Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 December 2009
Issue No. 977
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Washington's new Lebanon policy

Open to all but Hizbullah and its sympathisers, Washington policy is leaving US officials in Lebanon with very few Lebanese counterparts to talk with, writes Franklin Lamb in Beirut

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"There is no obstacle to cooperation with any official in the new Lebanese unity government, with the exception of Hizbullah" -- Nicole Shampaine, US State Department, Near East Affairs Bureau Office for Egypt and the Levant, 2009.

Beirut: Lebanon's first Sunday morning in December was cold, cloudy and rainy as this politically exhausted country's new prime minister, Saad Al-Hariri, donned a gray tracksuit with matching Nike running shoes and joined hundreds of pro- Hizbullah runners, two dreamy Jordanian princesses and 33,000 others from 73 countries, as well as all 18 Lebanese confessions, for the annual "Friendship first, competition second," 42-kilometre Beirut Marathon. Despite the weather, the atmosphere was warm as Christmas decorations were being hung with care across Lebanon in Christian, Shia, Sunni and Druze neighbourhoods. Saad, telling race watchers on the sidewalks, "I know I won't win but I want to participate anyway. We have to bring Lebanese together, and sport is a very important event that can bring them together," passed on the 42-kilometre course in favour of the 10-kilometre event. But then how many politicians anywhere, used to the good life, can even run two kilometres these days?

To many Lebanese, their new prime minister's openness and sports ethic symbolises a new and promising atmosphere at Lebanon's Grand Serail, also known as Government Palace, the headquarters of the prime minister located a few blocks from parliament. A positive and welcomed change from the tensions of the 2006-2007 "tent city" days in Riad Solh Square when the opposition and the Bush administration backed Fouad Al-Siniora government faced each other for more than a year, separated by the Lebanese army, the former glaring up at their adversaries from scores of tents and the latter peeking down from behind pulled back office curtains.

At least in press releases and during TV interviews, Lebanon's political factions appear more willing and able to work together than has been the case for decades, seasoned analysts report. The deputies and cabinet members in Lebanon's new unity government are about to get to work with the people of Lebanon and her friends wishing them well. The intensely political and anti- resistance Maronite Patriach Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who declined an invitation to participate in the marathon, did use his pulpit at early mass to "Thank God almighty the atmosphere in Lebanon is tilted towards understanding between the feuding parties. We hope this spirit of understanding will continue and political leaders will pay attention to the poor."

Meanwhile, Ali Fayyad, a charismatic Hizbullah member of parliament, expressed his party's "excitement and intention to work with all parties to improve the lives of all Lebanese." Even more encouraging to many Lebanese, but upsetting to some in Washington and Tel Aviv, is that Saad Al-Hariri's US-Saudi backed Al-Mustaqbal (Future) bloc (March 14) held a meeting at Al-Hariri's downtown Beirut Centre House 4 December and emphatically committed the party to "making the citizens' priorities the priorities of the national unity cabinet." The bloc also aligned itself to "the political, economic and social aspects of the ministerial policy statement". This puts the March 14 coalition in close conformity with much of Hizbullah's new political manifesto. "There now appear to be the votes in parliament to make some real changes around here," my motorcycle mechanic told me.

Europe is expressing its support for Lebanon's unity government, as is Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the whole region. Plus UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and virtually all the international community with two exceptions -- the governments of Israel and the United States -- support the same.

For its part, Israel predictably served up its usual fare of dire threats since the new cabinet's policy statement was issued recognising the necessity of Hizbullah's arms as a deterrent against Israeli attacks on Lebanon. Through its lobby outlets, Israel has been threatening that "the adoption of the resistance scheme by the Lebanese government and the major influence of Hizbullah in the Lebanese political scene means that Lebanon has declared that it is responsible for any attack by Hizbullah, and that acting against Lebanon will be easier for the army to win a battle against a state than to win it against a terrorist organisation."

On 2 December, Israel's former deputy leader of the Israeli internal front during the July 2006 war, Ayal Ben Raufen, warned during an Israel Army Radio interview that "the Lebanese government gave legitimacy for the dangerous increase of Hizbullah's political power and in case of war, Israel now has a clear address: Lebanon."

