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Lebanon’s Precarious Peace

For those of us who have a low opinion of their politicians, the world-weary editorial in today's Lebanese Daily Star is something of a classic of the genre. "Since Lebanese political parties are built around backward concepts like tribal loyalties and cults of personality," they write,

they don't have policy platforms. This means that when an unqualified minister is appointed, he cannot even fall back on a coherent set of guidelines, making him even more useless than would otherwise be the case. For another, ministries in more advanced societies are stacked with professional civil servants who help limit the damage that can be done when a crook or a dolt is named as their boss.

I love it. Still, for most Lebanese this is no laughing matter. Last month's peace deal in Doha, Qatar, hammered out a fragile coalition deal between Lebanon's patchwork of ethnic and religious minorities, and has widely been seen as a victory for our old friends Hezbollah, who have seen their veto on government policies formalised in the new constitutional arrangements.

US reaction has been lukewarm, to say the least, and Israeli opinion is even more pessimistic. After all, they launched a war against Hezbollah to try and neutralise their power; now the bastards are practically in government. But ordinary Lebanese are, at least for now, hoping that the peace deal can bring some much-needed stability to their country and, crucially, the investment that goes with it.

Anyone who's ever spent time trying to get their heads round the Byzantine power-sharing arrangements of countries like Iraq, Bosnia or Northern Ireland will have a strong sense of déjà vu about the Lebanese deal. Plum jobs, most notably prime minister and speaker of the house, are to be apportioned by faction leaders according to what minority they hail from: Sunni, Shia, Maronites, Druze, Greek Orthodox and Armenians must all be represented. Delicately balanced voting systems, side deals on redrawing the electoral map, compromises on the terrorists’ weapons stockpiles — all the usual ingredients are present and correct.

And sitting there in the opposition is Hezbollah. They've have played a reasonably canny game to get this far; as Thomas Friedman noted in the Times over the weekend, the new deal will allow them power without responsibility, claiming credit for anything positive that comes out of the new government without being blamed for the screw-ups. Indeed, the main opposition party sits in the cabinet while maintaining a private army some 10,000 strong. That must make for some tense budget meetings.

It's not all good news for the Party of God; while their fight against Israel won them plenty of admirers, they've squandered a great deal of that goodwill since, not least following the recent "occupation" of West Beirut and subsequent violence that left dozens of Lebanese dead. But it's no wonder that the US and Israel bite their tongue and swallow, hard. This is not the outcome that they would have wanted, but it may be the best on offer.

The 64,000 lira question, of course, is whether this precarious arrangement will hold. I'm far too wily to offer a firm prediction on that, but you'd have to doubt the bookies are taking too many bets on the national unity government when that quality is so thin on the ground. Already, the process of appointing cabinet members is marked by squabbling and disagreement, as the Daily Star editorial suggested.

The most nervous outside observers, of course, are the Israelis; it's hard to see the ascendancy of Hezbollah as anything other than bad news from their standpoint. There have been signs of progress: the release of deported Lebanese spy Nassim Nasser this weekend coincided with the return by Hezbollah of the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 war, raising suspicions of back-channel negotiations between the two. And if there's one thing worse than a weak and divided government in Beirut it would undoubtedly be its collapse, if the alternative were a Syrian- and Iranian-backed client state with an arsenal of rockets pointed squarely at northern Israel. So Israeli interests are tied in with the success of the new constitutional arrangement, however unfriendly some of its constituents. Either way, the problem is that there's very little Israel can do. Like the US, Israel's hands are tied by the knowledge that any involvement would most likely be counterproductive.

As for Damascus, they are now pursuing a twin-track strategy to maintain their influence in Lebanese politics while seeking to escape sanctions for Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri three years ago. With Hezbollah a powerful voice in the Lebanese cabinet, and Syria suddenly coming to the negotiating table with Israel after years of prevarication, the Syrians are — not for the first time — playing a strong hand well. The Lebanese fear is that any deal between those two will be at their expense, and who can blame them? That beautiful country has been the proxy battleground for others for many years now. I wouldn't begrudge them their current optimism, but it may be a while before Beirut's famous Corniche bustles with tourists as it did before all these horrors descended.

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