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October 12, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8962

Lebanese Journalists: Lebanon Must Advance Towards Peace With Israel

October 12, 2020
Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 8962

In two recent articles on Saudi media, Lebanese journalists urged their country to follow the example of the UAE and Bahrain and advance towards peace with Israel. Shi'ite Lebanese journalist Nadim Koteich addressed this issue in a column titled "When Will There Be Peace between Israel and Lebanon"? in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. In the column, published on September 15, the day of the signing of the peace agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, he wrote that the only thing preventing peace between Lebanon and Israel is Hizbullah, which has taken over Lebanon's decision-making, and whose survival depends on perpetuating the conflict with Israel. He then reviewed the alleged points of contention between Israel and Lebanon, and argued that none of them are real problems that cannot be resolved. This includes, for example, the issue of the Shab'a Farms, a small disputed area on the Israel-Lebanon border. Koteich stated that this issue once served as a pretext for preserving Syria's military presence in Lebanon, and today it serves as a pretext for preserving Hizbullah's weapons. He concluded by saying that "attaining peace today is better than attaining it later."[1]

Writing on the English-language website of the Saudi Al-Arabiya network, Lebanese journalist and researcher Makram Rabah focused on the economic losses that may be inflicted on Lebanon by Israel's peace agreement with the UAE.  He wrote that Israel's rapprochement with the Gulf allows it to fill an economic position previously held by Lebanon and the Lebanese: While the Gulf states previously hired Lebanese experts to provide various services, such as help build schools, hospitals and firms, now they may turn to Israelis instead. Hence, he said, it is in Lebanon's interest to rethink its position vis-à-vis Israel and adapt itself to the regional trends. Stating that many Lebanese secretly long for peace with Israel, he concluded that "Beirut’s refusal to readjust its policy toward Israel is neither smart nor constructive, and claiming neutrality while actually serving as a pawn in Iran’s regional strategy is a losing game."

Similar arguments were made by Lebanese politicians and journalists in televised interviews. Former interior minister Sejaan 'Azzi, for example, said that Israel does not pose a threat to Lebanon and that it has never had ambitions to occupy Lebanese territories, and journalist Rami Na'im said that the upcoming negotiations for demarcating the land and maritime borders between the two countries will no doubt lead to eventual normalization between them. 

The following are excerpts from Nadim Koteich's and Makram Rabah's articles, and from the interviews by Sejaan 'Azzi and Rami Nai'm.

Journalist Nadim Koteich: "There Are No Real Problems Between Israel And Lebanon"

Shi'ite Lebanese journalist Nadim Koteich wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "After the UAE's and Bahrain's peace [agreement] with Israel, it seems that, from the perspective of interests, Lebanon should most logically be [the next] country to advance towards a peace agreement [with Israel]. The only thing that prevents this is the takeover of  Lebanon's sovereign decision-making by an ideological group [i.e., Hizbullah] that cannot exist unless the hostility between the two countries continues, and which, without any justification, has undertaken the task of liberating Jerusalem and ending Israel's [existence]!

"What is the problem between Lebanon and Israel? No Lebanese politician can provide a clear and practical answer to this [question], except by sowing fear about the naturalization [of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, an issue] I will return to below. When, following the agreement between the UAE and Israel, the President of the [Lebanese] Republic, Michel 'Aoun, was asked about the prospects of peace between Lebanon and Israel, he gave a general answer, mentioning 'problems' between the two countries that had to be resolved before peace could be contemplated. His [general] answer does not reflect any lack of patriotism on his part… The reason for it is that there are no real problems between Israel and Lebanon, [at least not] the kind of problems that are recognized by the world, in foreign relations or in international law.

"After all, the [Israeli] occupation [of South Lebanon] ended in 2000 and could have ended much earlier, had Lebanon been better able to pursue its interests without considering the Syrian, and later the Iranian, agendas. More than that, the occupation may never have happened at all if Lebanon had maintained its neutrality towards the armed struggle against Israel, as it did in 1967, thanks to the brilliant maneuvering of its late foreign minister Fouad Boutrus and the pragmatic national [approach] of its president [at the time], Charles Helou.

"As for the ideologists -- whether they be the old leftist groups that helped destroy Beirut in order to defend Jerusalem and handed Beirut over to Yasser Arafat… or the Iranian Hizbullah militia -- their answers [to the question about] the problem between Lebanon and Israel veer between the ideological [level] and the hidden one. You will hear them [talking about] the 'Israeli ambitions,' and ask yourself what yardstick can be used to measure these ambitions and monitor their ebb and flow, so as to help the decision-maker choose between escalation [vis-à-vis Israel] and a settlement [with it]. The term 'ambitions' is only a pretext for perpetuating the conflict [with Israel] that benefits these groups – either ideologically, by [allowing them] to expand their presence and the presence of the regional forces that represent them, or practically, by bolstering their status and influence within the Lebanese political arena and beyond it.  

