Lebanon’s first Sunday morning in December was cold, cloudy and rainy as this country’s’ new Prime Minister, Saad Eddine Hariri, donned a gray track suit, with Nike running shoes and joined hundreds of pro-Hezbollah runners, two dreamy Jordanian princesses and 33,000 others from 73 countries as well as all 18 Lebanese confessions for the annual ‘friendship first, competition second’, 42 km Beirut Marathon. Despite the weather, the atmosphere was warm as Christmas decorations were being hung with care across Lebanon in Christian, Shia, Sunni and Druze neighborhoods.
Saad, telling race watchers on the sidewalks, “I know I won’t win but I want to participate anyway. We have to bring Lebanese together, and sport is a very important event that can bring them together actually passed on the 42 km course in favor of the 10 km event—but then, how many politicians anywhere, used to the good life, can even run two km these days?
To many Lebanese, their new Prime Minister’s openness and sports ethic, symbolizes a new and promising atmosphere at Lebanon’s Grand Serail, also known as Government Palace, the Headquarters of the Prime Minister located a few blocks from Parliament. A positive and welcomed change from the tensions of the 2006-2007 ‘tent city’ days in Riad Solh Square when the opposition and the Bush administration- backed Fuad Siniora government faced each other for more than a year,separated by the Lebanese army, the former glaring up at their adversaries from scores of tents and the latter peeking down from behind pulled back office curtains.
Joy to the World!
At least in press releases and during TV interviews, Lebanon’s political factions appear more willing and able to work together than has been the case for decades. The Deputies and Cabinet members in Lebanon’s new unity government are about to get to work, with the people of Lebanon and her friends wishing them well. The intensely political and anti-Resistance Maronite Patriach Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who declined an invitation to participate in the marathon, did use his pulpit this morning at early Mass to “Thank God almighty the atmosphere in Lebanon is tilted toward understanding between the feuding parties. We hope this spirit of understanding will continue and political leaders would pay attention to the poor.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Ali Fayyad, a charismatic Hezbollah Member of Parliament expressed his party’s “excitement and intension to work with all parties to improve the lives of all Lebanese.”
Even more encouraging to many Lebanese, but upsetting to some in Washington and Tel Aviv, is that on 12/04/09 Saad Hariri’s US-Saudi backed Mustaqbal ( Future) bloc (March 14), held a meeting at Hariri’s downtown Beirut Center House and emphatically committed the party to “making the citizens priorities the priorities of the national unity cabinet. “ The bloc committed itself to “the political, economic and social aspects of the ministerial Policy Statement.”
This puts the March 14 coalition program in close conformity with much of Hezbollah’s new Political Manifesto. “There now appears to be the votes in Parliament to make some real changes around here” my motorcycle mechanic told me after replacing my windshield, following another fairly minor accident–my 4th in 2009 but down one from 2008.
Europe is expressing its support for Lebanon’s Unity Government as is Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the whole region. Plus the United Nations Sec-Gen Ban Key Moon and virtually the complete international community with two exceptions, the governments of Israel and the United States.
For its part, Israel predictably served up its usual fare of dire threats since the new Cabinet’s Policy Statement recognizing the necessity of Hezbollah’s arms as a deterrent against Israeli attacks on Lebanon. Through its lobby outlets Israel has been threatening that “the adoption of the resistance scheme by the Lebanese government and the major influence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese political scene means that Lebanon has declared that it is responsible for any attack by Hezbollah, and that acting against Lebanon will be easier for the army to win a battle against a state than to win it against a terrorist organization.”
On 12/2/09 Israel’s former deputy leader of the Israeli internal front during the July 2006 war, Ayal Ben Raufen warned during an Israel Army Radio interview that “the Lebanese government gave legitimacy for the dangerous increase of Hezbollah’s political power and in case of war, Israel now has a clear address: Lebanon. “
Perhaps Mr. Ben Raufen had not been advised by the much ballyhooed International Law Unit attached to Israeli army brigades whose job it is to make sure all Israeli military attacks continue to be perfectly legal as in Jenin, Lebanon and Gaza, that the drumbeat of threats that he and other Israeli officials have been making against Lebanon are outlawed by Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter which provides: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.
Washington’s reaction to date has come mainly from two sources. The first and most predictable was an AIPAC drafted letter sent out by 31 of Israel’s agents on the House side of the US Congress. The members forwarded the particularly obtuse and nearly incomprehensible letter to Secretary of State Clinton urging the Obama administration to work toward disarming Hezbollah by threatening the budgets of UNIFIL and Lebanon.
