlined the significance of ensuring stability in the region’s states and encouraging the reform steps taken by these states in various fields,” according to a statement released by Baabda Palace.
Mikati said Obama’s speech on the Middle East made no mention of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return.
“What we noticed in President Obama’s speech … is that he did not address the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This matter is a top concern for us Lebanese,” Mikati told Feltman.
Lebanon is estimated to host between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinians, most of them live in 12 crowded refugee camps across the country, according to U.N. figures.
“What the peace-loving people in the Middle East states concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict wish is that the U.S. president’s words are translated into action through practical steps to achieve a just, permanent and comprehensive peace,” Mikati said.
In his speech, Obama called for a Middle East peace deal that establishes a Palestinian state based on the borders of before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Siniora said Feltman told Lebanese officials that the U.S. supported the Arab Spring. “The U.S. supports democracy and reforms in the Arab world,” Siniora told The Daily Star. “Although they support reforms in the Arab world, including Syria, it is not the Americans’ business to change regimes,” he said. Siniora added that Feltman asked about the reasons for the delay in the government’s formation. “They [the U.S.] want the Lebanese government to be formed as soon as possible” he added.
Later, a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said Feltman visited Lebanon to deliver a message that “the U.S. views the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa as an historic opportunity to meet the aspirations of the people of the region, building a stronger foundation for prosperity and showing people the fruits of democratic change.”
Echoing the message of Obama’s speech on the Middle East, Feltman outlined the U.S. position on the democratic changes sweeping across the region through “clear and unwavering support for a set of core principles: opposition to the use of violence and repression; protection for universal rights including free speech, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, equality for men and women; and support for political and economic change in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of people throughout the region,” the statement said.
In his talks with Lebanese officials, “Feltman reiterated the U.S. view that the international community will assess its relationship with any new government of Lebanon based on the makeup of the next Cabinet, its ministerial statement and the actions it takes in regard to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Lebanon’s other international obligations,” the statement said.
The U.S. and Israel have expressed concerns about the possibility of the new Lebanese government being dominated by Hezbollah, which Washington labels a terrorist organization. Mikati was backed by the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance to form a new government after Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Cabinet was brought down on Jan. 12 in a long-simmering feud between the March 8 bloc and the rival March 14 coalition over the STL.
“Feltman also expressed the United States’ serious concern about the ongoing violence in Syria, condemning the Syrian government’s continued use of violence and intimidation against the Syrian people,” according to the statement.
In his Thursday’s speech, Obama said Syrian President Bashar Assad now has a choice: “He can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way.”
According to human rights groups, more than 850 people have been killed in clashes with Syrian security forces since the pro-democracy movement erupted on March 15, posing the gravest challenge to Assad’s 11-year role.
Feltman voiced U.S. concern about last Sunday’s bloody incidents on the Lebanese-Israeli border. “He emphasized the importance of maintaining strong border security on all of Lebanon’s borders in order to prevent incidents that increase tensions that can lead to casualties and negatively impact the security of the region,” according to the statement.
Thousands of Palestinian refugees rallied in the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras near the border with Israel on May 15 to commemorate 63rd anniversary of Palestine’s “Nakba” (catastrophe) – a reference to the creation of the state of Israel. Israeli forces opened fire on some protesters, killing 11 and wounding more than a hundred.
Feltman’s visit coincided with a visit by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Middle East Affairs Mohammad Riza Shibani who held talks with Sleiman, Mikati, Speaker Nabih Berri and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh on the fast-moving developments in the Middle East.
Shibani conveyed a message from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Sleiman inviting him to an international conference to fight terrorism to be held in Tehran on June 25-26. He renewed Iran’s support for Lebanon, expressing hope that a new Lebanese government would be formed soon to cope with the developments in the region, the state-run National News Agency reported.