Pentagon, State Dep’t, U.S. Evangelicals and Israel Battle Over Lebanese Army Aid

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is sending mixed signals on the issue of U.S. security assistance to Lebanon. In recent days, senior officials within the administration confirmed that $105 million of aid to Lebanon has been put on hold by the White House. Earlier this month, however, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near East Affairs said during a visit to Israel that the aid to Lebanon was not being withheld, and rejected Israeli requests to block it.

The United States provides Lebanon with security aid, including equipment and training to its armed forces. Israel has pressured the U.S. to condition the continuation of this aid on concrete steps by the Lebanese Armed Forces to distance itself from Hezbollah. Israel has accused the LAF of being infiltrated by Hezbollah and of cooperating with the Iran-supported organization, which is both a member of the Lebanese government and an active terror organization. Israel has made similar requests to other countries that provide aid to Lebanon, such as France and the United Kingdom.

In Washington, the administration is facing pressure from two directions on the Lebanese aid issue. On the one hand, lawmakers are promoting legislation that would limit aid to Lebanon unless the LAF can prove that it is taking concrete steps to distance itself from Hezbollah. In the House of Representatives, a bill on this subject, called the “Countering Hizballah in Lebanon’s Military Act,” proposes that the administration will have to present a report to Congress dealing with the LAF’s ties to Hezbollah, with a focus on members of the military who are also members of Hezbollah.

If the report does not show progress on the part of the Lebanese government in reducing Hezbollah’s influence on the army, 20 percent of the American aid intended for Lebanon will be withheld. The bill has 12 Republican co-sponsors, led by Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, and one Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia. It includes a “national security waiver” that would allow the administration to avoid actually limiting the aid, but would require the president to sign a document announcing such a decision.

On the other hand, senior Democratic lawmakers are pushing the administration to explain why it is currently withholding $105 million of aid that was supposed to go to Lebanon. In a public letter on the subject, Rep. Eliot Engel (New York Democrat), who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Ted Deutch (Florida Democrat), who heads a sub-committee on the Middle East, sought answers about an “unexplained and indefinite” hold on security aid to Lebanon.

Engel and Deutch, who are considered pro-Israeli legislators with close ties to pro-Israel lobby organizations, explained in their letter that the $105 million currently being withheld from Lebanon is “necessary for building the capacity of the Lebanese government to maintain security and stability and to support the LAF in a variety of areas, including counter-terrorism, border security and implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.” The White House, as of Wednesday, did not offer an explanation.

Adding to the confusion over the issue are two recent statements by senior State Department officials. David Schenker, the assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, said during a visit to Jerusalem earlier this month that the aid was not being withheld, but rather, going through a review process. He defended the aid and said that withholding it could actually push the Lebanese forces closer to Hezbollah and Iran.