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Israel-Palestine & Lebanon: Where to Now?
On 4th June, at Cairo University in Egypt, President Obama unfurled a roadmap that sought to drive his vision for helping reverse the cumulative tensions and stereotypes clouding Muslim and Arab popular relations with America...

15 June   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... His much-touted address tried to brake the alarming tumescence that had set in those relations during the past eight years of the Bush Administration. As Roger Cohen opined in an editorial in the New York Times entitled Dreams aside, Obama is moving methodically to dismantle the Manichean Bush paradigm - with us or against us in a global battle of good against evil labelled the war on terror - in favour of a new realism that places improved relations with the Muslim world at its fulcrum.

Mind you, restoring American credibility is not as facile as a presidential address here, a statement or photo-opportunity there. Nor will it happen by over-investing in Obama’s middle name of Hussein as a sign of genuine empathy and ease with the Muslim faith and culture. It requires a whole host of US proactive future steps to prove to an open-minded but sceptical audience that US intent matches with action, or that suggestions go hand-in-hand with implementation. Mind you, it is equally clear that the whole onus of proof cannot be laid on American shoulders alone. Corrective measures also need to be taken by Arabs and Muslims to prove their own readiness to heed the Obama presidential message by improving the human rights and welfare of their own peoples who often suffer internally as much as externally in different ways.

President Obama dedicated a substantive portion of his address to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He underpinned his belief in a two-state solution as well as an end to illegal Israeli settlements - whether mere mobile outposts or more concrete edifices, whether new or existing and expanding ones - that are still being built on occupied Palestinian lands.

So, in a nutshell, what about Israel-Palestine?

President Obama has identified the resolution of this conflict as the touchstone for improved relations with the Muslim and Arab Worlds. This is why he has instructed George Mitchell, his special envoy (in the region again this week), to ensure that both sides apply themselves diligently toward midwiving the birth of a Palestinian state. But to succeed in this irenic quest, he must realise that Israel under Benyamin Netanyahu will need to concede to some self-evident realities that are based on International law. The first such concession is that a Palestinian state - were it to come into existence - cannot be a Bantustan but a sovereign, viable and contiguous entity. In other words, the settlements, separation walls, roadblocks, by-pass roads, blockades, evictions and gratuitous collective humiliation cannot remain ineradicable facets of Israeli political topography.

Yet, even such constituents alone are insufficient for a peacemaking partnership. Words have to be followed by deeds: after all, did the late Israeli prime minister Levy Eshkol not say once, “I promised, but I did not promise to keep my promises.”

One way of moving forward would be for Israel to accept the twice-rebooted Arab Initiative of 2002. It implies recognition of Israel by the entire fifty-seven Muslim states in return for its withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967. This in itself would largely counter the political angst, radicalisation, extremism and religious polarisation of societies - often with nefarious consequences - that foments the whole region. But what can no longer happen is for Israel or the USA to wring out more ‘concessions’ from the Arab countries under the guise of further ‘incentives’ for the sake of future Israeli corresponding ‘flexibility’. For instance, Arab states cannot be expected to allow the Israeli airline El Al to fly through their airspace, or open commercial and consular representations and grant visas for Israelis, without first assuring Israeli concrete and verifiable moves towards peacemaking. In a word, the Arab World should no longer churn out political freebies or new enticements without tangible and time-friendly political return. Otherwise, such a new list of unreciprocated quid pro quos would alienate the very popular base that the US Administration is endeavouring to win over with its outreach.

Indeed, anything less, I would argue, cannot move the momentum for peace forward, nor defuse the tensions that President Obama seems intent on harnessing during his term. So what happens will depend on Israel as the key player holding the trump card. But yesterday, PM Netanyahu’s half-hour policy speech at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv deflated any vision on how to move forward in the peace process with the Palestinians and with the larger Arab world. True, he crossed a personal ideological Rubicon by uttering the tricky words ‘Palestinian state’, with the US and EU even welcoming his speech, but here is my red flag! Mr Netanyahu, ever the slick salesman, attempted to divert attention from the land-for-peace territorial issues by focusing on economic, security and political relations. Furthermore, he removed the permanent status issues - including refugees and Jerusalem - off the table, emasculated the notion of Palestinian statehood and insisted upon recognition of Israel as a state for the Jews (with morbid implications for Palestinians under occupation as much as for Palestinian Arab Israelis within Israel). He talked of Palestinians almost as guests being allowed to live on “the land of his forefathers”, disembowelling in the process the corpus of past agreements - including the US-backed 2003 roadmap - and jeopardising future negotiations. Such a position, coupled with his emphasis on the Iranian nuclear issue, will lead to a standoff, and America will again face the ire of large numbers of Muslim and Arab grassroots who will see in the Netanyahu speech a defiant negation of President Obama’s overtures. Hence, the need for a robust and equitable US facilitation, and for a plausible pan-Arab reaction going hand-in-hand with a decision by the Palestinian Fateh and Hamas factions to stop their fratricidal brinksmanship, desist from killing each other (as in Qalqilya or Gaza) whilst proclaiming to be the handmaidens of the Palestinian dream, and put the Palestinian house in order again.

