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Is There Any Solution For Lebanon’s Chronic Standoff? 3/6/07

For several months the Lebanese Diaspora worldwide has been preoccupied and anxious about Lebanon’s unending crisis and has worried about escalating threats and one deadline after another.  Experts and analysts have focused and warned about three powder kegs in the Middle East, waiting for a match to ignite beyond control:  Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.  Concerns about the risks of all out civil war in either or all three are in fact very legitimate and warrant intensive efforts to prevent such possible disasters. 

In Iraq many believe that some degree of civil war is already in progress. However the new focus on pacifying and securing Baghdad, and the closer coordination with the Maliki government to increase support and reliance on the Iraqi forces, may offer at least some hope of preventing further progression to all out civil war. It may also give the current Iraqi government a chance to work on reconciliation and taking control of their country.

The Palestinian crisis is being addressed by intensive Saudi efforts to mediate between the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas towards the formation of a national unity government.  The Saudis are also discussing with the Iranians some understanding that may allow success of their efforts.  Further new American pressure on the Israelis to revive the peace process, may improve the chances for a real solution.

As for Lebanon, the subject of our interest and focus, the outlook remains gloomy and may be, almost hopeless. This small peace loving country has suffered the longest time from proxy cold and hot wars on its territory. Despite various initiatives coming from east or west, no significant or truly promising solution seems to appear on the horizon.  All efforts, at best, are focused on containing the current standoff. At one point after the completion of the 2005 parliamentary elections and the formation of the current Seniora government, there was concern that the Lebanese situation may not stabilize, and the risk of violent confrontation will persist   until the end of President Lahoud’s extended term. Nevertheless, one relatively reassuring reality is that the Lebanese have unanimously repudiated violence and rejected until now all bait to start a new civil war.  However the danger of that remains real, particularly when the Iranian leadership speaks of defeating the United States on the Lebanese scene!? There is some hope that the most recent Saudi – Iranian contacts may limit that risk.

We in the expatriate community who stay in close touch with Lebanon are firmly convinced that a satisfactory solution to the current situation is possible if the complex problems are recognized and analyzed with extreme sincerity and integrity. They then need to be addressed with courage, patriotism and real independence. Attempts at any solution should also acknowledge the realities on the ground, in the area and on the global geopolitical scene.

Many have written thoroughly on the proxy struggle between the East represented by Syria and Iran and the West under the leadership of the United States.  This confrontation between the world only superpower, and the emerging dominant Middle East country, has taken an unfortunate confessional aspect, with the East using and manipulating the Shiites and radical extremists and the West allying itself with the Sunnis and the moderates anywhere they could be found.

Lebanon, being the famous cultural and religious mosaic, the land of dialogue of civilizations, is also unfortunately very vulnerable and susceptible to the prevailing atmosphere. The understandings and cooperation between its Christian and Muslim population, at one point, were not only a protocol for survival in harmony and dignity but also a model for diversity, tolerance and moderation resulting in success and prosperity. Pope John Paul II, speaking about the need to support Lebanon once said: It is not just a country; it is a message to the world. Nevertheless, in recent history, outside interferences resulted in tension and confrontations between Christians & Moslems. However sufficient recent precautions may have prevented, until now the recurrence of such tensions. On the other hand a multitude of recent events & interferences are threatening a Sunni-Shiite clash. There is in Lebanon a quasi balance between the Sunnis and Shiites whose numbers are rather close to one another (no recent census exists).  In addition the majority of the Lebanese Druze are allied with the Sunnis, and the Alawites may be closer to the Shiites.  The Christians are divided between the two camps, and despite the usually negative connotations of division, their split may have a positive facet in keeping the polarization away from turning into a Christian - Moslem confrontation.

In addition to all these complicated realities, internally and externally, that will have to be taken into consideration, if a viable solution is to be found, there are three additional pressing realities that need to be addressed.

First and foremost we can not forget that practically all major political crimes and terrorist acts going as far back as the disappearance of Imam Musa El Sadr and his companions and going through the assassinations of Kamal Jumblat, Bachir Gemayel, Rachid Karameh, Rene Mouawad, etc, to name a few, and culminating into the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his companions and all the subsequent bombings and assassinations of MPs, journalists and innocent civilians have until now remained practically unsolved.  The “international tribunal” may be the only chance to start identifying and punishing culprits.  This hopefully will stop or at least significantly curtail the cycle of violence.  Formation of such tribunal is of utmost urgency and those who are opposing it should clearly offer their amendments so that they can demonstrate that they are not opposing it because they have something to hide.   If the current Lebanese system cannot swiftly produce an acceptable structure for such tribunal, the United Nations should promptly form the tribunal on the basis of international norms, without input from Lebanon. 