It reads in part: “In light of the clear violations of UN Security Council resolutions, we ask what actions the Administration is taking to ensure the UN addresses these violations.” Presumably the reference is to UNSCR 1701 which according to the arithmetic contained in the seven UN Reports on UNSCR 1701 compliance, Israel has violated more than 1,600 times including near daily violations of Lebanese sovereignty, with cross border troop incursions and Lebanese airspace and territorial waters penetrations. If the members had in mind UNSCR 425, unanimously passed in 1978, demanding that “Israel immediately withdraw from all Lebanese territory”, it is true that this resolution has still not been complied with as Israeli troops still occupy Lebanese territory and it is doubtful the AIPAC language (“we ask what actions the Administration is taking to ensure the UN addresses these violations”) is meant to apply to the Israeli forces occupying the Lebanese territory of Ghajar, Kfar Khouba, and Shebaa Farms.
The letter, introduced by career Israeli legmen, Mark Kirk and Steve Israel also informs the White House that “We must seek to support stronger multilateral efforts to disarm Hezbollah and clear southern Lebanon of Iranian weapons,” despite the fact that international lawyers at the US Library of Congress Research Service recognize that the new Lebanese government’s acceptance of Resistance arms moots certain provisions of UNSRC 1701, and 1559. Some lawyers and scholars at the CRS have argued recently that the Resistance arms arrangements of Lebanon’s unity government constitute a legitimate exercise of Lebanon’s right to self-defense and deterrent requirements especially given six decades of Israeli attacks. Moreover, as they have pointed out, Lebanon has every right to receive assistance from Iran and any other country. No doubt this subject will be raised when Lebanon’s President, Michel Suleiman, visits President Obama on December 14.
Another reaction from Washington immediately followed Hassan Nasrallah’s pledge of Hezbollah cooperation with the new Unity Government as part of the parity new political manifesto. Nicole Shampaine, appointed last year by the Bush Administration as the Director of the Department of State’s Near East Affairs Bureau Office for Egypt and the Levant weighed in. She was not happy as she announced that the U.S. will cooperate with the Lebanese government but not with Hezbollah Cabinet ministers. “There is no obstacle to cooperation with any official in the Lebanese government with the exception of Hezbollah,” she said in an interview with the Beirut daily As-Safir.
Ms. Shampaine emphasized two problems. “One is that the Hezbollah declaration puts a higher priority on the issue of an Islamic state in Lebanon.” Secondly, Hezbollah’s new political manifesto is “more an attempt to show force in the face of the United States and Israel.” Shampaine’s analysis left some in Lebanon scratching their heads. Had she even read the document? Or was she confusing it with the 1985 ‘Open letter’ which did mention the ideal of an Islamic Republic? Neither the manifesto nor Nasrallah made any mention of an Islamic Republic of Lebanon. What was she talking about?
Nasrallah read and commented on the 32 page document. it focused on the Unity government and Hezbollah’s social programs to develop a balanced economy across the regions based on the productive sectors; improving production; providing appropriate services to citizens including education, healthcare, housing, poverty reduction. Nothing about an Islamic Republic. The idea of an Islamic Republic is presumably one of the last subjects Hezbollah wants to talk about these unity days.
Checking the list and checking it twice!
The one positive comment about US policy Shampaine offered was Washington’s support for Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unity government, the main pillar of which is Hezbollah and its political allies in Parliament and the Cabinet. Washington trusts him and will follow his lead. So what happens when Saad hosts US officials with Hezbollah or pro Hezbollah cabinet ministers or meetings at which Hezbollah Parliamentary delegates are needed?
“Our hands are tied– Nicole (Sampaine) put us in one hell of a bind!” reported one Beirut Embassy political staffer on 12/4/09. “We have the names of 128 Members of Parliament and 30 cabinet ministers and we will have to advise the Ambassador and visiting officials who they can and can’t meet with or even talk to? Who supports Hezbollah and who does not—who is outed or closet Hezbollah and who it not? My job reminds me of the dilemma of Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 Jocabellis case when the Supreme Court tried to define what is and is not hard core Pornography and the frustrated Judge just shrugged and explained “it’s hard to define but I know it when I see it”. So I am to go through these names, bios and photos and know a Hezbollah supporter when I see one”
In the spirit of giving this holiday season some Beirut based Americans offer the following counsel to assist our Embassy’s “we’ll know em when we see em” project. It is meant to aid and assist the current US policy of sniffing out contraband members of Lebanon’s new Cabinet.
