Category Archives: Middle East and North Africa

We Are With You Forever: Lebanon Wants its Prime Minister Back

By Nick Lobo

On November 22, Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut after more than two weeks, having hastily tendered his resignation from the Saudi capital at the beginning of the month—a move widely understood to better reflect the will of Riyadh than that of Hariri himself. The prime minister returned to a country whose chronically volatile political order had just flirted with disaster. Certainly, the prospect of a head of government being strong-armed by one of his country’s larger, more aggressive allies would be cause for concern anywhere in the world. Lebanon’s is an especially precarious case made significantly more complicated by internal actors and interests just as much as by its powerful neighbors, who have historically played an inordinate role in shaping the country’s development. Thus, any analysis of the current crisis must be firmly rooted in a clear understanding of this cast of characters, comprising the domestic and the foreign alike. Still, the question on the mind of anyone intently watching the situation unfold remains brutally simple: is Lebanon headed for another war?

In Hariri’s resignation speech given in Riyadh, where he remained for nearly three weeks, the premier castigated Hezbollah for contributing to the country’s deeply fractured political state, going so far as to refer to it as “the arm of Iran.” Notably, Hariri also cited threats against his life as a major impetus for his resignation and mentioned an atmosphere in Lebanon resembling that of early 2005, when his father, former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, was assassinated in a tragic car bombing widely attributed to Hezbollah. However, the Lebanese army put forth a statement following Hariri’s speech announcing that no assassination threats had been discovered in its investigations, raising suspicion about the veracity of the premier’s stated concerns. The questionable circumstances of Hariri’s stay in Riyadh had few Lebanese, especially within Hariri’s Sunni base, convinced that he was acting of his own free will. President Michel ‘Aoun, a Maronite Christian and long-time ally of Hezbollah, wasted no time in declaring that Hariri is a “hostage” of the Saudi regime and that he will not accept the prime minister’s resignation until it is delivered in person.

Hariri’s lengthy November 12 interview with Paula Yacoubian of Future TV did little to dispel these suspicions; Yacoubian, who went to great lengths during the interview to prove that it had not been pre-recorded or otherwise staged, remarked that she was unable to convince anyone that the premier is not a prisoner in the Saudi capital. Hariri’s stressed and erratic demeanor throughout the recording served only to further affirm this assumption.

Hezbollah, meaning “party of God” in Arabic, has wielded significant military power and enjoyed the backing of wide popular support in Lebanon since its emergence during the country’s bloody civil war in the 1980s as an aggregation of Shi’a groups loyal to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah’s genesis certainly owes to a complex blend of local and international factors, but the Islamic Republic’s role in the group’s formation and its historic support for and coordination with its efforts is notable. The 1989 Ta’if Agreement, brokered in Saudi Arabia, brought the war to an end and disarmed the country’s various militant groups. Hezbollah was allowed to remain the country’s only armed sectarian militia thereafter, labeled as “Islamic resistance” to the ongoing occupation. It is this historical reality that placed Hezbollah at the helm of Lebanese politics. Hezbollah relies extensively on foreign support, chiefly from Iran—it continues to receive the financial patronage of the Islamic Republic to the tune of $800 million in recent years according to some estimates, although the exact amount is impossible to know.

The group, now an institutionalized political entity, commands a larger fighting force than the Lebanese military and has served as a steadfast patron of Bashar al-Asad’s regime since 2013. Although the group continues to command loyal bases of support among Shi’i communities, within Lebanon and across the region, it has been the target of increased criticism and scrutiny for its use of violence, most recently by the Arab League which formally declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization on November 19.

Saudi Arabia has long been intent on limiting Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The two countries have been staunch adversaries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 deposed the shah’s regime and established a Shi’a theocracy in its place. These diametrically-opposed regional powers exist in a chronic proxy conflict, often described as a cold war, fought across several theaters: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, and now the situation in Lebanon are prime examples of how this bad blood has manifested in significant and tragic ways across the region—particularly for the smaller, less powerful states that wind up caught in the sectarian crossfire. The recent Lebanese political turmoil also started in the wake of Saudi forces intercepting a missile fired at Riyadh from the Iranian- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Kingdom and its coalition have for years been deeply invested in upholding the besieged government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

There’s nothing new about this deep-seated regional rivalry per se, but the crisis in Lebanon can also be attributed, in many ways, to the personal ambitions of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who recently caught the world’s attention with his ostensible anti-corruption purge of nearly 500 princes, ministers and businessmen. In addition to the prince’s efforts to consolidate his power domestically, as represented by this purge, bin Salman has sought to rein in his regional allies as well. Hariri, who stands at the helm of a government that not only allows but directly includes Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-allied force ideologically and strategically hostile to Saudi interests, became a liability in bin Salman’s calculus of regional politics. It is also likely that Hariri’s lukewarm popularity before his resignation and his lack of a strong mandate over his Sunni base—portraying the premier as failing to fill the shoes of his immensely popular father and predecessor—motivated bin Salman’s desire to bring about a restructuring of Lebanon’s government.

