Can Lebanon be neutral on the Arab-Israeli conflict? | David Daoud

Lebanon was born as a house divided. Today, this division manifests itself in a conflict between an Iranian-backed “resistance camp” that is unilaterally waging war on behalf of the country, and a large part of the population yearning for normality. This weekend, elements of the latter convened a conference in Harissa to call on Lebanon to adopt neutrality in regional conflicts and, in doing so, offer Lebanon a way out of its current crisis. The conference – intended as the launch of a series of ongoing initiatives – was held under the patronage of Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, but also included religious and secular representatives from all ethnicities and sects in Lebanon. . Together they built the case that returning Lebanon to a path of neutrality in foreign affairs would also open up the possibility of an investment-based recovery for the faltering Lebanese economy.

Similar initiatives have been attempted in the past, sinking into ambiguity and the selective application of neutrality. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s 2017 call for Lebanese “dissociation” from regional controversies, for example, did not explicitly extend neutrality to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hezbollah and its government partners have exploited this loophole to render Hariri’s neutrality meaningless. Relying on an alleged “Islamic, Arab and Lebanese consensus” on the liberation of Palestine, they argued that waging war against Israel did not violate the principle of Lebanese neutrality.

Last weekend’s conference attempted to bridge that gap by unambiguously extending Lebanese neutrality to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and defining it to mean just that: not joining the Arab-Israeli normalization process known as Abraham’s agreements nor maintain Lebanon as a perpetual battlefield against Israel. In an effort to entrench neutrality, the conference also challenged Lebanon’s anti-normalization laws, which criminalize interpersonal contact between Lebanese citizens and Israelis as harmless as sharing a DM on Twitter.

The participants stressed that their proposal to repeal the laws was not a call for normalization in the sense of a peace treaty between the two governments. Rather, it was to align the legal system with a fundamental principle of neutrality: the principle of an open society. The same laws, they noted, also drive a wedge between the country and 300,000 Lebanese citizens residing in the UAE; prevent the Lebanese from engaging Palestinian efforts to foster civil society in their territories; and prevent Lebanese individuals and businesses from profitably engaging multinational corporations that do not abide by any exclusion laws.

By adopting these positions, the conference and its participants sought to reclaim and redefine the concept of Lebanese patriotism. For much of Lebanon’s history, this has become almost synonymous with supporting perpetual war with Israel in the name of the Palestinian cause. That this ongoing warmongering failed to advance Palestinian rights and only resulted in misery and destructive conflict for Lebanon mattered little. It was an ideological pillar that many Lebanese feared to challenge for fear of being branded traitors, and that some domestic and foreign actors had a personal interest in maintaining.

Hezbollah’s dominance

Hezbollah is precisely such an actor. Although based in Lebanon and made up of Lebanese citizens, Hezbollah is more dependent on foreign tutelage and aid than any of its rivals. According to its own leaders, the group is ideologically subservient to Iran, and it has not hesitated to subordinate the interests of Lebanon to those of Tehran. The equation of Lebanese patriotism with enmity towards Israel has allowed Hezbollah to dominate Lebanon’s national narrative and transfer decision-making over the Lebanese national interest from Beirut to Tehran. The result was devastating.

For decades, the Lebanese have had to live under the threat of war – or with the consequences of Hezbollah’s periodic devastating clashes with Israel – with little or no voice. Moreover, to maintain its private arsenal and its license to wage endless resistance, Hezbollah thrives on and thrives on Lebanese sectarianism. After all, the emergence of a true national identity could inevitably lead to the formation of strong state institutions, including an effective national army that would eliminate the need for an armed sectarian militia unilaterally assuming the role of national defender.

But this sectarianism is also the source of endemic cronyism and corruption, which have undermined the country’s vitality, chased away foreign aid and investment, and plunged it into one of the worst economic crises in the world. ‘story. As the panelists noted, incredibly, Lebanon today attracts less foreign direct investment than North Korea.

An alternate view

The organizers of this weekend’s conference sought to offer the Lebanese an alternative vision, a vision that redefines patriotism as an investment in building their country and the prosperity and security of its citizens. Critically, unlike previous militant calls, this conference also offered concrete plans on how to achieve this vision and only asked for foreign aid after demonstrating the Lebanese’s ability to start delivering. On a theoretical level, this put them on a footing to be able to compete with Hezbollah in the field of ideas, even if the disparities in effective power continue to strongly favor the latter.

As with all purported solutions to Lebanon’s woes, skepticism is warranted. Lebanese activists and politicians have a reputation for promising change while failing. Nor is restricting Hezbollah’s freedom of action, or even disarming and disbanding the entire group, a panacea for all of Lebanon’s ills. The country’s problems run much deeper and the group’s existence is only a symptom rather than a cause. However, while weakening the group is not enough to save Lebanon, it is the necessary precondition for the Lebanese to demand national decision-making from any foreign power – and it is the first step to resolving the rest. the country’s problems.

David Daoud is director of research on Lebanon, Israel and Syria at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and non-resident researcher at the Atlantic Council.

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