Second, Hezbollah remains armed and may have rearmed further after the July war with Israel, despite two United Nations Security Council Resolutions (1559, 1701). While there is a general consensus that Lebanon should abide by these UNSCRs, some realities need to be kept in mind. While Hezbollah may be financed and influenced by Iran & Syria, it nevertheless represents a significant segment of the Lebanese population. Therefore, forceful disarmament by the Lebanese army can not be a good option. It should be left to the next President, working courageously and intelligently with the parliamentary majority & the next, hopefully, more broadly based government, to find a way to reassure Hezbollah & convince them to disarm voluntarily. This could be addressed on the basis of patriotism and the best interest of the country and its unity, as well the safety, stability and economic interests of the Shiites in the South. We certainly hear the rumors that there is a secret plan for a Shiite canton under the table, but in the absence of real evidence of that we hope that Hezbollah will keep the commitment to the 10452 km principle which they clearly stated before the 2005 elections, and that the rumors are only just that. 

Third, we also need to remember that despite the exit of Syrian forces from Lebanon and multiple generous donors’ conferences before and after the Syrian withdrawal, the economy remains very precarious, and the exodus of youth and brainpower continues at an alarming pace.  Thus the threat of collapse may have been somewhat delayed but not completely eliminated yet. Therefore efforts to solve problems and stabilize the country can not be postponed indefinitely.

In the face of all that, the most talked about solution has been the formation of a “so called” unity government of 30 ministers with the parliamentary majority having 19 or 20, the minority having 9 or 10 with one independent minister who may side with either group. He or she may provide the “veto powered one third of the cabinet” when he or she sides with the opposition minority.  Such solution, if accepted adds precariousness and instability since the criminal and terrorist elements responsible for most if not all the previous major assassinations and bombings have not yet been identified and neutralized.  These elements can target and kill that minister at anytime and return the situation back to square one. We simplistically ask, why not form a transitional government of independents or “so called technocrats” with the parliamentary majority choosing for example 14 friendly ministers from outside parliament, the minority choosing 7 of their friends and the remaining nine or whatever number is needed to secure confessional balance, being chosen by mutual approval of both sides, based purely on their independence, integrity and competence. 

After more than two decades, between war and Syrian domination, the return of sovereignty cannot be expected to promptly generate the rebirth of a stable and fully matured democracy.   The current government, resulting from the rejuvenated democracy may not have the strength to solve all the accumulated problems, solely by the power of majority rule.  This is particularly true in Lebanon where major decisions have traditionally been taken by consensus and have usually stalled if a significant confessional group opposed. 

Obviously, in order to progress towards a transitional government acceptable to the parliamentary majority, resumption of dialogue should be reconsidered without delay. If it is not possible to use the formula adopted before the July war for security reasons, other mechanisms based on the use of proxies and a smaller number of participants could be considered.  Further such dialogue if not feasible in the open could still occur in secrecy. 

Last but not least, we need to remember that we are only about seven months away from the due date for the completion of President Lahoud’s extended term.  The best final solution may be found in choosing a unifying successor that can be agreed upon by both the parliamentary majority and minority. Or at least the choice of an appropriate successor should allow formation of a parliamentary super majority constituted by deputies from both camps, which will allow a smooth constitutional presidential election.  The sequence of difficulties that emerged following the exit of the Syrian forces, has allowed the emergence of impressive potential candidates with remarkable security or economic qualifications as well as a few politicians who have demonstrated some potential for building bridges. Several of those are also amicable and acceptable to key players in the East and the West.

During the episode of dialogue, unfortunately stubborn polarization and fixation blocked the resolution of the presidential issue.  Yet in Lebanon both traditionally and constitutionally the presidency is the post where most solutions of the complex problems, enumerated above, can be developed and enforced or at least initiated or facilitated. The partial delegitimization of President Lahoud internally and internationally is in itself a significant factor in perpetuating the current standoff.

The smart consensual choice of the next Lebanese President may be the best catalyst for finding unifying solutions to most, if not all the current problems. In fact this would be the exact role that the Lebanese constitution ascribes to the Presidency since the Taef accord. If whatever secret or open negotiations, that may be in progress succeed, the current standoff may be defused sooner rather than later. President Lahoud said at one point, when the dialogue was in progress, that he would be ready to step down, if a consensus candidate could be agreed upon. He may still be willing to honor such statement or may not have much choice to back away from it.

We wish to remind everyone involved that Lebanon is a consensual democracy. Thus consensus should always be sought to solve the vital problems that the country is confronting.  Most of us in the expatriate community may have more freedom and independence to work with all decision makers on the Lebanese scene, towards achieving potential unifying solutions that would put the country on a path of peace, stability and prosperity.  We hear of some laudable low key efforts by credible players on the Lebanese scene and we stand ready to support and facilitate these efforts, if they truly exist. We will be happy to use any access we may have to secure US support or at least non-obstruction, if necessary. We will also use whatever friendship or access some of us may have in the region towards success of such goals. The important point is to think out a fair and balanced Lebanese generated solution and we sincerely hope internal and external support will follow. We are hereby respectfully proposing a reasonable and equitable multifaceted solution, inspired by a thorough and honest analysis of the factors underlying the current Lebanese standoff. We sincerely hope we are at least starting a discussion among the Diaspora that will promptly progress into a real solution on Lebanese soil.


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