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Connecting the Dots?: Lebanon - Israel-Palestine - Iraq
A person with an experience is never at the mercy of someone with a theory

16 March   |   2010   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

In a world of rolling 24-hour news, it is almost impossible to keep track of the constant political developments taking place in the Middle Eastern region! So many things happen on a quotidian basis that it is probably helpful at times simply to draw back from the smaller minutiae and highlight a few broad realities that mask some important regional permutations.

In Lebanon, two choice politicians embody for me what is occurring in the country today. They are Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, General-Secretary of the Shi’i resistance movement known as Hizbullah and arguably the de facto power on the ground in Lebanon, and Walid Jumblatt, the almost inscrutable leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party whose political contortions are almost legendary and whose father, Kamal Jumblatt, was assassinated on 16th March 1977.

Let me start with Sayyed Nasrallah. What drew my attention in terms of political significance is his visit to Damascus on 25th February for talks with the Syrian and Iranian presidents. The visit in itself, and his public appearance when he knows that Israel has targeted him, were quite an indication of the importance of this three-way summit that reportedly discussed both regional and Lebanese political developments. Indeed, many pundits suggest that a powerful re-positioning (tamawdou’ or tamahwour in Arabic) could well be taking shape in the region embracing Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. This is happening, its advocates would claim, at the very same time that the US Administration is still talking about driving wedges between Iran and Syria and luring the latter away from Iran and into a more orthodox (read quiescent) Arab orbit.

However, there is a gaping flaw in such an American political logic that refuses to accept the fact that drawing Syria away from Iran and into the so-called Western-backed moderate camp requires a little more than political test-tube exercises and verbal expressions. In fact, I believe that Syria could well re-align its political directions to some degree since a number of its interests - Iraq is merely one example - do not necessarily converge with those of Iran. However, Syria cannot move away from its present matrix until it is offered more than mere symbolic gestures - not least in its peace prospects with Israel.

Walid Bey, on the other hand, is the archetypal survivor who also exhibits a pragmatic political nous. He has a keen sense of the way the political winds blow in Lebanon and regionally, and his recent re-positioning is again an example of his reading that the 14th March Coalition is essentially no longer the sole vehicle for his own region-wide Druze community or Lebanon.

In fact, his recent interview in Hiwar Maftouh with Ghassan bin Jeddo on Al-Jazeera was another example par excellence of his political manoeuvres. Whilst apologizing for his personal excesses in 2007 when he verbally assaulted President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in a moment of abandon (lahzat takhalli) in a rather insulting manner, he did not necessarily recant his public positions of 2005-2009 and actually re-centred himself again in such a way that he now remains as close to 14th March as he does to 8th March. No wonder the Syrian Al-Watan newspaper opined that his mea culpa was not totally genuine - which is why I might also concur with MP Nabil de Freige that Syria would not be deem his comments entirely satisfactory - but I would surmise that the Syrian president will still make hay of this apology and inevitably invite him to Damascus. In fact, what would solely have made his conversion authentic in some eyes is a full re-alignment into the 8th March Coalition, but Jumblatt would not do that on television. Conversely, the fact that he showed compunction for his personal defamatory statements is why the Syrian independent association of lawyers dropped the charges they had lodged against him.

In the final analysis, and over five tumultuous years, the Lebanon of 2010 still grapples with its notions of sovereignty, freedom and independence. Half of the country also remains traumatised by the whole role of resistance (mouqawama) and the seeming climb-down in the search for the assassins of Rafik al-Hariri, Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gebran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, Wissam Eid, and all those others killed with them or in wayward bomb attacks.

In Israel-Palestine, the political limelight has now shifted from the US-choreographed proximity talks to a political tiff between Israel and the USA. In a sense, it is good that we are no longer considering talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah that will be as vacuous as previous ones in view of their futility let alone American tacit support for Israeli recidivism. 

This tiff between Israel and the US Administration started when competing right-wing ministers from the Shas party in PM Netanyahu’s unruly government announced the construction of a further 1600 settlers’ houses in a neighbourhood of Arab East Jerusalem whilst Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting the region and asserting America’s “ironclad” support for Israel. America viewed this announcement as an insult to Biden himself and perhaps a direct snub even to the Obama Administration - compounded further in my view by a notice on the web-site of the Israel Lands Authority today that invited bids on the construction of 309 new homes in the Jewish suburb of Neve Ya’akov in northeast Jerusalem.

