Lebanon stays away from Bahrain conference, wary of own challenges

For Beirut, any accommodation for Palestinian refugees is viewed both as an acceptance of their permanent presence within the country and a concession to Israel.
Sunday 30/06/2019
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Beirut, March 22. (AP)
Not seeing eye to eye. Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Beirut, March 22. (AP)

TUNIS - Beirut appears to have stolen the march on many criticising the US-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain June 25-26.

In a statement issued ahead of the conference June 23, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri slammed US overtures, saying, “Those who think that waving billions of dollars can lure Lebanon, which is under the weight of a suffocating economic crisis, into succumbing or bartering over its principles are mistaken.” He stressed that any offer intended to bolster the Palestinian cause must feature the refugees’ right to return first and foremost.

Addressing the president’s son-in-law and architect of the Bahraini economic workshop, Jared Kushner, on Twitter, Lebanese MP Nadim Gemayel wrote: “Mr Kushner, you need to realise that we did not offer tens of thousands of martyrs for tens of billions of dollars to settle Palestinians and others in Lebanon. Lebanon is not a real estate company.”

According to official records, there are approximately 470,000 registered Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon. However, an official 2017 census recorded less than half that number, citing just some 175,000 as present.

Under the terms of the US plan, more than $50 billion would be made available to fund projects intended to bolster the economies of the Palestinians and those of the neighbouring Arab countries. Under the proposals, Lebanon would benefit by some $6.3 billion in investment to be delivered over a ten-year period.

Stoking tensions within Lebanon is the suggested target of the $6.3 billion, which is to focus primarily on overhauling the country’s ailing infrastructure rather than offering relief to the Palestinians themselves. Through a combination of grants, loans and private investments, some $3 billion has been suggested to go towards improving the country’s road networks, $2 billion for the construction of a rail network and $1 billion towards expanding Lebanon’s ports and airports.

Despite the pressing need for overhauling Lebanon’s ailing infrastructure, many still view the offer as an attempt by the United States to establish a permanent Palestinian enclave within Lebanon and fundamentally undermine its delicate sectarian balance.

Ensuring the temporary status of Palestinian refugees within Lebanon has been a longstanding policy in Beirut. The refugees themselves have been a fixture within the country since 1948 and, denied legal citizenship, are forced to live in temporary accommodation reliant upon the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for essential services such as health care and education.

For Beirut, any accommodation for Palestinian refugees is viewed both as an acceptance of their permanent presence within the country and a concession to Israel, with which Lebanon remains at war. However, it also cannot be ignored that Palestinian militias played a significant role within the civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990 and that, to this day, the camps remain well defended.

The rejection of the US offer has provided a rare point of consensus among Lebanon’s typically strife-ridden sects. Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, was keen to underscore the consensus, terming the US plan “a historic crime” that must be stopped.

In the absence of any indication of a political solution beyond the initial offer of investment, Lebanon joins a lengthy roster of Arab states staying away from the Bahrain conference. The Palestinian territories, Kuwait and Iraq all chose to decline invitations to the conference. On the second day of the conference, the Sultanate of Oman went one step further, announcing the opening of an embassy in the occupied West Bank.

However, for Lebanon, circumstances are particularly acute. In the face of a deteriorating economy and an austerity budget unparalleled within the country’s recent history, the offer of financial relief in return for the tacit acceptance of the refugees could only have served to rub salt within official wounds.

Lebanon’s finances are desperate. According to the country’s Ministry of Finance, last year’s expenditure came to $16.5 billion against total revenues of some $12.5 billion. While a draft budget agreed in late May promised to go some way in addressing that, the situation remains perilous. On June 27, credit rating agency Moody’s warned that, despite the austere measures involved in the budget, Lebanon still looked likely to require debt rescheduling or other steps that would essentially constitute a default.

In addition to hosting thousands of Palestinian refugees, Lebanon is also temporary home to some 935,000 registered refugees who have fled the conflict in neighbouring Syria. However, as the UN halted registrations in 2015, aid workers estimate the number as far higher.

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