Lebanese president visits southern areas, stresses country’s right to liberate occupied parts of its land with all legitimate means

PM Hariri pays two successful visits to Jordan, Turkey

UN forces in south Lebanon investigates explosive cache on borders with Israel

Jumblatt tells U.S. delegation that U.S. policies ignited tension in region

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman visited on Monday the Spanish contingent working with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and some Lebanese army posts near the borders with Israel, the country's state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported.

Suleiman, accompanied by Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander General Jean Qahwaji, arrived in Marjayoun in southern Lebanon.

Suleiman laid a wreath of flowers on the Spanish contingent's martyrs' memorial monument, and held a meeting with the accompanying delegation on the situation in the south.

The Lebanese president also visited LAF posts in Bint Jbeil, close to the borders with Israel.

Sleiman’s visit lasted for around one hour and was accompanied by tight security measures taken by the LAF troops and UNIFIL peacekeepers.

His arrival at midday came shortly after Lebanese anti-aircraft guns opened fire on four Israeli warplanes which were flying at low altitude over Marjayoun, NNA reported.

UNIFIL was mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to conduct peacekeeping missions in south Lebanon.

About 13,500 peacekeepers are currently serving with the UNIFIL in south Lebanon.

Suleiman warned on Monday that Israel is a "permanent threat" to the country, local news site NOW Lebanon reported.

He added that Israel exaggerates the danger Lebanon poses to evade the pressure of the international community on it to engage in the peace process.

Suleiman stressed that "Lebanon fought terrorism ferociously and cannot be a source of terrorism."

The Lebanese president commended UNIFIL's role in south Lebanon and reiterated his country's commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and withdrew after 18 years of occupation in south Lebanon. The two countries are still technically at war with each other.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent three day visit to Ankara to meet with his Turkish counterpart symbolizes both the emergence of Hariri out from under the shadow of his father’s legacy, as well as Turkey’s emergence as a major diplomatic player in the Middle East.

Rafik Hariri was a self-made billionaire with friends in very high places, including the President of France and the King of Saudi Arabia. He used his wealth and influence to help rebuild Lebanon after the civil war (1975 to 1990), and his achievements endeared him to a broad swath of Lebanese who had become accustomed to distrusting anyone outside of their sect. After his assassination in 2005, it was unclear if anyone could fill his shoes.

After his older brother, Bahaa Hariri, decided to shun politics and remain in the business world, it was Saad that stepped forward to claim his father’s legacy. Saad wasn’t exactly a novice, but he certainly hadn’t yet developed his father’s political acumen, and some thought he never would.

However, in the past few months, Saad Hariri has shown himself to be a pragmatic and savvy operator both within Lebanon and without. This is no small feat considering the extreme complexities of the Lebanese political scene as well as that of the greater Middle East.

In the past seven months, Hariri has been elected Prime Minister, formed a government, and reconciled with Damascus.

This last item is very important, as Syria almost totally surrounds tiny Lebanon and is still extremely influential there both economically and politically.

Inside Lebanon, Hariri has gained the approval of a broad section of Lebanese political groups, including Sunnis, Christians, Druze, and Shia. Outside Lebanon, Hariri has managed to win the support of diverse players such as Syria, Iran, the European Union, and the United States.

Now add Turkey to this list. Hariri has announced that he plans to ink deals with Ankara across an array of sectors, including military, culture, energy, and transportation. And in an effort to boost tourism and business between the two nations, Turkey and Lebanon will be eliminating visa requirements. This move reflects a greater openness in travel between Turkey and the Arab world, with Turkey signing similar agreements with Libya, Morocco, Tunis, Jordan and Syria. Turkey also has announced plans to do the same with Iraq in the future.

Of the agreements on the table between the two countries, the one regarding energy is one of the more interesting. Lebanon has long been plagued by energy shortages, and Turkey could play a big role in alleviating the problem. This prospect is even more exciting for Lebanon if the proposed Nabucco natural gas pipeline is completed.

Hariri’s trip to Ankara has revealed him to be an effective successor to his father’s diplomatic legacy, and the benefits of the deals he is signing could pay economic and political dividends for Lebanon for years to come.

— For Turkey, the agreements with Lebanon represent the latest in string of diplomatic deals that have strengthened that nation’s ties to its neighbors in the Middle East.

In the past, Turkey’s relations with its neighbors had been sour due to post-Ottoman Arab nationalism. Now it seems like many of these nations are putting aside history in favor political and economic advancement.

Some have indicated that this shift has occurred in the wake of Turkey’s decades-long rejection by the European Union.

However Turkish leaders would be quick to point out that Turkey is still close with the EU and is merely trying to be friendly with every nation where doing so would benefit Turkey.

What is evident though is, as Turkey’s relations with its Muslim neighbors have flowed, its relations with Israel have ebbed. Turkey, a regional powerhouse, is one of the only Muslim nations to keep open an embassy in Tel-Aviv. In the past, Turkey has attempted to broker peace deals between Syria and Israel as well as prisoner swaps between Israel and Hamas.

These days however, relations between the two are strained. A year ago, Turkish leaders loudly criticized Israel for its behavior for its brutal assault on Gaza. During a joint press conference with Hariri this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan condemned Israeli aggression against Lebanon as well as its refusal to adhere to UN resolution 1701, which calls for Israel to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.(Erdogan was referring to Israel’s continued occupation of the Sheba Farms territory in South Lebanon and its repeated violations of Lebanese airspace. Supporters of Israel would point out the hypocrisy of condemning a country for failure to adhere to UN guidelines, as Lebanon has thus far failed to adhere to UN Resolution 1559, which calls for all militias, i.e. Hezbollah, to disarm. Lebanese leadership hopes to neutralize the issue by embracing Hezbollah as a legitimate defense force of Lebanon).

