Rice: Time to resolve the Shaba Farms issue

In surprise visit to Beirut, US sec. of state arrives in Lebanon to show support for new gov't that would give Hizbullah more power.

rice suleiman 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
rice suleiman 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
After publicly slamming Israel for construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank during her two days of talks here, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Lebanon on Monday and said it was time to resolve the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) issue. Rice brought up the Shaba Farms issue during a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "I also told him that the United States believes the time has come to deal with the Shaba Farms issue," Rice told reporters. But she did not take questions from the reporters as to what pressure the US might apply to Israel to resolve the dispute. The Mount Dov area is where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. Israel captured the area during the Six Day War from the Syrians, but Lebanon claims the area and Hizbullah has continuously used the issue to justify its "resistance." Israeli government sources said there seems to have been a "turning point" regarding the US position on Shaba Farms, and that it may be tied to efforts by Rice to show "more US balance" in the region, an explanation also proffered to explain her harsh words on construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank while here. Saad Hariri, son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, said he hoped that with US help, Lebanon would "be able to close that chapter in the history of Lebanon. Shaba is a very important part of Lebanon that the Lebanese people want back." Rice flew to Lebanon after holding a trilateral meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad to discuss the fulfillment of road map obligations. The meeting was held behind closed doors, and few details were provided. Barak issued a statement after the hour-long meeting saying the trilateral discussion centered on promoting economic projects in the Palestinian Authority. Barak said Israel "will continue its support of the promotion of economic projects in Judea and Samaria." Barak also said that the issue of law enforcement and public order activities by Palestinian security forces in Judea and Samaria was also discussed. According to the statement, he stressed that the IDF bore ultimate responsibility for security in the region. Barak also met separately with Rice, and discussed "regional diplomatic and security issues." Ahead of the meeting, Rice said Palestinian efforts to rein in terrorists would be on the agenda. She also praised measures taken so far by Fayad's Western-backed government, although she acknowledged more needed to be done. "I will say that some of the things that Prime Minister Fayad has done on the terrorism side are... pretty important," she said. "Going after terrorist finances is very important." Her praise for Fayad and the PA contrasted with the criticism she issued publicly toward Israel during the visit. Following her visit here, Rice put a US stamp of approval on an emerging new government in Lebanon, despite the increased power it gives to Hizbullah. Rice made an unannounced visit to Lebanon's capital to meet with Western-backed leaders of the planned government, whose exact makeup is still being negotiated by the country's factions. The US regards Hizbullah as a terrorist group and has no dealings with it. "Congratulations," Rice said as she shook hands with Michel Suleiman, the army chief elected last month to lead the government. "We are all just very supportive of your presidency and your government." On the flight from Israel, Rice told reporters she would discuss "how the United States can support the institutions of a free Lebanon." Hizbullah gained veto power over the Beirut government in a compromise brokered last month. The deal ended 18 months of political paralysis, and followed bloody street clashes. The US would have preferred that Hizbullah not gain greater power, but has called the deal a necessary step for stability. The political breakthrough that allowed Lebanon's parliament to elect Suleiman was reached with the help of Arab negotiators. It brought palpable relief to Lebanese who feared their country was in danger of another civil war and ushered in a shift in the balance of power in favor of Hizbullah. Rice is the first high-level US official to visit since the power sharing agreement was reached, and she was meeting Suleiman for the first time. A Hizbullah lawmaker voiced fears that Rice's trip might obstruct the formation of a national unity government. "Mrs. Rice's visits have always been a disaster and a catastrophe for Lebanon because the US government never works for the sake of the Lebanese people, but for the sake of their interests in the region as well as Israel's interests," Hizbullah legislator Nawar al-Saheli said Monday. "We fear that Rice's visit this time is aimed at obstructing the formation of the new government, especially if a national union cabinet was not in the interest of the US administration," he said. Following her meeting with Suleiman, Rice said, "It was really delightful to meet the president. I know it has been a struggle for Lebanon to get to the election of its president. But I come away knowing that Lebanon has succeeded in electing a very fine man. We look forward to working with him."