Latest from the Levant

Nov 12, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 12, 2009

Number 11/09 #04

After five months of political horse trading, Lebanon has announced a new government, a national unity coalition, complete with Hezbollah and its allies.

We begin with an article from leading Israeli academic Barry Rubin, with an entry on his blog. Dr. Rubin analyses the recently formed government, which has given a third of its cabinet seats to the coalition led by Hezbollah (The government will steer clear of Hezbollah’s weapons). He suggests that the anti-Western alliance in Lebanon (and the Middle East generally) continues to gain ground because its backers – Iran and Syria – stand by their commitments, whereas Western backers of pro-Western forces tend to vacillate. For this important addition to the debate on Lebanon, CLICK HERE.

The second article is a very good backgrounder from TIME, describing the dilemmas faced by Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, with a weakened coalition in a fragile country always threatened with sectarian splits. The article also describes Hezbollah’s violent takeover of Beirut last year, and suggests that many Lebanese have, like Barry Rubin. concluded that bullets tend to win more power than ballots in Lebanon. To read it, CLICK HERE.

Qifa Nabki, a Lebanese blogger, expresses similar conclusions, as he analyses the challenges already facing the new government.

In other news, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Wednesday. During the meeting, which took place two days before Sarkozy was due to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Netanyahu sent a message to Assad, encouraging him to restart direct Israeli-Syrian peace talks, without preconditions.

The Jerusalem Post has an excellent analysis of the meeting, Netanyahu’s motivations and the likelihood of his call resulting in Israeli-Syrian talks. It also suggests the secrecy surrounding the Obama-Netanyahu meeting in Washington was because the leaders discussed Syria. To read this analysis, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • Steve Rosen had a piece in Foreign Policy in the lead up to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting where he discussed the state of Israel-US ties. Though the meeting has taken place, it’s still a good read.
  • Nidal Hasan, the US soldier accused of carrying out the attack in the Fort Hood military base last week, lectured two years ago on Islam, jihad and the potential conflicts of interest Muslims have in the US Army. His PowerPoint presentation is here.
  • Meanwhile, there are news reports that the FBI ignored contacts Hasan made with an al-Qaeda figure in Yemen.
  • Israel has released further proof of Iranian involvement in the arms ship it seized last week.
  • Also on Iran, its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called on US President Barack Obama to choose between Iran and Israel.
  • Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah weighed into that debate, suggesting – somewhat bizarrely – that Obama gives Israel more support than did George Bush.
  • Nasrallah also challenged Israel on Martyrs’ Day to “send even your whole army, we will destroy them in our valleys and mountains.”
  • Meanwhile, Lebanon has sentenced four of its citizens to death for spying on the country for Israel.
  • On the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, Rami Khouri has written in the Daily Star that a similar, metaphorical wall in the Middle East has yet to come down. He writes, “For many reasons, the Arab world collectively is the sole exception to the global wave of liberalisation and democratisation that touched every other region of the planet.”
  • The Intelligence and Information Centre has released its latest weekly report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • The Jerusalem Post‘s Palestinian Affairs writer, Khaled Abu Toameh, writes that Fatah loyalists are accusing Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of attempting a “bloodless coup” against President Mahmoud Abbas.
  • An article in the Jerusalem Post by Washington Institute senior fellow Soner Cagaptay about deteriorating Turkish-US ties.

Why is the Other Side Winning? Lebanon’s New Government As a Case Study

Barry Rubin, Rubin Report, November 11, 2009

The moderate March 14 movement, in the words of the New York Times, won “a clear victory” in Lebanon’s June elections, while the Hizballah-led alliance suffered a “loss.”

Why, then will the forces that won a majority, again in the phrasing of the Times, “have little chance to dictate the agenda?”

On the surface, things are bad enough. The March 14 movement will have fifteen cabinet seats, Hizballah and its friends (all of whom are allied because they are clients of Iran and Syria) get ten, and the other five will be controlled by President Michel Suleiman “who has struggled to maintain neutrality,” says the Times.

Now to the fine print which makes things look far worse.

Suleiman is Syria’s man. That’s why he got the job. Almost all the time, and perhaps all the time, he will back the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah line.

Then there’s Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, who up until recently was the toughest, bravest March 14 leader. Reading the writing on the wall, he has jumped ship and tried to switch sides, at least to some extent. So that tilts the situation even more in favor of Hizballah-Iran-Syria.

