BEIRUT: With Lebanon being one of the countries that shares a direct border with Occupied Palestine and Israel, it is vital that Washington get Beirut on-board for the “Deal of the Century” to materialize. And despite Lebanon’s official rejection to the so-called peace plan, one might ask what exactly is in it for Lebanon. More so than the economic aspect(s) of the “deal,” is the fact that Lebanon’s delicate sectarian makeup would be endangered if Palestinian refugees were to be “integrated” or “naturalized” into Lebanese society.
Under the General Framework chapter of the plan rejected by many, “the rights of Palestinian refugees to immigrate to the State of Palestine shall be limited in accordance with agreed security arrangements.”
The plan states that Palestinian refugees in the Middle East “come from wartorn countries, such as Syria and Lebanon that are extremely hostile toward the State of Israel.”
This is an implicit reference to the more than 170,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. And once/if U.S. President Donald Trump’s new plan is signed, Palestinian refugee status “will cease to exist” as will Palestinian refugee camps, which will be replaced with “the building of permanent housing.”
For Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have been a point of contention, controversy and war since the creation of Israel.
Many blame their presence in Lebanon as one of the reasons for the devastating 1975-90 Civil War. Yet in recent years, even parties and officials who disagreed over the presence of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have leapt to their defense in the face of Israel.
The main point of contention is that the majority of the refugees are Sunni Muslims. In Lebanon, for a brief period of time Christians were the majority.
After the Civil War and the creation of the Taif Accord, the president (Christian) had many powers stripped and turned over to the prime minister (Sunni) while the Parliament speaker (Shiite) also gained sizable power.
Since then, although no official census has been released, Christians are believed to make up 30 percent or less of the population with Muslims making up the rest.
This issue itself is enough for Lebanon to reject the Trump plan, which calls for resettling or integrating Palestinian refugees into the country’s society.
Under Section 16 of the “peace plan,” it says that Palestinians have been discriminated against and prevented from entering the labor market for decades in Lebanon. It cites the barriers that refugees face in working in “desirable occupations,” such as law, medicine and engineering.
That being said, Washington has proposed $6.325 billion for Lebanon over three different phases, spanning up to eight years. The breakdown is: $440 million in grants; $4.625 billion in loans; and $1.250 billion from the private sector.
In the farfetched scenario that Lebanon accepts the plan, phase one is titled, “Regional Trade and Commerce: Building Intra-regional Trade and Investments in Lebanon.” The estimated cost for “supporting regional trade integration to incentivize exporters to become engaged in regional value chains to significantly reduce the cost of doing business in the region” is $200 million. Its implantation timeline is four year and a grant would be given to Lebanon for the entire value.
The second project - where Lebanon would be required to take a loan of $125 million - would also span over four years. It would “expand the existing U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation” which is meant to support small and medium enterprises in the region.
The plan claims that it could “create an expanded guarantee facility” for loans to SMEs in Lebanon.
The third and perhaps most appealing project includes repairing and improving Lebanese road corridors, including missing highway links “primarily on the two main corridors (North-South, and East-West).” And this would also require a Lebanon already drowning in over $85 billion in public debt to take a loan of $2.250 billion, while $750 million would apparently come from the private sector for this six-year, $3 billion project.
It is worth noting that the World Bank in 2017 designated $200 million for Lebanon to upgrade its roads.
Funds would be “used to repair around 500 kilometers of roads in the first phase of a broader government plan to revamp the country’s crumbling road sector,” a World Bank statement said at the time.
The aid package includes a $45 million grant from the agency-administered Concessional Financing Facility. The $155 million loan portion is repayable over 32 1/2 years, including a seven-year grace period. It has yet to fully materialize.
In the Trump plan, Lebanon would also get a railway network within the country “with the potential to connect to a regional railway network.”
This too would require Lebanon, also at risk of defaulting for the first time ever, to take another loan of $1.5 billion for the $2 billion project. It would get $250 million in grants and the private sector would make up for the remaining $250 million. This project is estimated to take eight years.
In the final project of the “peace plan” for Lebanon, it would get support for construction and associated logistics for the expansion of its only functioning airport “and other airports.” Lebanon has at least two other airports that are out of service. An expansion of Lebanese ports, including Beirut and Tripoli, and the modernization of border crossings is on the table in the plan. This would take eight years at a cost of $1 billion - $750 million in loans and $250 million from the private sector.
In total, Lebanon would have gotten $450 million in grants, but would have to take $4.625 billion in loans while the private sector would be counted on for $1.250 billion.
Out of the regional program, including Jordan, Egypt and Gaza and West Bank, Lebanon would get the smallest share. The plan would see Jordan have $7.365 billion pumped into it, Egypt would get $9.167 billion, while Gaza and the West Bank would get $27,813 billion.
The three countries, in addition to West Bank and Gaza, would be put together in a “regional tourism” project that would see tourism sites and infrastructure supported.
Apart from the economic part of the plan, the so-called peace plan talks about a vision for peace between Palestine, Israel and the region.
It says that “all of Iran’s activity” must be considered in determining Israel’s security needs. Yet, the plan fails to make any mention of Lebanese lands occupied by Israeli forces, including Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms, Ghajar and Kfar Shuba Hills.
It also fails to make any mention of the land and maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Tel Aviv. This is an issue that the U.S. has tried for years to resolve.
While there was much criticism as soon as Trump released the details of his plan, as Israel’s prime minister battling corruption cases in his own country stood next to the U.S. president, regional countries were keen to have a look at the details of the plan.
As the plan calls for “a just, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue” to be found, it does not ruminate much more than the interests of Israel.
After White House senior adviser Jared Kushner released the economic part of the plan last June, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said that the proposal’s author was “mistaken if he thinks waving billions of dollars can tempt Lebanon - struggling under a [difficult] economic crisis - to comply or trade in its” principles.
After Trump’s release of the complete plan, Berri said Wednesday: “Resistance is the only option for liberating these lands and for safeguarding what is left of Arab dignity.”
Lebanon’s president said he supports the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.
New Prime Minister Hassan Diab said via Twitter that “Palestine will always remain our cause.”
With Lebanon’s top three officials and sects having different motives for their stances, one thing is certain: Beirut rejects the “Deal of the Century.”