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Carter in Lebanon

Dahiyeh.

The last time Jimmy Carter was in Beirit in 2008, Hezbollah declined to meet with him. Hezbollah people later told me that “the Carter-Hezbollah problem” was not really serious. I also learned that Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah would have welcomed a December 2008 visit with Carter but he was in Mecca performing the Hajj. Fadlallah, who prefers the title ‘Sayeed”, meaning  a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, is not a member of Hezbollah, although the US government and the Israel lobby  from time to time says that he is and claims he is the Spiritual leader of Hezbollah.

In fact that position is held by Iran’s Supreme Spiritual Guide, Ali Khameni, who in some ways is a rival of Fadlallah. Fadlallah’s religious scholar credentials, record of public service and popularity far exceed Khomeini’s and his following does include many Hezbollah members but his marjaa status (Shia religious scholar worthy of emulation, roughly similar to Mufti for Muslim Sunnis)   is much broader than Lebanon’s Shia community and reaches around the Middle East and includes Sunni Muslims, Christians, non-believers, and others. Sayeed Fadlallah heads up the largest private social service organization in Lebanon, with schools, colleges, hospitals etc. second on to Hezbollah.

Who does Carter think he is!

So this time around, floating the idea and then helping arrange the Carter visit to the center of Hezbollah’s Dahiyeh, where no foreign police agencies are allowed, was interesting but not simple.  Initially, the very idea that Dahiyeh would receive Carter was dismissed out of hand by all but a few. According to a member of the Carter entourage, when the US Embassy was informed by the Carter Center that President Carter would hold discussions in Dahiyeh, the first reaction was “Oh no he won’t, who the hell does Carter think he is?”  A Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador, asked to help with arrangements, (friends at Sayeed Fadlallah’s Office of the Religious Authority had been cooperating with the US- Beirut based Sabra Shatila Foundation for months to arrange a Fadlallah-Carter dialogue) reported that one Embassy staffer said:

“Has he (Carter) lost his mind?  Does Carter think the Embassy is going to send  US Marines into Dahiyeh to protect him?  His entourage will pass by the remains of the US Marine Barracks for Christ’s sake!”  (The US Marines’ barracks were destroyed on  Sunday Oct. 23, 1983 killing 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and three Army soldiers.)

“Doesn’t he see the symbolism here? He is interfering in our conduct of American foreign policy and this could be a disaster. What if some terrorist bombs the motorcade?”

Another problem: how could the US Secret Service advance team literally scope out the meandering route necessary to arrive at the Grand Ayatollah’s residence, without being arrested by Hezbollah security? One obtuse idea advanced by this observer and no doubt others, was that the Secret Service could simply talk with Hezbollah security and go over plans which is the normal international procedure for visiting dignitaries. This suggestion was nixed fast from Washington.

On June 10 at his Hotel, Beirut’s Phoenicia, Carter mocked the prodigious email Feltman sent about Syria, which Carter had not read.  The former President spread his arms and exclaimed:  “It’s this long!” and continued, “For some ungodly reason, when Hillary decided to send some representative to Syria they picked out Feltman”.

In defense of her choice, the Embassy pointed out that Feltman is, after all, her Assistant Secretary of State and heads the Near Eastern Affairs Department and is considered by some to be among the most experienced at Foggy Bottom regarding Lebanon and Syria. Yet one staffer acknowledged Feltman’s unpleasing habit of condescendingly lecturing people, especially the Lebanese and Syrians, many of whom find his style off putting. Others in Washington consider Feltman an Israeli legman and support him for that reason.

Hezbollah misgivings

As for Hezbollah security, they  were not thrilled with the prospect of 8 super-sized Embassy vehicles jammed with Secret Service, US Marine sharpshooters, heavy arms and electronic equipment pushing into their space just three blocks from where the US had tried on March 8, 1985  to assassinate  Sayeed Fadlallah. That bid, organized by Reagan’s CIA director William  Casey killed 80 and injured 200, nearly all civilians. Among those blown to pieces was Jihad Mougniyeh, brother of Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad, himself killed February 12, 2008 in Damascus. Moreover,  the Carter-Fadlallah meeting was to be held near the center of the neighborhood where more than 250 homes, schools and shops were reduced to rubble by US weapons in July-August 2006  followed by the US adding Jihad al Binna Construction Company and its affiliate Waad, to the Terrorism list as they tried to rebuild. Many in Hezbollah thought the Party did not need this problem but they did not veto the meeting.

The State Department suggested that Ambassador Michele Sisson “try to reason with the Carters” (the former President’s son, James accompanied him) but she was unable to dissuade the former President.

On one subject, the US Embassy, Secret Service, Marines and Hezbollah shared a worry, but neither side  directly communicated their concern to the other. Both Washington and Hezbollah feared that Mossad agents, now more than 68 accused just since Carter’s last visit, (three more alleged Israeli spies were charged on Tuesday June 8 according to a judicial officials and another ten on Wednesday June 9 with no doubt more to come) would try to assassinate Carter in order to provoke a US-Hezbollah, or better yet, a US-Iran clash.

