Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lebanese Prime Minister - Hezbollah can't do it again & We should make peace with Israel

Is this for real?

According to the present conventional wisdom, all Lebanese are now enthusiastic gung-ho supporters of Hezbollah who applaud it for having dragged the country into an unnecessary and destructive war with Israel. Could be. On the other hand, some Lebanese analysts (including Michael Young of the Beirut Daily Star) have suggested that this picture is a little oversimplified (and that not all Lebanese are quite so irrationally self-destructive). (See also this roundup of morning-after reactions assembled by Norman Geras.)

So are there any signs of sober second thoughts in Lebanon the morning after (or the morning after the morning after, as Tom Friedman puts it)? Maybe.

Michael Totten, who lives in & writes from Beirut, draws attention to a very intriguing interview with the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora, in an Italian newspaper. If this report of the interview is correct, Siniora's discussion included two potentially startling statements. First:
The Lebanese PM also told the newspaper he does not expect Hizbullah to drag Lebanon into a war again.
"I don't believe it can happen again," he said. "I don't think Hizbullah is in the same position where it was before the war, and won't be able to repeat what it did. It learned the lesson from what happened."
This may be no more than wishful thinking on Siniora's part, but it probably expresses a recognition shared by many (perhaps even most) Lebanese that Hezbollah deserves to be blamed, not applauded, for pushing the country into disaster.

However, the second statement attributed to Siniora carries an even bigger jolt:
Turning his attention to Israel, Siniora said he hoped a peace deal between the two countries can be reached.
A peace treaty with Lebanon is something that Israel has been trying to get for over a half-century. If Lebanon were really willing and able to agree to "a peace deal between the two countries," this would be an astounding act of political sanity with enormous benefits all around..

Back in the real world, we shouldn't start getting too excited. There are all sorts of reasons why this almost certainly will not happen any time soon, even if Lebanese political figures like Siniora genuinely desire it.. And, frankly, I can't help feeling skeptical about whether Siniora really said what he is quoted as having said here. (I would have to see the original interview to know whether this is a misleading rendering of some slightly different statement. That's not entirely implausible, since western journalists are usually tempted to exaggerate the alleged "moderation" of Arab political figures.) Furthermore, as we know from long experience, saying these things to Europeans means a lot less than saying them to a domestic audience in Arabic.

Nevertheless, if this report even vaguely approximates what Siniora actually said, then Michael Totten's assessment strikes me as on-target.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora said that Hezbollah will not start a war with Israel again.
"I don't believe it can happen again," he said. "I don't think Hizbullah is in the same position where it was before the war, and won't be able to repeat what it did. It learned the lesson from what happened."
I have a hard time believing this really is true. Syria and Iran are already resupplying Hezbollah for the next round.
But it’s telling that Seniora says he wants a peace treaty with Israel. No Lebanese politician could possibly have said anything like this two months ago without all but begging to be car-bombed on the way to work in the morning.
Straw in the wind or will-of-the-wisp? I guess we'll see.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Judging from other recent experiences, if this interview with Siniora provokes strong criticism from Hezbollah back home in Lebanon, Siniora will probably disavow these statements and claim he was misquoted by the Italian journalist. But that won't necessarily mean that he didn't actually say these things.

P.P.S. Incidentally, if Siniora is indeed expressing some wider feelings of post-traumatic realism and political sanity in Lebanese public opinion, he is not the only one. Another prominent Lebanese journalist with the Daily Star, Rami Khouri, has been writing pieces throughout the crisis that often showed a pronounced loss of contact with reality and exemplified the kind of world-view shared by many figures in the Lebanese political, cultural, and intellectual elites that helped to bring on this explosion. A lot of those elements are still present in Khouri's piece for Wednesday's Daily Star, "
Beirut's future: Paris or Mogadishu?". However, if one wades through the usual swamp of sloganeering, political delusions, disingenuously misleading formulations, and obligatory ritual Israel-bashing, one will find some outcroppings of political sobriety and emerging willingness to face reality (combined, appropriately, with the sense of alarm and anxiety captured in the title of his piece).

For example, if we ignore the standard propaganda clichés that surround them, the following reflections strike me as correct and important.
Tens of thousands of people walking through the rubble exhibited pride and achievement at having withstood the attacks, and at seeing Hizbullah fight Israel to a draw.
But I also had mixed feelings [....] I wondered: What if the war had not happened and Hizbullah had given $10,000 to each of the estimated 15,000 eligible families for some other use - to buy computer systems, encyclopedias, and poetry books, and to send thousands of deserving students to university? [....]
Public opinion in the Arab world, and among governments in Syria, Iran and a few other places, is prepared to fight Israel to the death - as long as that battle is waged in Lebanon. [....] These are uninviting prospects; we deserve better options.
This was a war that Hizbullah could wage only one time, to prove its capabilities and political will, which it did rather emphatically. If it happens again, though, Lebanon will be destroyed [....] Hizbullah would not be destroyed, and it will regroup and fight again, perhaps with more destructive power that penetrates deeper into Israel. But Lebanon would become a wasteland, a biblical desolation.
It will be interesting to see how far Khouri is willing to draw the conclusions of his own insights--something which the rest of his piece suggests he has only begun to do--and, even more important, whether people like Khouri are willing and able to help push Lebanese politics in a more constructive direction. I'm afraid it would be foolish to get too optimistic about the prospects that any of this will happen. But with the right kinds of external assistance and support, who knows ... ?