Since this ‘crisis’ erupted, though, Israel has apologised to the US. However, it is eye-catching, given the subtle undercurrent of the political culture of this apology, that it was not offered because Israel had defied American and world demands for a cessation of more settlements (illegal, unlawful and politically unhelpful for any peace talks) whilst Biden was trying to garner Palestinian and Arab League endorsement of those proximity talks. Rather, it was because the timing of the Israeli announcement for more settlements was insensitive and should not have been made whilst Biden was in the region.

So Israel should have waited twenty-four hours longer till the American delegation had left the country before telling the world that the Netanyahu government was proceeding with the colonisation of Palestinian land and making the reality of any independent state in the unforeseeable future - let alone the raison d’être for any talks toward it - redundant. This PM Netanyahu did again today - so that the stated aim to disempower Palestinians, destroy the geography of an occupied people and thwart their hopes for their own destiny continues unabated unless the USA and a truckling Quartet decide to act at long last. But would anyone be adventurous enough to hold their breath for any robust action? Or will this tiff be similar to those with previous American presidents that were swept under the carpet by the combined lobbying pressures of Jewish organisations in Washington (such as AIPAC), the paralytic inability of the Arab League to impose its Peace Initiative and make capital of its collective potential, and the reluctance of the Obama Administration to lock horns - truly - with Israel despite Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran looming ahead? Will this lead to a further demotion of the principles of peace-making and the continuing assault on the sacred sites and territorial demography of a rudderless people? Is it possible that we are sowing the seeds of a third genre of an Intifada in the occupied territories, even when it is unwise to do so, and how will that play locally, regionally and globally? Is it possible to re-create a rapprochement given the whims of Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox partner in PM Netanyahu’s coalition that runs the Interior Ministry and that announced the Biden-baiting measure?

Let me finally highlight Iraq that witnessed its parliamentary elections on 7th March. Unlike the previous elections of 2005, the percentage of Iraqis who voted was down from 76% to 62% - partly as a result of more restrictive voter ID requirements. However, unlike 2005, the minority Sunni Arabs voted in large numbers, despite egregious efforts by the Shi’i ruling parties to disenfranchise them before the election by disqualifying five hundred Sunni and other candidates.

With the final results still pending, preliminary returns also suggest that the two neck-and-neck front-runners are the incumbent PM Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, whose strong and rallying performance is viewed as a victory for a cross-sectarian alliance that hewed to a nationalist line. A surprise strong showing is also coming from the Sadrists, whose leader is studying to become an ayatollah in Iran. However, neither of the two main coalitions will win enough seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives to choose the new prime minister. Moreover, the Kurds, who have played the kingmakers in the past, will inevitably demand commitments on the future of Kirkuk, and other players will press their own sectarian interests. Allawi appears to have done well in putting together an ethnically balanced coalition and campaigned hard on overcoming Iraq’s bitter sectarian divisions. But will this last once the realities of cobbling together a national-unity coalition become more pressing than ethnicity? Should there not be more meaningful progress on opening up political space, increasing cross-sectarian participation and improving transparency and accountability?

But what about the Kurdish political card then? Contrary to previous predictions, it is clear that President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have bounced back from the brink of political extinction following the rough beating it received from a group of former party cadres in Kurdistan’s regional parliamentary elections in July 2009. Calling in particular for an end to corruption, these former party officials had coalesced into a promising reform movement called Gorran (Change) which had walked away with 25% of the vote. However, the PUK - that ran in alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional President Masoud Barzani - can perhaps heave a sigh of relief today as early returns showed that the party held its own against a solo Gorran - except in Suleimanieh. In the town of Koya, for instance, where President Talabani was born, the PUK squeaked out a victory after its humiliating defeat there seven months ago, and it had also outpaced them in the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk that will be the scene of much critical horse-trading.

However, once the negotiations start in earnest after the announcement of the final results later this week, an outstanding issue will become the choice of the next president of Iraq. Will President Talabani be re-elected for a second mandate, or will a Sunni Arab such as Vice President Tarik Hashimi take over this largely ceremonial post in a country that is still overwhelmingly Arab, or will a politician from a smaller party come forward? How will Kurds and Arabs deal with the myriad pending issues - from the hydrocarbons law to the auction of service contracts - that are bedevilling Iraq today?

Whether in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine or Iraq, where it is as always the ordinary people who are paying with their lives and livelihoods the steep price of politics, the two key words recurring in my mind that could perhaps connect the dots in all three cases are stability and then reconciliation. Will they ever take root in this raddled region, and if so in what format and under what leaderships? Or will they remain distant and alien notions jinxing the hapless peoples of the region ever longer?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2010   |   16 March


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