It is for this reason that from the moment Carter’s cavalcade left his hotel until following the Fadlallah meeting and the former President’s departure from Hezbollah neighborhoods, the Party carefully observed and protected Carter’s motorcade, meter by meter, with a few seen and more than 400 unseen Hezbollah security personnel plus electronics.  In similar fashion they claim to have  protected the US Embassy, and its Ambassador, from Salafist groups and others many more times since the July 2006 war than the Embassy would publicly acknowledge or in some cases may even be aware of.

As Hezbollah security forces opened the gates to the Fadlallah compound, for the arriving US motorcade, for the 5 p.m. meeting on June 9, residents of Dayiyeh were surprised because the Hezbollah area is not accustomed to Lebanese officials coming to their areas and some wondered who was inside the blacked car windows.

Pulling up to the security entrance outside Fadlallah’s offices, all concerned were polite, if a bit tense. A US Secret Service agent got out of the lead car and informed his opposite numbers: “the President will exit the car in five minutes”.  This was later explained as the time required for those inside the US convoy to “perform certain electronic security procedures.” In fact the SS was faking this as they later admitted because from the time the |Americans entered Hezbollah areas their communications had been jammed and their motorcade bugged. But no one  on either side mentioned or sought advantage from this minor embarrassment.

There was mutual curiosity as the two security forces respectfully eyed each other alongside the row of Embassy cars. The Americans were taciturn as were Hezbollah personnel.

Hezbollah security allowed the Americans to keep their weapons, did not search them and ignored the alarms that sounded as the secret service passed through metal detectors. This consideration was a Hezbollah first, so I was advised.  Two from Carter’s security detail were invited to attend the private meeting which as a courtesy to the former President, and to encourage frankness, was videotaped but not recorded.

The two men seemed to hit if off immediately and soon joked.  Following Carter’s invitation to Sayeed Fadlallah to visit America and the Ayatollah’s response that he was still on the US Terrorism list, Carter seemed surprised, and said with a grin that he would try to get Fadlallah off the US Terrorism list if he could arrange for Carter a meeting with Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah (in fact some Carter people did meet recently with Hezbollah’s new Foreign Relations Director, former MP, Ali Ammar).

Former President Carter briefed Fadlallah on the Carter Center’s work monitoring the election.  The former President mentioned it was the 76th election he has monitored and  generally speaking was one of the best when analyzed based on  CC criteria as transparent, as well as largely  corruption and violence free.

As Saad Hariri becomes Lebanon’s next Prime Minister, Hezbollah appears willing to extend its open hand to help put together the new government. Despite losing the elections due to the non-proportionate electoral system,[see the detailed piece by Esam al-Amin on this weekend’s site. Editors.] the Lebanese opposition won the popular vote by a large margin.

Hezbollah seems accepting of the results but still wants to change the system. Lebanon knows that the Hezbollah led opposition garnered roughly 815,000 votes out of approximately 1,149,500 cast (close to 55 per cent) for a victory margin of almost 10 percent of all votes cast.
Former Arab League Ambassador to Washington, Lebanese Professor Clovis Maksoud, called it “a free but undemocratic election”.  He noted: “What in fact is depressing, if not downright embarrassing and even shameful is that the leadership of the contending groups admits and even prides in having their respective “outside” sponsors. This in turn confirmed that the elections are a contest among international and regional powers. Thus side-stepping marginalizing the immediate needs, rights and responsibilities of the citizens have…Absent in the elections were the competing economic, social and political plans and programs.”

One commentator compared this to the American election in 2000 when candidate Gore bested Bush by 500,000 votes but Bush was declared the winner. Similarly, progressive Arab Nationalist candidates in Lebanon’s June 7, 2009 election gathered a total of 140,258 votes out of the total of 1,149,500 cast. This is equal to 9.38 percent of the votes and had the system been a proportional system this would account for 12 seats in parliament rather than zero seats which is what these candidate received.

The Carter Center, Hezbollah, and others who have studied the Lebanese system realize that changing the election law into a proportional one is the only way forward in Lebanon and should be the priority for the coming four years.

For his part, Sayeed Fadlallah commended former President for his humanitarian work and present him with a copy of his recent book , Islam, The Religion of Dialogue (he has written 147, aides told me, most in Arabic).

He told Carter he had read his recent books Palestine: Peace not Apartheid and There Can be Peace in the Middle East and  expressed his appreciation for Carter as an objective researcher not controlled by Israeli political forces. He noted that the question of Palestine was not about religion but was a political struggle and that Arab countries have no problems with Jews but rather a problem of aggressive Zionism.

He said Lebanon and the region awaits Obama’s actions to match his ”sweet words”, but that he realized that there are powerful forces operating in America that will make Obama’s work for change in Palestine and the region very difficult.

Other comments between the duo were agreed to be off the record and not made public.

At approximately 6:16 p.m.  the Carter motorcade departed Dahiyeh and headed up to Bkirki for a meeting with another religious leader,  the 89 year old Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who also ignored the Friday midnight campaign ban and attacked fellow Christians, led by General Michel Aoun, and Hezbollah hours before the balloting started. But the religious leader, given his advanced age and status as Lebanese Cardinal (the only one Lebanon has ever had)  was not as heavily chastised as Feltman for violations of Lebanese Campaign laws) and many people in Dahiyeh, the US Embassy, and the State Department, no doubt, sighed in relief.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at fplamb@shabrashatil.org

More articles by:

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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