But why is this happening, why do those who won the elections have to give veto power to those who lost? Why will this government be unable to disarm Hizballah, stop arms’ smuggling across its borders, prosecute those responsible for terrorist attacks within Lebanon, prevent Hizballah from attacking Israel and thus dragging Lebanon into war whenever it wants, and be too friendly to the West?

On the surface, of course, this passivity is necessary to maintain the peace. Lebanon has always had a weak government, and the specter of civil war hangs over the country based on past experience.

The full answer, however, is two-fold and these factors interlock.

The first point is that Iran and Syria give lavish support to their side. They provide lots of money, weapons, and political support. They virtually never betray their friends. They are strong and ready to intimidate their enemies.

And the second point regards the opposite side: The United States and Europe don’t subsidize their “clients.” U.S. aid money goes to the Lebanese army which is arguably now under Iranian-Syrian control if it came to a crisis. Their political support is unreliable, either because they don’t do anything or they actually make concessions to Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. They usually do betray their friends, are apologetic, and prone to engage in appeasement.

Quick, who would you depend on to keep you alive politically and personally if you were a Lebanese politician?

If the March 14 coalition tried to disarm Hizballah’s militia, stop it from controlling the south, block it from attacking Israel, interdict all the arms’ smuggling from Syria, or do lots of other things, Iran, Syria, and Hizballah along with their other local allies would smite them with a mighty blow.

But if Hizballah took over neighborhoods, ignored the government, made fools out of the UN forces which are supposedly policing them (or even attack them in a deniable way), the United States and Europe would do nothing.

Is it really so hard to understand, then, why things are going the way they are in Lebanon, or in the Middle East generally for that matter?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.
His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).


Beneath Lebanon’s New Political Deal, a Fear of Violence

Andrew Lee Butters, TIME, November 11, 2009

It’s been an almost endless summer in Lebanon, with beach weather and relative political harmony continuing well into November. The only thing marring what could have been a perfect year for a country more accustomed to serving as a battleground in regional power struggles was the fact that Lebanon has had no government since parliamentary elections in June. That was until Monday, when the majority U.S.-backed political bloc and its rivals in the Syria- and Iran-backed minority coalition finally agreed on a new power-sharing Cabinet. But while the deal ends the three-year political crisis that brought the country to the brink of civil war, it doesn’t address the question underlying the dispute: Should Lebanon be a Westward-looking business-oriented tourist playground, or a frontline bastion of resistance to Israel?

Although the Western path edged out the militant posture of Hizballah at the polls in June, Lebanon’s weak political system, structured according to sect, and Hizballah’s status as one of the world’s most dangerous nonstate armies, guarantees that the Shi’ite militia will remain a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese politics.

Ever since it survived a 33-day onslaught by Israel in the summer of 2006, Hizballah has accused the American- and Saudi-backed ruling coalition of doing Israel’s work by seeking to disarm the organization’s armed wing. (The argument by its rivals is that no state can tolerate the existence of private armies independent of the sovereign government.) After the issue provoked more than a year of massive demonstrations and sit-ins in central Beirut, Hizballah tried to settle matters the old-fashioned way in May 2008 by storming pro-government positions in West Beirut. But while its highly trained fighters easily overran the government supporters, the move alienated many Lebanese, and a democratic victory – which would have given Hizballah’s military wing all the political cover it desired – proved to be elusive. While Hizballah and its allies easily carried the Shi’ite vote, the Christian ally it would have needed to form a government was soundly defeated in that community’s polls.

Although it accepted defeat in its effort to win control of the government at the ballot box, Hizballah has since maneuvered behind the scenes to rig the composition of the Cabinet in its favor. First it demanded veto power over all decisions, but eventually it accepted a compromise formula that left the ruling coalition without a large enough majority to make big decisions on its own. Still not content with that, the opposition pushed for control of Lebanon’s telecommunications system, which would give Hizballah added operational security from Israeli intelligence – but could also help it hamper the activities of the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. That tribunal has implicated Syrian officials in the killing, and much of its evidence comes from telephone records. Though Hizballah has denied wanting to derail the investigation, such pressure on its patron could disrupt the flow of weapons over the Syrian border to the Shi’ite group’s arsenal.