Perhaps Ben Raufen had not been advised by the much ballyhooed International Law Unit attached to Israeli army brigades whose job is to make sure all Israeli military attacks continue to be perfectly legal -- as in Jenin, Lebanon and Gaza -- that the drumbeat of threats that he and other Israeli officials have been making against Lebanon are outlawed by Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter which provides: "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."

Washington's reaction to date has come mainly from two sources. The first and most predictable was an AIPAC (American Israel Political Affairs Committee) drafted letter sent out by 31 of Israel's agents on the house side of the US Congress. The members forwarded the particularly obtuse and nearly incomprehensible letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the Obama administration to work towards disarming Hizbullah by threatening the budgets of UNIFIL and Lebanon.

It reads, in part: "In light of the clear violations of UN Security Council resolutions, we ask what actions the administration is taking to ensure the UN addresses these violations." Presumably the reference is to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701 which, according to the arithmetic contained in the seven UN Reports on UNSCR 1701 compliance, Israel has violated more than 1,600 times including near daily violations of Lebanese sovereignty, with cross border troop incursions and Lebanese airspace and territorial water penetrations. If members had in mind UNSCR 425, unanimously passed in 1978, demanding that "Israel immediately withdraw from all Lebanese territory," it is true that that resolution has still not been complied with as Israeli troops still occupy Lebanese territory, and it is doubtful that AIPAC's language of "we ask what actions the administration is taking to ensure the UN addresses these violations" is meant to apply to Israeli forces occupying the Lebanese territory of Ghajar, Kfar Khouba and Shebaa Farms.

The letter, introduced by career Israeli legmen Mark Kirk and Steve Israel also informs the White House that "We must seek to support stronger multilateral efforts to disarm Hizbullah and clear southern Lebanon of Iranian weapons," despite the fact that international lawyers at the US Library of Congress Research Service (CRS) recognise that the new Lebanese government's acceptance of the resistance's arms moots certain provisions of UNSCR 1701 and 1559. Some lawyers and scholars at the CRS have argued recently that the arms arrangements of Lebanon's unity government constitute a legitimate exercise of Lebanon's right to self-defence and deterrent requirements, especially given six decades of Israeli attacks. Moreover, as they have pointed out, Lebanon has every right to receive assistance from Iran and any other country. No doubt this subject will be raised when Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, visits President Obama on 14 December.

Another reaction from Washington immediately followed Hassan Nasrallah's pledge of Hizbullah cooperation with the new unity government as part of the party's new political manifesto. Nicole Shampaine, appointed last year by the Bush administration as the director of the State Department's Near East Affairs Bureau Office for Egypt and the Levant, weighed in. She was not happy and announced that the US would cooperate with the Lebanese government but not with Hizbullah cabinet ministers. "There is no obstacle to cooperation with any official in the Lebanese government with the exception of Hizbullah," Shampaine said in an interview with the Beirut daily As-Safir.

Shampaine emphasised two problems. "One is that the Hizbullah declaration puts a higher priority on the issue of an Islamic state in Lebanon." Secondly, Hizbullah's new political manifesto, she said, was "more an attempt to show force in the face of the United States and Israel." Shampaine's analysis left some in Lebanon scratching their heads. Had she even read the document? Or was she confusing it with the 1985 "Open letter" that did mention the ideal of an Islamic republic? Neither the manifesto nor Nasrallah made any mention of an Islamic republic of Lebanon. What was she talking about?

The 32-page Hizbullah document focuses on the unity government and Hizbullah's social programmes to develop a balanced economy across Lebanon's regions based on improving production, providing appropriate services to citizens, including education, healthcare and housing, and poverty reduction. Nothing about an Islamic republic. The idea of an Islamic republic is presumably one of the last subjects Hizbullah wants to talk about these days.

The one positive comment about US policy Shampaine offered was Washington's support for Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri's unity government, the main pillar of which is Hizbullah and its political allies in parliament and the cabinet. Washington trusts Al-Hariri and will follow his lead. Some Beirut analysts are wondering what happens when Al-Hariri hosts US officials with Hizbullah or pro-Hizbullah cabinet ministers, or meetings at which Hizbullah's parliamentary delegates are present and required.

"Our hands are tied. Nicole [Shampaine] put us in one hell of a bind!" reported one Beirut US Embassy political staffer on 4 December. "We have the names of 128 members of parliament and 30 cabinet ministers and we will have to advise the ambassador and visiting officials who they can and can't meet with or even talk to? Who supports Hizbullah and who does not; who is an outed or closet Hizbullah supporter and who it not? My job reminds me of the dilemma of Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 Jocabellis case when the Supreme Court tried to define what is and is not hardcore pornography and the frustrated judge just shrugged and explained 'it's hard to define but I know it when I see it'. So I am to go through these names, bios and photos and know a Hizbullah supporter when I see one."