Anyone who has perused the editorials of the Lebanese constitutional thinker Michel Chiha about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - whether in Palestinian Chronicles or in his other writings - will have noted the clear distinction he often drew between Judaism and Zionism, and his dream for a land including Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace. In 1946, he wrote, “… The American interventions in Palestine are increasingly looking like they are dealing with a purely American question. It’s a pity that the people of the United States, today the most powerful in the world, would cover-up from their vantage point such an adventure; they are putting themselves in a definitive contradiction with their most sacred moral and political principles.” His formula, hauntingly ever-seasonal despite the passage of time, remains the moral agenda of many churches as well. For instance, the ‘World Week for Peace in Palestine-Israel’, organised last week by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, brought together individuals, congregations and organisations from all continents to advocate those very steps necessary for peace with justice. Earlier last month, another conference entitled Towards a New Christian Consensus: Peace with Justice in the Holy Land also assembled Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders representing the US-based National Inter-religious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East and commended President Obama to make Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace “a high priority of his presidency.”

As I have repeated ad nauseum ever since the Oslo chapter of negotiations, the resolution of this conflict is achievable. After all, the parameters are quite clear, but what is lacking is the political will amongst the Western and Arab powers to move beyond short-term interests in order to impress upon Israel the need to stop its prevarications and “sign on the dotted line”.

>But President Obama’s speech was not all about Israel and Palestine. In his broad address, he also referred inter alia to the Maronites in Lebanon. So what are the developments besetting Lebanon in the wake of the 7th June parliamentary elections?

I owe my readers a confession. I had thought that the outcome of those hard-fought and increasingly negative elections between the two competing 8th and 14th March coalition blocs will have been much narrower. With a resurgence of sectarian and confessional arguments, and with the decibels mounting steadily on all sides, some pundits were predicting a narrow victory for the bloc led by Sa’ad Hariri from Al Mustaqbal (The Future) movement, whilst others thought that the corresponding bloc led by the Shi’i Hizbullah movement would move into power. However, now that the immediate dust of the elections has settled somewhat, it is clear that the difference in parliamentary seats between the 14th March bloc with its 71 seats and the 8th March bloc with its 57 seats has put paid to the argument that the so-called Lebanese Intifada of 2005 was nothing more than a fictive flicker in the wind. In fact, Hariri himself is willy-nilly the undisputed winner, and he and his allies have re-defined in some modest measure the political landscape of the country. Hopefully, this outcome might also catalyse a metamorphosis of Lebanese politics. No more a system of clans, tribes let alone former or present warlords dictating their terms and seats upon a hapless society, nor of virtual governance with a parliament that closes its doors almost at whim, and with obstructing one-thirds veto or overlapping governmental projects that pander to foreign agendas and stymie any political initiative. Lebanon might hopefully turn into a democratic, constitutionally-based and well-managed republic that feeds the hopes of its long-suffering people and rids them of the straitjackets occupying their political space.

But am I a tad too naïve, and where are we in Lebanon today? I suppose the weeks and months ahead will be the best weathervane as to whether Lebanon will succeed in soldering a sense of coming together, or whether rivalries, interests and one-upmanships from all sides will reign supreme once more. In fact, trolling the Lebanese blogosphere, one comes across a plethora of comments on the elections, including on the collapse of any independent “centrist” bloc at the ballot boxes. Therefore, one pessimistic line of argument goes, there will be no serious political realignments, the two camps will remain irreconcilable, and the parliament and future government will both look shockingly similar to the past four years.

Yet, I believe there are hints of a collective willingness to improve the political system. After all, the global realignments matter a lot on the Lebanese political terrain, and I believe that all the main players - from Syria and Saudi Arabia to the United States and arguably even Iran following its elections - are keen to ensure a level of stability for the country. But this requires some deep self-criticism by both camps since they disappointed their constituencies during this electoral chapter, and many of the pledges that were made by both parties were discarded unceremoniously in the heat of the electoral battles.

