Why any Middle East reset has to start in Lebanon


Why any Middle East reset has to start in Lebanon

Why any Middle East reset has to start in Lebanon
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If the US and its allies in the Gulf states are serious about turning the page and solving the conflicts of the region, the place to start should be Lebanon. It is a barometer that can foresee both problems and their solutions.
If democracies are not supposed to go to war with each other, then how come Lebanon and Israel are on the brink of war year after year while they both claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East? Both states faced the same dilemma at their creation, but their different answers to the same questions led them toward divergent but equally turbulent paths.
One of the most fundamental questions the region has to grapple with is: Can people who do not share similar ethnic origins or religious beliefs live together in a stable and democratic state? It is not easy and it is too late to ask this question now. We already have these states and we are not about to redraw all the borders. The answer, therefore, has to be yes.
However, one Israeli journalist and one Lebanese banker both found that the other country made the wrong choice. According to Uri Avnery, Lebanon was a mistake and Israel should avoid following its path at any cost. Avnery had great credentials. A prominent peace activist, he had also fought in Israel’s war of independence, so no one could question his patriotism. On July 3, 1983, he literally crossed all the lines and was the first Israeli to meet with Yasser Arafat while he was under siege in Beirut during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. He was also a contributor to Arab News.
In 2011, Avnery wrote an article that stated that Lebanese Christians made the wrong choice when they lobbied for the creation of a Greater Lebanon in which they were no longer the absolute majority. He was obviously projecting. Looking at the map, he feared that Israel would do the same if it annexed the West Bank and Gaza, ensuring that the Jews would no longer form a majority.
For Avnery, “the Lebanese malaise started with a crucial decision made on the very day the state was set up,” when Christians chose to include people of different religions in the same state. Some Lebanese would agree with him.
But there was an equally negative view of Israel by the Lebanese banker and journalist Michel Chiha, who in many ways can be considered the main founder of the Lebanese political system. He emphatically wrote that it was the creation of Israel as a “Jewish state” that was the mistake. Chiha was one of the principal authors of the Lebanese constitution in 1926 and was credited with introducing the elements of communal power-sharing that, for Avnery, are actually the problem.
In 1947, Chiha stated that “the decision to partition Palestine with the creation of a Jewish state will prove to be the worst universal error ever committed.” He added that “an error of this magnitude committed in this century will have repercussions on our descendants in the next.”
For Chiha, Lebanese nationalism constituted a rich array of different people who were bound by the will to live together despite the differences of their religious backgrounds and who history had brought together in the same geographical setting. It is, in a way, exactly the opposite of Israel and he was thus opposed to the UN Partition Plan for Palestine.
For him, “those nations who chose to support partition also chose the outrageous option of creating the most prejudiced and the most exclusively confessional state in the world. This is the fact that liberals will not face and what the so-called ‘democracies’ are recommending.” Some Israelis and diaspora Jews would also agree with him.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has all but disappeared from the rest of the Arab world but is still alive in Lebanon.

Nadim Shehadi

Most importantly for Chiha, the fact that you can have an assembly or parliament driven by “the will to live in common,” and where Maronites, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Melchites, Catholics, Orthodox and multiple other sects can debate together an outcome for the common good away from their respective affiliations means that the result can be of universal importance.
This last idea is echoed by the Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi. For him, it was precisely because the Lebanese population happened to be divided, socially and politically, between equally forceful Christian and Muslim sides that disagreed on fundamental issues that the Lebanese state could only function as a democracy or, more correctly, as the “democratic management of a perennial conflict situation.”
This made Lebanon an open society, even if by default, where all issues could be debated freely. This included all the regional issues that could not be debated in the rest of the Arab world.
Thus, in the 1980s, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, the ideas that were fought over between gangs in the streets of Beirut were in fact part of broader regional disputes, such as big issues like pan-Arabism versus nationalism and Islamism versus democracy. The Iran-Iraq War also introduced the Sunni versus Shiite element, with various radical movements unleashed by the success of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Add to these the disputes between those for or against a negotiated peace with Israel and Lebanon became the test case or the battleground for all these ideas, simply because they could not be discussed or resolved anywhere else.
Because of this, whatever happens in Lebanon is of concern to everyone else in the Middle East and the outcome of very localized conflicts and debates in the country will have an effect on the broader region. This is where the neglected issues are still alive. This is also where they can blow up and spread or fizzle out and be resolved locally.
This explains why the Arab-Israeli conflict has all but disappeared from the rest of the Arab world but is still alive in Lebanon, which could erupt into a war with Israel at any moment. It is also why Iranian influence, through the control of the country by Hezbollah that started in the 1980s, has been gradually spreading in the region too.
My Iranian friends use the octopus as a way to describe the institutions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps because it has tentacles in every country. In 1983, one of the tentacles blew up the US Marines barracks in Beirut. The Marines were in the country as part of a multinational force tasked with keeping the peace after the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The same tentacles, allied with Syria, took American and other Western hostages and released them in Damascus.
The US Reagan administration found this too costly and complicated and withdrew, followed by the European forces, eventually handing the country over to Syria, which, when it came to hostages, seemed to be able to resolve problems that were often of its own creation.
Forty years after the bombings of the US Marines barracks and the US Embassy in Beirut, what was an IRGC problem in Lebanon has now spread to Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the US is still paying for the release of hostages in Tehran.
The region has been unstable for more than half a century. It is high time for a new beginning and, for a comprehensive solution to be successful, it must start from Lebanon.

Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist.
Twitter: @Confusezeus

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view