DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia: President Michel Aoun Sunday called on Arab leaders meeting at a summit in Saudi Arabia to close ranks to face major challenges, including the status of occupied Jerusalem and conflicts in the region. Aoun was addressing the 29th Arab Summit, opened in the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud in the presence of leaders and delegates from the 22-member Arab League.
Before delivering his speech, Aoun met with King Salman on the sidelines of the summit in the presence of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to discuss bilateral relations.
Aoun was welcomed at the conference hall by King Salman.
Lebanon’s participation in the summit comes during a period of improved Lebanese-Saudi relations.
The countries’ relationship had soured last year following Hariri’s shock resignation from Riyadh.
In his speech, Aoun focused on the 7-year-old war in Syria, the Palestinian cause and occupied Jerusalem following U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision last year to transfer the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
“The flames of wars are still raging and the risk of an international war on the soil of Syria is escalating,” Aoun said, clearly referring to a joint military strike carried out by the United States, France and Britain at dawn Saturday in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town last week.
“Instability still prevails over most of the region’s countries, crept over by terrorism which wanders around hunting down its victims. Many of our peoples’ citizens left their countries and were scattered into the world in quest of security or a living, as the citizens of Palestine were displaced before them,” he added.
The president pointed out that Lebanon has had its share of terrorism, and although it has defeated it, still bears the consequences of regional conflicts, in particular the Syrian refugee crisis, which is hitting country’s ailing economy and frail infrastructure hard.
Government estimates put the number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon at 1.5 million.
Aoun appealed to Arab leaders to help Syria’s neighboring countries cope with the burden of refugees.
Stressing that the cause of Palestine constituted the heart of the unfolding developments and was the basis of Middle East instability, Aoun decried the international community’s indifference toward Israel’s repressive measures against the Palestinians.
“The international disregard – not to say the international collusion – of all the destruction, displacement and usurpation of rights committed by Israel for decades is the core of the problem,” he said.
He warned that Jerusalem was about to be lost as Israel was pushing to make the holy city its capital.
“Shall we allow Al-Quds [Jerusalem] to be lost? Shall we accept the new displacement [of Palestinians] and stand idly by while watching our Quds, our Mosque and our Church become a capital for Israel?” Aoun asked. “Shall we evade confrontation and throw responsibility onto others, especially while at the horizon looms a policy which is drawn for our region and which – if it succeeds – will nail us all? Shall we wait for it to happen to tackle its consequences or shall we undertake preventive action to forestall it?”
He said that the Arab peace initiative adopted at the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002 was the only point of reference for attaining a peace settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“The Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Beirut summit remains the sole point of reference that enjoys the unanimity of Arab brothers, a unanimity upon which we can build to resume the endeavors that lead to a comprehensive and just solution for the Palestinian cause. A solution that preserves the land and the identity for, without them, no country and no people can stand tall,” he said.
The Arab Peace Initiative, which has been rejected by Israel, called for normalizing ties with the Jewish state in return for Israel’s total withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Aoun called on Saudi Arabia, the summit host, to launch an initiative to rescue the Arab world from fragmentation: “We are today on the soil of the kingdom, and who can better bring the [Arab] family together than its senior members? Shall a pioneering, practical initiative kick off from here, ensuring reunion, adopting dialogue as a means to solve problems and making the eighth article of our league’s charter a binding pact which compels each of our states to actually respect the ruling system in the other Arab states, and refrain from undertaking any act aimed at changing it?”
“Although there may be imminent dangers, our union, or at least our cooperation, is capable of protecting us,” Aoun said. “Dangers are numerous, challenges are tremendous, our responsibility is huge and we still have to choose between confrontation and acquiescence.”
On the sidelines of the summit, Aoun and Hariri discussed bilateral relations, including military cooperation, with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Aoun also met his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, discussing with him bilateral ties and regional developments.
Aoun had met in Dhahran Saturday with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister for Middle Eastern Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, who said Russia would support Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return to their country.
On his Twitter account, Hariri posted a selfie from the summit with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
Aoun, who returned to Beirut late Sunday, will visit Qatar Monday to attend the grand opening of the Qatar National Library in Doha.
Lebanon will host the 2019 Arab Economic and Social Development summit. The AESD is an economic and developmental conference that involves the private sector, including banks, chambers of commerce, industry and agriculture.