Tillerson: Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics needs to be recognized

Top US diplomat makes rare admission of terror group's powerful political presence, says Israeli-Palestinian peace plan draft 'fairly well advanced'

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaks in Cairo, Egypt, February 13, 2018. (Khaled Elfiqi/AP)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday said the role of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government needed to be acknowledged when dealing with Beirut, seemingly boosting the standing of the organization regarded by the US as a terror group.

“We support a free and democratic Lebanon, free of the influence of others. And we know that the Lebanese Hezbollah is influenced by Iran. This influence we think is unhelpful for Lebanon’s long-term future,” Tillerson said during a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart in Amman.

“We also have to recognize the reality that [Hezbollah] are also part of the political process in Lebanon,” he added.

The statement was a rare admission from the US secretary of state that Hezbollah, which controls a militia of tens of thousands of men and has already fought one war with Israel in 2006 and is constantly threatening to wage another, is a powerful force in Lebanon’s political sphere through its presence in the country’s parliament.

In this May 13, 2016 photo, Hezbollah fighters carry the coffin of their slain commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in Syria, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Tillerson, who is on a week-long visit to the Middle East, highlighted the fact that the Lebanese government doesn’t want to see Hezbollah involved in foreign conflicts.

He also noted the US’s support for the Lebanese military.

“We support strengthening the Lebanese Armed Forces so there is a legitimate security force under full control of the government of Lebanon to provide the security the Lebanese people deserve,” Tillerson said.

On Tuesday, in an interview with the US-based Arabic news Chanel Al Hurra TV, Tillerson struck a tougher tone against Hezbollah, differentiating between the terror group and the Lebanese government, despite the fact that it sits in the government.

“Our issue is with Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist organization; it is not with the Lebanese people, it is not with the Lebanese government. So we try to be very precise in the actions we take to not harm the Lebanese people,” Tillerson said, in response to a question about US sanctions against Hezbollah.

US President Donald Trump has in the past claimed that Lebanon is fighting Hezbollah, despite the group being part of a power-sharing agreement in Saad Hariri’s government.

The US and Israel regards Hezbollah as a whole a terror group. In Europe, however, only its armed wing is blacklisted, with its political arm seen as a legitimate actor in Lebanon’s government.

Earlier in February, the Trump administration hit six people and seven businesses linked to Hezbollah with terror sanctions, calling it “the first wave” in a pressure campaign that will escalate throughout the year.

The campaign comes as the Trump administration works to undermine Iran’s ability to stoke unrest and expand its influence throughout the region. Senior Trump administration officials said the US estimates Iran sends Hezbollah about $700 million per year, arguing that Hezbollah has become the Iranian government’s primary tool to project its power in the Arabic-speaking world.

Hezbollah fighters stand on their army vehicle at the site where clashes erupted between Hezbollah and al-Qaida-linked fighters in Wadi al-Kheil or al-Kheil Valley in the Lebanon-Syria border, July 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In his comments on Tuesday, Tillerson said he spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following an aerial exchange of fire over the weekend with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria.

Tillerson said he discussed with Netanyahu the threats Hezbollah posed Israel both from its home base in Lebanon, as well as from Syria, where Hezbollah has been a key military player in the side of the Syrian regime.

“We take the threats to Israel seriously and we take a view that Israel has every right to defend itself from those threats,” he said.

Tillerson on Tuesday and again on Wednesday called on Iran to remove its forces from Syria.

During the press conference in Amman on Wednesday, Tillerson refused to discuss precisely when the US planned on revealing a peace plan for Palestinians and Israelis the Trump administration has been working on since it took office.

He did say, however, that the plan is “fairly well advanced.”

In this Tuesday, May 23, 2017 file photo, US President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

The Palestinians have said the US president’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel disqualifies Washington from its historic role as the sole mediator in the peace process.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Tillerson repeated the US position that the Jerusalem decision “does not preclude a two-state solution” if that’s the solution the two parties want.

AP contributed to this report.

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