Relations between Israel and Turkey took another turn for the worse this week, when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called in Turkey’s Ambassador to Israel Oguz Celikkol for a public dressing down over a Turkish television show that Ayalon felt portrayed Israel in a negative light. Some analysts have suggested that the move was intended by the opposition to torpedo any deal being made between Turkey and Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Israel’s Labor Party during his upcoming visit to Ankara.

One thing that is for certain is that a significant shift is taking place in the Middle East, with Turkey at the helm. The question is whether this is a positive development or a negative development.

Greater cooperation in the region could lead to greater economic prosperity, and the easing of trade and travel restrictions could lead to greater mobility of people and ideas.

Hopefully the participating nations will have a good influence on each other.

In the West, the rise of Turkey on the world stage should be seen as a breath of fresh air. Turkey and counties like the United States might not agree on everything, such as the behavior of Israel, but the positives greatly outweigh the negatives in the situation.

One, the rising influence of moderate Turkey could provide a nice regional counterbalance to Iran. Also, Turkey could serve as an effective negotiator to conflicts in this volatile region.

Finally, it might be nice to have a secular democracy like Turkey wield its influence on its neighbors instead of the despotic regimes of the traditional Middle Eastern powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Turkey was a world hub for culture and trade for centuries.

Perhaps, after a hundred-year decline, it is ready to regain that title.

Jordan's King Abdullah II and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stressed Wednesday that any comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East should ensure an end to Israel's occupation of Arab land, according to a royal court statement.

Hariri arrived in Amman earlier in the day and held talks with King Abdullah and Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

"The monarch and Hariri discussed latest developments in the region, particularly efforts under way for accomplishing comprehensive peace that should provide for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and ending the Israeli occupation of all Lebanese and Syrian territories," a royal court statement said.

During the meeting, King Abdullah assured Hariri of Jordan's continued backing for Lebanon's security, stability and sovereignty and expressed "confidence in the ability of the Lebanese government to boost national reconciliation and unity of the Lebanese people".

Meanwhile, United Nations peacekeepers, in close coordination with the Lebanese army, are investigating a significant cache of explosives found in southern Lebanon near Israel, the latest such incident in an area where Israel and Hezbollah militants fought a 34-day war in 2006.

A patrol from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) found the explosives on 26 December south of El Khiam after they had first noticed suspicious movement by five people, who then fled as they approached, spokesman Martin Nesirky told a news briefing.

On the other hand, United States Senator John McCain said in Beirut on Saturday he expected Lebanon’s national dialogue to convene soon to resolve several pending issues, most importantly Hezbollah’s weapons.

During talks Friday President Michel Sleiman called on McCain to reconsider a United States decision to impose sanctions on TV stations regarded as “hostile” to the US.

The US draft law monitored a number of Arab satellite channel broadcasts which it considered an, “incitement to violence against the United States and against Americans,” including Hezbollah affiliated Al-Manar TV, the Palestinian channel Al-Aqsa and the Iraqi channels Al-Zawraa and Rafidien, all of which are broadcast on NileSat and ArabSat.

The President also voiced concern Friday about a US decision to tighten security measures for airline passengers traveling from Lebanon and 13 other countries.

“Lebanon is enjoying an atmosphere of calm and stability and all procedures taken at the airport are excellent and proved their effectiveness,” Sleiman said.

Sleiman called on the United States to increase its military aid to Lebanon while stressing his country’s commitment to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. He urged the US to pressure Israel to halt its frequent violations against Lebanese territories.

On Saturday McCain, who praised Sleiman’s role in preserving the country’s stability since his election in 2008 said during a meeting with Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt at Mukhtara that he expected the national dialogue sessions to resolve the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons.

“Democracy takes time to be established and it is not always achieved without difficulties,” the former United States presidential candidate told reporters following his meeting with Jumblatt.

McCain also held talks Saturday with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Berri said Saturday that US military support to Israel was not to be compared to that provided to Lebanon, while underscoring Lebanon’s right to resist Israeli occupation and defend its country.

“The discussions tackled Lebanon’s necessary military needs and we are comfortable to see a national unity Cabinet and the continuation of dialogue,” McCain said following his meeting with Berri.

The speaker also questioned the negligence toward daily Israeli violations of Lebanese territories, while highlighting Lebanon’s commitment to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, adding that the major problem facing the Middle East was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

For his part, Jumblatt called on the US to provide the Lebanese Army with advanced weaponry to face Israeli jet fighters and tanks, while highlighting that the Arab and Islamic world was in a state of anger against Western, and particularly US policies.

Tackling the US decision to impose sanctions on satellite television channels carrying content interpreted as hostile to the US, McCain said his country had the right to halt the broadcast of foreign stations voicing enmity to the US.

“I believe some of the stations we prevented were stirring feeling of enmity to America and we have the right to stop them. However, we have to consider the issue further to avoid taking similar decisions regarding stations which did not voice hostility against us,” McCain said.

Berri had sent a letter to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday criticizing the US Congress for passing a bill on December 8 that imposes sanctions on satellite channels carrying content that could be interpreted as “hostile to the United States.”

According to Berri, the bill breaches the sovereignty of the states broadcasting the penalized satellite content – including Lebanon – and complicates US-Lebanese relations.