I believe the Christians are today the most vulnerable community in Lebanon. After all, one can still indulge in sweeping over-generalisations by stating that the Shi’i votes went to Hizbullah and Amal, the Sunni votes went to Al-Mustaqbal and the Druze votes went to the Progressive Socialist Party. But the Christian vote was fractured and dismembered, and there was nothing less than bitterness and rancour amongst the various parties. In one sense, the allegiance of the Al-Kata’eb Phalangist Party and the Lebanese Forces with the 14th March bloc, and the corresponding alliance of the Marada Party with the 8th March bloc, were not unexpected, but what let the angry cat out of the cage for a great many Lebanese was the role played by the controversial General Michel Aoun whose largest Christian party - the Free Patriotic Movement - chose to ally itself strategically with Hizbullah and in so doing splintered the Christian voice. Allying themselves with him were the largest Armenian political party in Lebanon - the Tashnaq - which in the past had maintained a neutrality in the Lebanese political jigsaw puzzle and had considered themselves as supporters of the incumbent president.

So will Lebanon break the glass ceiling, and will its politicians turn a crisis into an opportunity?

Let me start with the Christian communities per se. General Aoun is a political figure that is either adored or loathed in the country. One can either see his adulating followers carrying the orange emblems of his party in mass rallies, or else being reviled as an unstable leader whose shifting political stances are an indication that he is dangerously unpredictable and does not care one jot about the country but only about his own political future - namely that of becoming president. However, and although Aoun lost the election, his party nonetheless garnered the largest number of Christian seats in the new parliament [21 seats on his own, and 27 seats with his allies] through Shi’i as much as Christian support. So I hope that he will ponder over the lessons of this election and decide to play a judicious and constructive role that befits his political stature as leader of the largest Christian group. After all, the betterment of the beleaguered Christian community does not come through confrontation or vocalisation, but through collaboration and coordination. The other wild card, the Armenian Tashnaq party, only managed two parliamentary seats despite their huge numerical superiority in Lebanon [and region-wide]. So much so that the smaller Ramgavar and Henchak parties now enjoy parity in the number of Armenian deputies. This diminishes the impact that the Tashnaq party can wield in the new political configuration, and I believe that it too needs to ask some questions of itself, and then attempt to build bridges with its grassroots as it resumes its important political role.

An incoming new Council of Ministers headed in all likelihood by Sa’ad Hariri, and a new parliament whose Speaker will in all likelihood again be Nebih Berri, ought to prioritise the items that need to be addressed expeditiously. To begin with, and as the Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud indicated already, the government should investigate abusive electoral practices, from vote-buying to corruption and the lack of a standardised ballot. Perhaps it should also go further and examine the options available for empowering new generations of Lebanese men and women to become more involved in political life so that a new way of thinking, through new political faces and horizons, is teased out amidst the various constituencies.

But over and above procedural matters, I suggest three clear pressing priorities. They include the reform of the Elections law in order to move away from the current law agreed by most parties at Doha in May 2008 that perpetuates the status quo and bolsters communal loyalties and tribal politics, as well as the revival of the Constitutional Court, which both political blocs wish to enfeeble but which is a welcome need for the country, and a serious move forward in the on-off national dialogue.

Lebanese politics, although more democratic than other Middle Eastern countries, still cannot manage the government-versus-opposition formula that is followed in most countries. It opts for the consensual format, but even within consensus one has to acknowledge the reality of winners and losers. As such, and in an attempt to maintain a workable formula that does not paralyse the activities of the Council of Ministers, I suggest that the inevitable negotiations for the formation of a cabinet should also consider awarding the winners 50% of the ministerial portfolios, the losers 25% and the president would then nominate his share of 25% too - as such bolstering his presidential centrist credentials, but also acting as an arbiter between the two blocs when there are ineluctable deadlocks in policy-making or legislation within government.

The months ahead will be heady ones for both the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples - the former in their attempts to create a state from the ashes of occupation despite Israeli wilful recalcitrance, and the latter in their hopes to strengthen their state institutions and liberate them from inertia, interference and elitism. Both exercises will clearly have inevitable regional political and socio-economic consequences. But they will also have repercussions that go far beyond the region and will impact - either positively or negatively - President Obama’s vision and his unfurling roadmap for reconciliation.

So could it be done? I still believe so, despite numerous withering obstacles and dyslexic tactics, but only if it comes with the dogged determination of the parties themselves, the empowerment of allies, neighbours and friends and the tacit understanding that nobody should use excuses or justifications anymore to favour the personal over the national.

But will it be done? The answer to this Sisyphean question is by far the more challenging, critical and uncertain one for me!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   15 June


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