"The term 'ambitions' is tragicomical, especially the obsolete talk about Israel's ambitions regarding the waters of the Litani [river], which have turned into sewage under the oversight of the municipalities [loyal to] the resistance [i.e., Hizbullah], especially in the Beqa Valley…  

"As for [Israel's] ambitions regarding gas and oil in Lebanon's territorial waters, these are 'standard' ambitions [that can arise] between any two neighboring countries,  and can be handled according to international law, by the private companies that wish to drill, dig and produce [oil and gas]. In the case of the Lebanese and Israeli governments, [this issue can be brokered] by the UN, France, or by some other third party. Not to mention the fact that the area disputed between Lebanon and Israel is the result of a technical mapping error on Lebanon's part!!

"Two objective issues remain, namely the occupation of the Shab'a Farms, which were 'discovered' after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and the issue of [naturalizing] the Palestinian [refugees in Lebanon], whose number does not exceed 174,000, according to the General Census of [Refugee] Camp Residents And Palestinian Population Centers [in Lebanon], conducted in 2017 by the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee in collaboration with the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.[2]

"A close look at the outcomes of the campaign against the naturalization [of these refugees] will alarm you, for the [Lebanese] Christians' historical demographic fears [i.e., their concern that naturalizing the Palestinian refugees, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, will tip the demographic balance in favor of the Muslims at the expense of the Christians],  drove the Christian parties to enter into wars that caused the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Christians. [These wars thus] caused the very demographic imbalance that [the Christians] feared, and even perpetuated this imbalance by precipitating the latest wave of Christian emigration to Canada, Australia, America, France and elsewhere.  Later, the Shi'ite sector inherited this fear, and now its members are completing the self-destruction policy of the state, the regime, the resources and the [state] institutions – so much so that all the Lebanese are [now] talking about emigrating [from Lebanon], at least as much as the Palestinians are talking about it, especially after the explosion in Beirut [port]. Why should the Palestinians [in Lebanon] agree to receive [Lebanese] citizenship when the Lebanese themselves are looking for alternatives[?]!!     

"The issue of the Shab'a Farms can be summarized by saying that their status is uncertain, [in terms of who has] sovereignty over them… The reason for this uncertainty is Syria's persistent refusal to present any documents proving Lebanon's ownership of the Shab'a Farms, which were under Syrian management from the time of Syria's independence until 1967. [Moreover,] Syria forcibly prevented Lebanon from establishing any sign of sovereignty over them, for instance by setting up guard posts or a customs station on the border. The farms then served as a pretext for keeping  the Syrian army in Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal, [and after this  withdrawal] prompted the Lebanese to demand the similar withdrawal of Assad's army [from Lebanon]… Later, the farms became a pretext for preserving Hizbullah's weapons. They were also the only area where Hizbullah could still wage armed action [against Israel], albeit sporadically, after [the UN passed] Resolution 1701 and after the Lebanese army and increased UNIFIL forces deployed along the border against Hizbullah's wishes at the time! 

"The farms, whose area is no more than 24 square kilometers, have since become a junction… that encapsulates many of the geopolitical struggles in the region!... The Lebanese must capitalize on the momentum of the new peace [agreements] in the region by demanding that the issue of the [Shab'a] Farms be included in the agendas of the Emirati and Bahraini  governments, as part of the price of peace in the region, just as the suspension of the annexation of the Jordan Valley was one of the prices exacted [from Israel] by the UAE.

"The leaders of the Gulf peace plan want the outcomes of this plan to transcend the borders of the UAE and Bahrain, so as to promote a new Arab awareness and thinking that sees the problems and proposes solutions, transcending the old mechanisms and the phony Iranian monopoly over the issue of liberation and restoration of land… Attaining peace today is better than attaining it later. As for those who wish to frighten the Lebanese by saying that Israel wants to destroy Lebanon,   they should pause for a moment and ask [themselves]: What Israeli war and what Israeli gear can destroy Beirut within seconds, like the great explosion at the port did[?]"[3]

Former Minister Sejaan 'Azzi: Israel No Longer Represents A Threat To Lebanon

Former Lebanese minister Sejaan 'Azzi spoke in a similar vein in a September 3, 2020 interview on the Lebanese NBN channel. He said that Israel no longer presents an imminent threat to Lebanon and has, in fact, never had any intention of occupying or annexing Lebanese land, and that it only invaded Lebanon because of the Palestinians. He added that Israel's peace agreement with the UAE is an indication that it must also want to make peace with its neighbors Lebanon and Syria, and that Lebanon cannot not live in a state of constant war.

For excerpts from the interview, click here or below:

Journalist Makram Rabah: The Failure To Adapt To The Peace Deals In The Region Puts Lebanon At A Disadvantage

Lebanese journalist Makram Rabah wrote om the English-language website of the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel: "Lebanon for a long time has been a victim of its lack of foresight and proper positioning vis-a-vis many of the problems of the region, mainly the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The recent peace deals that the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain signed with Israel are a sober reminder to the Lebanese that their country is stuck in a political twilight zone with no recourse to examine nor engage in any discussion that could help Lebanon reposition itself once again as an attractive regional partner…

"While the Lebanese might be too shy – or perhaps afraid – to say it, such a peace deal with Israel is something some secretly covet. This yearning for peace in Lebanon in any form is not an indicator of lack of empathy with the Palestinians and their righteous cause, but rather stems from a deep feeling that their small country has suffered enough and has also gone beyond the call of duty and has contributed its fair share in the ongoing conflict.

