September 25, 2008 / 4:46 PM / 11 years ago

Lebanese leader presses Bush on land, refugees

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Thursday pressed his country’s claim to territory occupied by Israel and told U.S. President George W. Bush the future of Palestinian refugees was in their homeland, not Lebanon.

Suleiman, the former army chief elected president in May, thanked Bush during an Oval Office visit for supporting Lebanon’s military institutions and said the country, which has been plagued by bombings and assassinations, was working "very hard to combat terror."

"We are also here to reaffirm the need to liberate all Lebanese territories and also to make it very clear that the future of Palestinian refugees is in their homeland, not in Lebanon," Suleiman told Bush through a translator.

"We believe that this is in the interest of Lebanon as well as it’s in the interest of the Palestinian people themselves," he said.

Beirut’s national unity government approved a policy in early August that gives the Hezbollah militant group as well as the government the right to use all means necessary to regain control over Israeli-occupied lands claimed by Lebanon.

Lebanon and Syria say the Shebaa Farms area, occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, belongs to Lebanon. Israel and the United Nations say Shebaa Farms is Syrian territory.

Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group by the United States but leads the opposition in Lebanon’s parliament and fought Israel to a standoff in a 34-day war in 2006.

Reconciliation talks among the country’s political and sectarian factions are looking at what role Iranian-armed Hezbollah militia should play in defending Lebanon and how its military might be brought under state control.

The return of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon is one of several key sticking points in reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Bush had been pressing for an agreement by the end of the year, which is unlikely.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said in August that Israel would not agree to the return of Palestinians refugees to what is now Israeli territory as part of a Mideast accord. His remarks came after rumors that Israel had agreed to accept 20,000 refugees over 10 years.

Some 700,000 people, half the Arab population of Palestine in May 1948, fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was created. Letting them or their families return to Israel now would undermine its nature as a Jewish state, Israel argues.

Bush, in welcoming Suleiman to the White House, said he had carefully monitored the Lebanese leader’s statements upon taking office and was impressed.

The Lebanese president this month opened a national dialogue to try to reconcile political and sectarian factions whose rivalry pushed the country to the brink of civil war in May.

"We’re most impressed by the national dialogue that you’re holding and attempts to seek reconciliation," Bush said. (Editing by Philip Barbara)

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