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LEBANON'S HOPES AND FEARS
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
August 9, 2006

Illustration by Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News

Ever since it emerged as an independent state almost 60 years ago, Lebanon has lived with three hopes and three fears.

The first hope was that Lebanon's religious and cultural diversity would help it escape despotism in the name of any faith or ethnicity.

The second was that, because of its location at the heart of the Middle East with links to Europe dating back 5,000 years, Lebanon could become a bridge between the West and the Islamic world.

Finally, there was the hope that, thanks to millennia of experience in trade, Lebanon could claim a role in the regional economy beyond its physical dimensions.

The three fears were equally clear.

The first was that outside powers might use Lebanon as a battlefield in proxy wars.

The second was that demography could play tricks with the country's complex sectarian balance, tempting some communities into trying to punch above their weight at the expense of others.

Finally, there was the fear that businessmen in search of a fast buck would use Lebanon as a milch cow, disregarding its long-term economic interests.

The history of the past 50 years has been the story of those hopes and fears, coming to the fore one by one, then waning at different times.

Last month, on the eve of the latest Israeli attack, the balance of probabilities tilted towards the hopes.

For the first time in years, the Lebanese economy appeared to have returned to growth while the idea of a pluralist system was making inroads even in communities most influenced by sectarianism.

The July war, triggered by the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and the massive response of the Jewish state, tipped the balance in favour of fear.

Worse still, it seems that, for the first time, all three of Lebanon's fears, may be on the point of simultaneous realisation.

The economy is in shambles as many foreign and even some domestic investors have decided to take their money and run.

Fear of sectarianism is also growing amid reports that some communities that had disbanded their militias are stockpiling weapons and reviving military units just in case.

More importantly, there is little doubt that the current war is a proxy for a larger one that may yet shake the region.

What we witness is the clash of two visions for the Middle East: one set by US President George W. Bush, and the other represented by radical anti-American states and movements from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent.

It is also clear that neither Israel nor Hezbollah have the capacity to continue this war at any significant level without continued military and economic support from their respective outside backers.

The defeat of the pro-American camp would embolden the radical camp not only to reclaim dominance in Lebanon but also to pressure Iraq to switch sides once the US-led coalition leaves.

Then the road would be open for shaping a regional system that could send shivers down the spines in Western capitals.

A clear defeat of the Hezbollah, on the other hand, could embolden those who claim that force could and should be used to reshape realities on the ground.

All that, of course, is bad news for Lebanon, which is in no position to drive the Israelis out or bring Hezbollah under government control.

Proportionate to its population, Lebanon has suffered most, more than the other nations in the Middle East wars.

The Lebanese need and deserve a break with the pattern of intervention that has ruined their lives for decades.

For a small country that becomes a battlefield in proxy wars, the best hope is to be transformed into a buffer state.

Is such a solution possible in Lebanon?

The answer is yes.

That, however, cannot be achieved through the current, largely dishonest, diplomatic manoeuvres. What is needed is a major rethink of Lebanon's domestic political structures combined with massive foreign political, military and economic support to implement it.

The March 14 movement, which holds a majority of seats in the Lebanese parliament, had began debating the structural changes needed before the current war started.

The key question in the debate was simple: what to do to reassure Lebanese communities that their legitimate interests, indeed their physical security, could be assured without support from foreign patrons?

One answer, then gaining popularity, was that Lebanon should set up a second chamber of parliament to act as a mixture of senate and supreme court in which all communities would enjoy an equal right of veto on issues that affect their fundamental interests.

With a second chamber seeking national consensus on a few vital issues, the lower chamber, the current parliament, would no longer have to be elected on the basis of sectarian quotas.

The whole of Lebanon could be turned into one constituency on the basis of proportional representation. This would enable genuine political currents to emerge, away from sectarian divides, allowing the implementation of people-based policies. That would also make it harder for foreign powers to intervene by fomenting sectarian rivalries.

Such reforms are obviously impossible as long as foreign armies are present. This was the case ago when Syria had an army in Lebanon and is the case today with Israeli units reaching the Litani River.

The withdrawal of Israeli force from Lebanon is a sine qua non of reforming and shaping the Lebanese system to make the country a buffer state outside regional rivalries.

The crucial question is what to do in the interim?

A new version of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon (FINUL) will be a non-starter. What is needed is a much larger multinational force with robust rules of engagement to enforce the peace rather than observe its (non) existence.

Such a force would not be acceptable to Hezbollah if it were to be located only in the south where the Shi'ite movement has held sway since the 1980s.

The new multinational force should be present throughout Lebanon as an instrument of authority in the hands of Lebanon's elected government.

Since that government already includes Hezbollah ministers there would be no grounds for seeing it as a weapon in the hands of the Shi'ite party's domestic rivals.

The best guess is that the multinational force would not be needed for more than three years, that is to say until after the next Lebanese general election.

The only way to ensure Lebanon against future tragedies is to help it assume its natural vocation as a meeting place of faiths and cultures not a battleground for rival powers.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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