Saad Hariri, son of the murdered former Prime Minister and leader of the ruling coalition, initially balked at Hizballah’s terms, but eventually had no choice but to give in. Lebanon’s longstanding deadly rivalries and the ever present threat of violence have made Lebanese politicians wary of acting unilaterally, which is why Hariri invited Hizballah and its allies into the Cabinet in the first place. And Hariri is increasingly isolated, with none of his allies being prepared to confront Hizballah head-on given the experience of the May 2008 mini-civil war.

While the Bush Administration regarded the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon in 2005 – as a result of international pressure and Lebanese street protests – as one of its biggest successes in the Middle East, the new Obama Administration has been less aggressive in its backing for the pro-U.S. Lebanese government. Lebanese media also suggest that Saudi Arabia was dismayed that Hariri’s Future movement, which had been building a militia with Saudi money, was so easily routed by Hizballah in the May 2008 street fights. Last month, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah traveled to Damascus for a state visit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in part to bury the hatchet over Lebanon. Even Hariri’s coalition is breaking apart. Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and one of the architects of the anti-Syrian movement (he once told a Washington audience that America should send car bombs to Damascus), has seen which way the wind is blowing and transformed himself into an ardent Syria-phile.

But the government’s caving in to Hizballah and Syria will have its consequences: most importantly it’s a message to those in Lebanon – and the wider Middle East – who put their trust in the U.S. and political reform that guns are still more powerful than votes. Watching the Syrian-backed opposition hamstring the investigation into his father’s murder will have been a bitter pill for Hariri and his followers to swallow. When the time comes to settle scores, they may be more likely to choose bullets rather than ballots to do the job.


Analysis: When in doubt, turn to Syria

Hilary Leila Krieger and Tovah Lazaroff, Jerusalem Post, November 12, 2009

The last time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu found himself differing with a US president amid faltering talks with Palestinians, he tacked towards Syria. Opening up discreet talks with Damascus, he positioned himself as a would-be peacemaker looking for a new avenue for progress.

This week Netanyahu, in his second incarnation as premier, again visited a White House he has been at odds with and one that is trying desperately to make progress with the Palestinians even as the prospects for peace worsen.

Yet Israeli and American officials have insisted that the visit was a positive one, despite intense media speculation that it was a disaster. While literally stepping onto his plane in Washington Tuesday morning, Netanyahu told reporters, “The importance of the visit will become clear in the future.”

That plane took him from America to France, where the PM then met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the same head of state planning to host Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday. Late Wednesday it emerged that Netanyahu had told Sarkozy that he would be happy to launch peace talks with Syria any time, anywhere, without preconditions. Channel 1 also reported that Netanyahu had sent a message to Assad via Sarkozy.

The move follows a direct appeal to Assad by President Shimon Peres Tuesday while addressing the parliament in Brazil.

“I call from here to President Assad: Come enter direct negotiations with us immediately. With no mediations, with no preconditions, with no levels, and with no delay,” he urged.

Assad, for his part, while at a conference of Arab political parties Wednesday was quoted by official state media as saying, “We do not put forward conditions on making peace,” though he also said “we do have rights that we will not renounce” and that “resistance [to Israeli control of the Golan Heights] forms the core of our policy, both in the past and in the future.”

Still, the suggestion that Syria might be willing to hold peace talks without preconditions could create an opening for the sides to resume at least the indirect contacts coordinated through Turkey until Israel’s actions against Hamas in Gaza last winter.

In the meantime Israel’s relationship with Turkey has faltered, with Jerusalem wary of any role for Ankara. France, though, could serve as a replacement for any renewed diplomacy.

“Assad and Netanyahu each for their own reasons want to have balls up in the air,” said Middle East expert Aaron David Miller of the possibility that the two leaders wanted to signal the potential for talks between their countries.

But he contrasted their interest in “testing the possibility that Syrian-Israeli negotiations and an agreement are possible” with actual movement toward peace.

Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land, pointed to secret talks as the most productive way to make real progress and questioned whether the public motions were substantive.

“I don’t think this front channel noise means there’s a back channel discussion underway,” he said.

But by publicly opening to Syria, he said it allowed Netanyahu to demonstrate, “I’m a capable leader. I have options. The Israeli-Palestinian game is not the only game in town, and I can play with the big boys” on the international stage. That could help him in Europe and also among the Americans, with whom he’s eager to burnish his image.

At the same time, Miller noted that such a posture also gave Netanyahu a genuine opportunity to explore whether any progress could be made with Syria.

The ball now goes to Syria’s court, as Assad plays in France on Thursday.



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