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Forward or Backward? - Lebanon & Palestine
Harold Wilson, a former British Prime Minister, once remarked that “a week is a long time in politics.”

5 June   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

In Lebanon, and contrary to the expectations of many political pundits, the majority 14th March Coalition last week proposed the outgoing Fouad Siniora as its choice to head the new government of national unity. He was duly asked by the freshly-elected president to start his consultations for the formation of a cabinet on the basis of 16+11+3 ministers from the different parties as discussed amply in my previous article (link here). Yet, a veritable political tug-of-war, with sporadic outbursts of hostility, has already marred the selection of ministerial names, and there is an almost undignified scrum for some of the “weighty” cabinet posts such as health or finance.

But let me start off with the new president: there are some lingering misgivings about his even-handedness with the two opposing political camps in Lebanon. Yet, over the past 18 months, I believe he has demonstrated a deep understanding of Lebanese inter-politics and has applied a careful choice in favour of a sovereign Lebanon and against factionalism - whether during the Nahr el Bared confrontations of May 2007, or the more recent sectarian violence. As he indicated in the presidential address at parliament immediately after his confirmation, I believe the president will use his credibility to try and re-affirm the sovereignty of Lebanon. In so doing, he will doubtless face serious challenges, and I hope that his equability and experience as commander of the army would both stand him in good stead and allow him to deal not only with the immediate after-effects of an unfinished Doha Agreement but also with the future stability of a riven and raddled country.

Is Fouad Siniora the correct choice for prime minister? In answering this question, it is important to underline that the new government - once it is painstakingly cobbled together - would be regarded not so much as one of ‘national unity’ but of ‘national transition’. As Dr Ghassan Salamé, former Minister of Culture in Lebanon and lecturer in International Affairs at Sorbonne University opined in his post-Doha interviews, this government will in essence aim to steer the country toward the parliamentary elections of 2009 that will configure the numerical and political influences of all the major players on the Lebanese scene. Although I might personally have opted for a less disputatious political bureaucrat from the Sunni camp to fulfil this transitional task if only to defuse any unnecessary polarisation from the opposition parties, I believe Siniora is a well-meaning player whose role will nonetheless be quite finite and will therefore not hugely impact the national agenda.

Hizbullah is a savvy grassroots movement that overplayed its hand in the bloody acts of violence in West Beirut and elsewhere last month. By turning its weapons against the Lebanese populace, it created deep-seated fissures, resentment and suspicion amongst many people - be they Sunni, Druze, Christian or even Shi’i. Today, nobody truly knows whether this movement - and to some extent its Shi’i allies from the Amal movement - stands in full solidarity with Lebanon as a sovereign nation-state or views its role more through the prism of its own sectarian-based political interests. This is a risky attitude for Hizbullah, especially when its secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivers a fierce speech claiming to belong to Wilayat Al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) which under Shi’i Islam would grant him strictu sensu guardianship over non-litigious matters (al-oumour al-hesbiah) like religious endowments or judicial matters as well as governance of the country. I hope that the public relations success Hizbullah achieved last weekend with the release of Nasim Nisr from an Israeli gaol would help re-prioritise its orientations rather than lead to its alienation from the state structures.

However, what concerns - and baffles - me in those cyclical Lebanese standoffs is that the sense of confessionalism (al-na’ra al-ta’efieh) remains deeply ingrained in the Lebanese psyche. No matter how much they extol democracy or speak of equanimity and diversity, the Lebanese almost always base their conversations, arguments and decisions on confessional markers - with clear demarcation lines of identity and therefore allegiance. True, this has been a feature of other countries in the past, not unlike Northern Ireland, but people have tended to wean themselves away from such debilitating modus operandi in order to nurture democracy and lead toward pluralism, development, social cohesion and ultimate stability.

So can Lebanese politicians, having just emerged from a Doha compact, attain this political liberation and therefore desist from political navel-gazing? Or are their fears too inveterate, their psychoses too scarred, their agendas too solipsistic? I find it very telling that the most frequent question any Lebanese asks me these days is whether I believe the Doha Agreement would hold together or whether the parties would inexorably slide down the path of confrontation and civil unrest (fitna).

What about Palestine? Two signal events focused my attention again on this non-state that remains willy-nilly the epicentre of the Arab-Israeli conflict let alone the core of much of the volatile tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds.