"Realistically, however, Lebanon’s abysmal political and economic condition mean that imagining what such a peace would look like is a futile exercise.

"Today, the Lebanese state is weak and on the verge of collapse. Where any decision to pursue peace, or even war, requires total sovereignty and proper statehood, Lebanon lacks the status and ability to pursue either.

Above all, perhaps the main obstacle to beginning such a discussion is the presence of Iran-backed Hizbullah where Iran views Lebanon as a forward base in its own war with Israel. Thus, any debate or talk of pursuing peace might prompt a violent reaction from Hizbullah and its patron.

"It is concerning that in the Middle East where the views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are changing rapidly and countries have shifted away from viewing the conflict in the traditional framework, Lebanon refuses to reexamine its regional role.

"Lebanon has always defined itself as a bridge between East and West and as a melting pot for multi-culturalism and diversity – and more importantly as an educational, medical and business hub for the region. But now, Lebanon has lost its edge in many of these fields as the economy continues to crumble. And now, as Arab Gulf states increasingly recognize Israel, Lebanon will further slip into the background. Where Arab Gulf states have looked toward Lebanon for services it previously had no direct access to, or hired Lebanese to establish homegrown entities – such as schools, hospitals and firms – in the Arab Gulf states, those same countries may now pivot to Israel.

"Lebanon can no longer rely on fraternal Arab ties to bring in business. Israel has the competitive advantage over Lebanon in many fields, and Beirut must position itself to still be in the favor of the Arab Gulf states who have clearly decided to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a thing of the past.

"Back in the 1950s, Lebanon could have claimed to have an edge over Israel in the fields of education and financial services, and the vibrant Beirut port could act as a hub for the Arab states, but now this is no longer the case. The once strategic Beirut port is now destroyed or no longer strategic, and now the ports of Dubai and Haifa have a clear advantage in the field. Israel will now have access to the important free zone in Jabal Ali, which will ease its access to the Asian markets and make trade cheaper.

"Perhaps the most pressing matter Lebanon must address is that there are 350,000 Lebanese working in the UAE and Bahrain who now will have to compete with Israeli talent that will now be welcome in the Gulf.

"According to Lebanese law, Lebanese nationals are prohibited from interacting with Israelis in any capacity. For Lebanese working in the Gulf, they could face legal repercussions for simply working at the same firm alongside Israelis. Furthermore, given that these firms in the Gulf will also have to normalize ties with Israel, any failure of current staff to also normalize professional interpersonal relations could reflect badly on their status within the company, potentially even leading to their termination. In the IT and the medical tourism sector alone, Israel has a clear advantage over Lebanon, and with the UAE and the Bahrain market open to them, they will certainly not hold back.

"Lebanon now stands at a crossroad. It must find a way to adapt to this rapid regional transformation or Lebanon will be rendered inconsequential. It is one thing for Lebanon to refuse to ride the normalization train; but it is another to refuse to jump off the train that Iran and Hizbullah are driving, bringing Lebanon further into oblivion. Beirut’s refusal to readjust its policy toward Israel is neither smart nor constructive, and claiming neutrality while actually serving as a pawn in Iran’s regional strategy is a losing game."[4]

Lebanese Journalist Rami Na'im: Peace with Israel Is Coming No Matter What; Normalization Started When Speaker Berri Announced Border Negotiations

Lebanese journalist Rami Na'im said in an October 2, 2020 interview that Lebanon's recent agreement to border negotiations with Israel, mediated by the U.S., is a sign that his country will eventually normalize relations with Israel. He added that the fact the Parliament Speaker Berri, who represents the Shiites in government, is a party to these negotiations means that Lebanon has recognized the existence of the State of Israel and that it is no longer conducting an "existential struggle" against Israel; rather, the struggle has now become limited to border demarcations. Na'im stated further that these negotiations spell the end of the resistance against Israel and that peace is coming, even if Lebanon will be the last country to sign a peace agreement with Israel.

For excerpts from the interview, click here or below:

 

[1] It should be noted that, on October 6, 2020, following the announcement of Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri that a framework had been agreed upon to begin talks with Israel on the demarcation of the land and maritime border between the two countries, Koteich published another article, titled "Once Again, When Will There Be Peace Between Israel and Lebanon?" In it, he repeated the claim that there are few operative issues preventing a peace agreement between the two countries, and added that peace is possible and is in fact "the only reasonable option." At the same time, he questioned the sincerity of Berri's and Hizbullah's willingness to reach an agreement with Israel on border demarcation, and stated that this requires first of all extending the truce agreement between Lebanon and Israel and having the Lebanese government ratify it. He especially stressed the need to mark the border in the Shab'a Farms area, in order to end the practice of using this issue as a pretext for preserving Hizbullah's weapons. (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, October 6, 2010). 

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 15, 2020.

[4] English.alarabiya.net, September 29, 2020.

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