In the spirit of giving this holiday season, some Beirut-based Americans offer the following counsel to assist the US Embassy's "We'll know 'em when we see 'em" project. It is meant to aid and assist the current US policy of sniffing out contraband members of Lebanon's new cabinet.

First the easy cases: if the US government should discover its Beirut Embassy or any visiting American officials have a reason to discuss any aspect of foreign affairs with Lebanon, forget about it! Lebanon's new unity government foreign minister is none other than the esteemed former professor from the Lebanese University, Ali Shami. He's a pro-Hizbullah Shia and Amal Movement member. No way can American officials talk or meet with Shami. Maybe the Swiss will do it for us.

Concerning any issues having to do with the unity government cabinet post of state, which deals with issues of administrative reform which the White House has expressed interest in, don't even think about discussing them. The new cabinet minister is the much-respected Mohamed Fneish. He has a terrible record of being elected to parliament on the Hizbullah ticket in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2005. He also served as minister of labour and minister of energy in previous governments. He is one of those hardcore types.

Matters concerning agriculture and USAID projects that ought to be discussed with Lebanon's minister of agriculture? No way! That ministerial seat is held by Hizbullah's Hussein Hajj Hassan who was elected to parliament in 1996, 2000 and 2005 on the Hizbullah slate. Even though Hassan is considered an expert on agriculture, having headed the parliamentary Committee on Agriculture between 2000 and 2005, he cannot under the new US guidelines announced by Shampaine be met or communicated with.

US-Lebanese joint efforts on H1N1 flu, AIDS and all other health issues? Over your dead body, because the new minister of health is none other than Mohamed Jawad Khalifeh, director of the Lebanese Association for Organ Donors and former head of general surgeries at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre. His problem? Khalifeh, a Shia Muslim, is a member of the Amal Movement that is aligned with Hizbullah in the National Lebanese Resistance.

Issues involving the Ministry of Youth and Sports that needs to be discussed? Nope. The new unity government minister is surgeon Ali Abdullah. First, he practices in Rayyak Hospital in the Hizbullah area of the Bekaa and he is Shia. He held the Youth and Sports portfolio since 2003 and while he is independent the US Embassy must not take a chance on him. He obviously has too many of the wrong patients, neighbours and friends, and maybe even relatives.

Slightly more difficult cases requiring intense vetting by the CIA and other security agencies are new unity government ministers Ghazi Aridi (Public Works), Akram Chelayab (Displaced Persons) and Wael Abu Fasour (State). The problem with these three is that they are Druze and all members of Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, and everyone in the State Department knows how that ingrate jumped ship and is now way too cosy with the Hizbullah-led resistance. Surely the US Embassy has read what Jumblatt has been saying about Israel being Lebanon's only enemy, whereas the embassy knows Israel is America's only friend these days. These three are suspect for sure and under the Shampaine Doctrine are best ignored.

There is one minister, Elias El-Murr, who holds the Defence Ministry post, who should pass muster under this season's "anyone but Hizbullah" standard. Murr, the son of Michel, a long time MP, is a Greek Orthodox independent and formerly headed the Interior Ministry. He is not part of the "suspect" Christian bloc headed by Michel Aoun who is allied with Hizbullah. The only problem with holding discussions with the defence minister is that there is not a lot to talk about. Everyone is aware that without a "green light" from Israel very little assistance having to do with military equipment -- boots and shoelaces included -- will be forthcoming from the US military attaché. So in the case of the defence minister it's not who but what that is the problem for US-Lebanese relations.

Of the remaining cabinet members nearly all have been showing signs of being open to dialogue with Hizbullah on the basis of mutual respect, and willingness to solve Lebanon's severe social, political and economic problems. Most have also expressed support for granting civil rights to Palestinian refugees, still waiting to return to their country.

As the twelve days of Christmas rapidly approach, it's not clear exactly who the Obama administration is going to be able to talk to and engage with here in Lebanon. According to one Embassy staffer, "That's what the American taxpayers pay their Beirut Embassy and State Department to figure out."

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