The first event was the visit to Gaza earlier last week by the Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as part of an UN-led fact-finding delegation investigating the killing of 19 Palestinians by Israeli shellfire at Beit Hanoun in November 2006. At the conclusion of the two-day mission, Archbishop Tutu described as an ‘abomination’ the Israeli blockade of the strip that is now home to almost 1.5 million Palestinians. He also strongly condemned the international community for its ‘silence and complicity’ over a blockade which he suggested was comparable to the behaviour of the military junta in Burma. Describing the deaths that had resulted from the Israeli shelling of the two houses in Beit Hanoun as a ‘massacre’, he added that the report from the delegation would be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Having met the archbishop in the past, I am humbly aware of his implacable dedication to peace - largely within the format of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission following the expiry of F W de Klerk’s apartheid regime in 1994. So although the UN had vetoed all overt contacts with any Gaza-based Hamas member, I was not seriously astonished when the archbishop decided to meet with the dismissed Ismaïl Haniyyeh. After all, as he put it passionately, conflicts are resolved with foes and not with friends. His approach seems also to have been adopted by Mahmoud Abbas whose recent call for a national dialogue (hiwar watani) with Hamas is not only an attempt to rescue Palestinians from their debilitating internecine confrontations on the basis of the Yemeni initiative of 18th March as endorsed in the Arab Summit of Damascus on 29th March, but perhaps also a tacit admission of failure in achieving single-handedly any progress toward peace with Israel.

However, one source of befuddlement was the fact that the archbishop omitted addressing the attacks that have of late been targeting Christian Gazans. Since the Palestinian political interests cleaved rather injudiciously between those of the West Bank (with the Palestinian Authority) and those of Gaza (with Hamas) one year ago, Christian priests, laypersons and institutions have increasingly been harassed or attacked in Gaza - examples being Rami Iyyad’s killing or the torching of the Rosary Sisters’ school less than a fortnight ago. Those are dangerous developments perpetrated by unknown individuals (aydin athema seems to be a getaway euphemism) that need to be taken in hand so those who are accountable for them - directly or indirectly - be identified, apprehended and punished with the due process of the law. Pursuing the policy of the ostrich is sinfully slipshod: anything less is a disservice to a Palestinian cause that has always underlined its secular ethos.

The second event that vivified the desperate conditions for Palestinians in the occupied territories was an interview with the author and traveller William Dalrymple on the More 4 digital channel. Dalrymple spoke knowingly about the origins and current stasis of the Palestinian conflict and the affliction visited almost daily upon Palestinians - all the way from 1948 when 750,000 were made refugees following the creation of the state of Israel to our contemporary times. In fact, his facts, figures and stories about dispossession can also be verified in the authoritative, comprehensive and pictorial tome All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 by the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi who has written extensively on the Palestinian exodus and taught at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford universities.

In this online version (click here), Dalrymple provided a 17-minute interview that linked the root of tensions in the Middle East with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and underlined the global strategic importance of assisting Palestinians establish their long-overdue state. Mind you, most well-meaning people had grasped those realities long ago. However, in a region where power-plays are being waged by different ideologues, demagogues and interest groups, it remains a sad fact that the constant prevarication in the inevitable creation of a viable Palestine adjacent to a secure Israel will either cause more conflagrations, upheavals and tensions or else put the accent on a bi-national solution that would be less helpful for Israel than any concessions it would need to offer in return for a genuine and durable peace.

Palestine today is a spatial idea that is frittering away. Despite the lofty pledges of Annapolis on 20 November 2007, the changing nature of this tiny parcel of land with its increasing illegal settlements (882 new ones were authorised last week in Pisgat Ze’ev and Har Homa) fills me with utter dread. The Israeli subjugation of Palestinians that is founded largely on fearful bravado is met with Palestinian radicalisation rooted in angry despair. Notwithstanding, I have a novel challenge for the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert whose own political future today is decidedly anaemic. Could he not reverse the jaundiced realities of the region by evincing a radical pragmatism that is conducive to peace with the Palestinians? Could he not overturn the tables of orthodoxy and walk into the pages of history by adopting those robust decisions necessary for the implementation of a real peace? Not easy, I know, for there is a lack of trust between the so-called partners despite their chummy meetings, an overwhelming disparity in the leverage they exercise upon each other and gnawing internal weaknesses corroding the structures for any peace. Yet, would the irony of success not be inescapably potent for all?

Lebanon and Palestine are two countries tagging self-evident question marks: they could either move forward or conversely slide backward. A lot depends on the politicians’ choices and whether they are guided by vision and action or blindness and inertia. Verily, as Martin Luther King, Jr, once reminded the world, the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   5 June


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