Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lebanese ambivalence - A week with Fuad Siniora

Did the recent conflict lead any significant sectors of Lebanese politics and public opinion to begin to wake up to reality? A week ago, that seemed half-possible, and some interesting and unprecedented statements by Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora sounded as though they might be signs of underlying shifts in Lebanese opinion. (See Lebanese Prime Minister - Hezbollah can't do it again & We should make peace with Israel.) When Siniora didn't immediately retract his statements or claim that he had been misquoted, I was intrigued. A week later, Siniora seems to have backed down and repudiated his more daring suggestions about negotiating peace between Lebanon and Israel.

I indicated at the beginning that I was skeptical about whether Siniora's (apparent) initiative would lead to anything concrete--and at first I was skeptical about whether he really had even said what he was quoted as saying--so I am not startled by his (apparent) retreat. Nevertheless, even when talk is just talk, it may nevertheless be significant.

Siniora's equivocations are probably one sign of the extent to which important tendencies in Lebanese politics, and many individual Lebanese, are deeply conflicted about these issues. I still suspect that Siniora's earlier statements do tell us something about the inner feelings of a lot of Lebanese who don't want to go through something like this again, and who may be starting to face the reality--however tentatively and ambivalently, and however painful the idea might be--that the only way to avoid it is to (finally) end the formal state of war with Israel. Whether or not such feelings and second thoughts lead anywhere is another matter. For the moment, that seems doubtful.

The Israeli government did respond to Siniora's earlier statements--which is a good sign, given how hopeless the Israelis usually are at public diplomacy and public relations in general. Perhaps, as Ami Isseroff suggested to me a week ago, it should have done so even more loudly and dramatically (e.g., have the Foreign Minister offer to fly to Beirut, or something?). That wouldn't have accomplished anything concrete in the short run, and might even have gotten Siniora blown up by a car bomb, but at least it might have attracted some international attention to what he was saying and broken through some of the standard clichés. As it is, as soon as Olmert did respond to Siniora's suggestion, that seems to have killed the initiative (such as it was).

(For a more recent follow-by Ami Isseroff, see his post on Lebanon - Last to make peace with Israel.)

All this is not entirely (or even mostly) the fault of the Lebanese. They face too many external pressures, and have too weak and fragmented a political system, to be able to take the lead in acting sensibly and constructively in terms of making peace. One also has to admit, though, that many figures in Lebanese political and intellectual life who would like to see more constructive solutions nevertheless continue to think and talk in self-defeating and self-indulgently delusional ways that help to intensity their own problems--a point that Walid Jumblatt, of all people, has been making more and more explicitly lately. As long as the other Arabs are willing to fight Israel down the the last Lebanese, and as long as much of Lebanese public opinion colludes with them by endorsing or semi-endorsing the thoroughly fictitious Lebanese "grievances" against Israel used as pretexts for open-ended conflict by groups like Hezbollah ... they're stuck.

We all know that in politics a week can be a long time. The following items by the Beirut-based journalist Michael Totten capture some of the possible implications of this particular scenario--with Totten's August 17 item providing some useful background. As Totten (correctly) concludes the first and last of these items:
Saad Hariri [leader of the anti-Syrian political bloc and son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri --JW] enables Hezbollah and echoes Hassan Nasrallah by declaring a Lebanese “victory” against Israel. Enough “victories” like that one, Saad, and Lebanon will turn into Gaza.
and:
Even so, there are many in Lebanon who really don’t want peace with Israel, who really do prefer the state of perpetual war. They are the ones who enable and allow pressure from the Syrian-Iranian axis. Now is the time for Lebanon’s other friends, its real friends, to ask Dr. Phil’s favorite question: How’s that working for ya?
--Jeff Weintraub

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Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gearing Up for the Next Disaster

[BEIRUT] Beirut Daily Star opinion page editor Michael Young says Hassan Nasrallah sounds “ominously” like a president now while Bashar Assad effectively calls for a coup d’etat against the elected Lebanese government. Syria, predictably, feels emboldened by Hezbollah’s “victory” and says it will create its own version of Hezbollah. The Damascus-based terrorist army will be trained by the original.

Saad Hariri [leader of the anti-Syrian political bloc and son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri --JW] enables Hezbollah and echoes Hassan Nasrallah by declaring a Lebanese “victory” against Israel. Enough “victories” like that one, Saad, and Lebanon will turn into Gaza.

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Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal
Thursday, August 24, 2006
The Latest from Fouad Siniora


I wanted to make sure you know, since I posted this over at Andrew Sullivan's place, that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is now talking about a peace treaty with Israel. See here and here. This is huge, really, even if it's only talk and even if Hezbollah can unilaterally jam up the deal by shooting more rockets. No Lebanese politician would have dared to say such a thing two months ago with a Syrian gun pointed at the right side of his head, a Hezbollah gun pointed at the left side, and the reactionary mentality that prevails in certain Lebanese quarters.

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Michael Totten (guest-posting on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish)
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Fouad Seniora: Lebanon Will be the Last Country to Make Peace

by Michael J. Totten

TEL AVIV -- You never know what, really, to make of official rhetoric coming out of Beirut unless you’re inside Lebanon and know what the “street” thinks. The Lebanese government often makes public statements that are designed strictly for public consumption in foreign capitals, primarily Washington, Damascus, Paris, Tehran, Cairo, and Riyadh.

Last week Prime Minister Fouad Seniora said he was interested in peace talks with Israel. Today he said Lebanon will be the last country to make peace with Israel.

Who is the real Fouad Seniora? I’m in Tel Aviv right now, not in Beirut, so it’s hard to read the geopolitical tea leaves and entrails. I suspect Seniora got himself in a bit of, um, trouble in certain quarters and felt the need to “clarify” his position. Lebanon’s government is only slightly stronger than the governments of Somalia and Colombia, and is under constant pressure from foreigners to join the West, the pan-Arabists, and the jihad.

Even so, there are many in Lebanon who really don’t want peace with Israel, who really do prefer the state of perpetual war. They are the ones who enable and allow pressure from the Syrian-Iranian axis. Now is the time for Lebanon’s other friends, its real friends, to ask Dr. Phil’s favorite question: How’s that working for ya?

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