First the easy cases:
· If the US States government should discover its Beirut Embassy or any visiting American officials have a reason to discuss any aspect of Foreign Affairs with Lebanon, forget about it! Lebanon’s new unity government Foreign Minister is none other than the esteemed former Professor from Lebanese University, Ali Shami. He’s a pro Hezbollah Shia and Amal Movement member. No way can American officials talk/meet with Dr. Shami. Maybe the Swiss will do it for us.
· Concerning any issues having to do with the unity government Cabinet post of State which deals with issues of Administrative Reform which the White House has expressed interest in, don’t even think about discussing them. The new Cabinet Minister is the much respected Mohammad Fneish. He has a terrible record of being elected to Parliament on the Hezbollah ticket in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2005. He also served as Minister of Labor and Minister of Energy in previous governments. He is one of those hard core types.
· Matters concerning Agriculture and US AID projects which need to be discussed with the Lebanese Minister of Agriculture? Absolument Verboten! That Ministerial seat is his held by Hezbollah’s Hussein Hajj Hassan who was elected to Parliament in 1996, 2000 and 2005 on the Hezbollah slate. Even though Hassan is considered an expert on agriculture, having headed the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture between 2000 and 2005, he cannot under the new US guidelines announced by Ms. Shampaine, be met or communicated with.
· US-Lebanese joint efforts with AN1Hi flue, aids, all other Health issues. Not in your dreams because the new Minister of Health is none other than Dr. Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, Director of the Lebanese Association for Organ Donors and former Head of General Surgeries at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. His problem? Dr. Khalifeh, a Shia Muslim, is a member of the Amal Movement which is aligned with Hezbollah in the National Lebanese Resistance
· Issues involving the Ministry of Youth and Sports that needs to be discussed? Nope. The new unity government minister is surgeon Dr. Ali Abdullah. First he practices in the Rayyak Hospital in the Hezbollah area of the Bekaa and he is Shia. He held the Youth and Sports portfolio since 2003 and while he is pretty independent the Embassy must not take a chance on him. He obviously has too many of the wrong patients, neighbors and friends maybe even relatives.
Slightly more difficult cases requiring intense vetting by the Department of Homeland Security and other security agencies are the new unity government ministers Ghazi Aridi (Public Works), Akram Chelayab (Displaced Persons) and Wael Abu Fasour (State). The problem with these three is that they are Druze and all Members of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, and everyone in the State Department knows how that ingrate jumped ship and is now way too cozy with the Hezbollah led Resistance. Surely the Embassy has read what Jumblatt has been saying about Israel being Lebanon’s only enemy, whereas the Embassy knows Israel is American’s only ‘friend’ these days. These three are suspect for sure and under the Shampaine Doctrine are best dissed.
There is one Minister, Elias el Murr, who holds the Defense Ministry post who should pass muster under this season’s “anyone but Hezbollah” standard. Murr, the son of Michel, a long time Member of Parliament, is a Greek Orthodox independent and formerly headed the Interior Ministry. He is not part of the ‘suspect’ Christian bloc headed by Michel Aoun who is allied with Hezbollah. The only problem with this ‘clearance’ to hold discussions with the Defense Minister is that there is not a lot to talk about. Everyone is pretty aware that without a ‘green light’ from Israel very little assistance having to do with military equipment, boots and shoelaces included, according to the US Military Attaché, serious aid to defend Lebanon from Israel will not be seriously discussed. So in the case of the Defense Minister it’s not the Who but the What that is the problem for US-Lebanese relations.
Of the remaining Cabinet Members nearly all have been showing signs of being open to dialogue, willing to hold discussions with Hezbollah on the basis of mutual respect and willingness to solve Lebanon’s severe social, political and economic problems. Most have also expressed support for granting civil rights to the Palestinian Refugees, still waiting and waiting to return to their our country.
As the twelve days of Christmas rapidly approach, it’s not clear exactly who the Obama Administration is going to be able to talk and engage with here in Lebanon. According to one Embassy staffer, “That’s what the American taxpayers pay their Beirut Embassy and State Department to figure out”.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org