BEIRUT: After successfully mitigating Lebanon's Cabinet deadlock, Prime Minister Saad Hariri traveled to the U.S. this week and held discussions with senior officials that focused on possible Hezbollah sanctions, the Israeli border dispute and the country's economic health.
Hariri, on his third visit as Prime Minister, met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, reaffirming his commitment to settling the dispute revolving around 860 square kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea.
Hariri expected a decision being reached in September, while Pompeo hoped to “see substantive discussions on these important issues, the resolution of which would be greatly beneficial to Lebanon and to the broader region.”
By finally demarcating both its maritime and land borders, Lebanon hopes to unleash offshore oil and gas production as it continues to grapple with an economic crisis. The U.S., under the watchful eye of Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, has been mediating between the two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948.
Hariri also hinted at possibly moving "from cessation of hostilities to a ceasefire" with Israel while pointing out to the "hundreds of Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace."
Touching on Hezbollah, the militant group that has managed to expand its influence both locally and regionally, Pompeo threw his support behind the “credible state institutions inside Lebanon. They are essential to preserving Lebanese security, stability and sovereignty".
“This is a region that is threatened by Iran, and a nation that is threatened by its proxy Hezbollah,” he said, adding that U.S. sanctions against "Hezbollah members and its supporters will continue."
During his five day visit, Hariri also met undersecretary for political affairs David Hale, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs David Schenker, and U.S. assistant secretary of Treasury, Marshall Billingslea, with the latter credited with concocting the U.S.' latest round of Hezbollah sanctions.
Last month, the U.S. ramped up its efforts to isolate Hezbollah and in an unprecedented move, announced fresh sanctions against elected officials from the movement for the first time.
MPs Amin Sherri and Muhammad Hasan Raad were accused of “exploiting Lebanon’s political and financial system” to benefit Hezbollah, according to a statement from the U.S. Treasury.
Wafiq Safa, one of Hezbollah's top security officials, was also blacklisted, along with a number of prominent Shiite businessmen believed to have ties with the "Party of God."
"My duty as Prime Minister is to spare Lebanon from these sanctions and safeguard the economy," he said.
The threat of increased sanctions have raised concerns over Lebanon's ability to weather its financial storm, with Hariri believed to have lobbied for the U.S. to shield his country's banking sector.
Lebanon is currently treading a thin line, with its budget deficit hovering near 11 percent of GDP in 2018. It also has one of the heaviest public debt burdens in the world at around 150 percent of GDP.
Earlier this month, Lebanon's parliament passed the 2019 budget which seeks to curb the deficit to around the 7 percent mark through a number of austerity measures, including new taxes and budget cuts.
By enacting necessary reforms, Pompeo said Lebanon would unlock international economic help, most notably the $11 billion CEDRE package agreed upon in April last year.
Hariri held talks with David Malpass as well, the President of the World Bank, assuring him of "continued cooperation, especially in sectors such as electricity, telecommunications and waste management."
"I explained the challenges we face in Lebanon, both economically and politically," Hariri said, telling reporters that work on the 2020 budget would commence shortly.
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