Compelling, though still technically unconfirmed, evidence suggests that bin Salman pressured Hariri to resign the premiership in order to mitigate the risks he envisioned. By most accounts, bin Salman’s gambit appears to have failed. The most direct support for this conclusion is that Hariri suspended his resignation upon his return to Beirut. Moreover, Hariri’s apparent detention in Saudi Arabia has given rise to a significant jump in his popular backing, rallying the Lebanese people around slogans like “We are all Saad” and “We want our PM back” and inspiring demonstrations. Although it remains to be seen whether this outpouring of support will result in a much-needed parliamentary victory for Hariri and his al-Mustaqbal (Arabic for “Future”) party next May, the popular backlash against Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs severely undercuts bin Salman’s bid to keep Lebanon in line and has denied the Gulf power a clear “win” against Hezbollah and Iran. The conditions of Hariri’s long-awaited return to his country and office suggest that Lebanon is unlikely to collapse into total disaster in the near future. Nevertheless, the crisis has shown that the country’s fragile political order remains deeply susceptible to the whims of foreign powers.

Featured Image from The Christian Science Monitor

The Two State Solution is Dead: Time for New Perspectives on Israel/Palestine

By Aman Madan

Israel posses an irrevocable right to exist. It possess this right—a right denied to the region’s indigenous peoples—not out of any legitimate grievances, but because of a persistent co-optation of colonial powers on the part of Herzl, the Jewish National Fund, and the World Jewish Congress. Israel exists today as a direct consequence of what can broadly be described as the Zionist project and the force of Western powers against the Arab peoples. It’s consistent denial of rights to Israeli Arabs, Palestinians in the West Bank, and seemingly unstoppable settlement projects have all contributed to a slow but steady consolidation of Israeli authority in the region. From a Weberian perspective, states exist once they have monopolized control over the legitimate use of violence. Israel has achieved exactly this, and therefore the world, because it has stopped caring, trying, or some mixture of the two, has allowed Israel the dignity of a modern nation-state.

 

Without delving into a deeply complex history—one which illicits deep passion on both sides of the debate—the question of Israel, its status as a Jewish and democratic state, and whether or not it has a moral legitimacy [not one achieved through violence or colonialism] have resurfaced in contemporary discourse. Much of this can be attributed to a newly inaugurated American administration whose views on the regional conflict have departed from long held US policy. For the first time in US politics, an American president, standing side by side with Israeli Prime Minister, claimed that the United States would prefer a peace deal desired by both parties—whether that be a single state or multiple states. The statement incited anger and shock throughout the Middle East, not because the statement itself was controversial, but because, once contextualized, appeared to be highly biased toward the Israeli state—particularly given Mr. Trump’s warm relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Many news reports, particularly throughout the Arab World, categorized Mr. Trump’s departure from a forceful defense of a two-state solution—common US policy regardless of partisan leanings—as a tacit endorsement of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ultimate goal of annexation of the West Bank.

 

While his implication that “suddenly the long-proposed solution of two states did not really matter,” seemed to be a direct affront to the Palestinian cause, a one state solution might be a much needed change in the direction of resolving the conflict. For decades, the premise of the two state solution—the ultimate goal of a sovereign Palestinian state—has locked the Middle East into a perpetual state of inaction and at the least, external belligerency; many states have for years pursued a quiet relationship with Israel, but have done so at the expense of popular domestic support, where support for Israel still remains dreadfully low.

 

Israel is here to stay. To not acknowledge this gruesome reality is to either be wholly naive or ideologically pure—both are ironically counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. While the suggestion of a singular Israeli state appears radical—particularly in Lebanon from where I pen this piece—“it is simply the recognition of the uncomfortable reality that Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories already function as a single state.” According to Michael Tarazi, both territories share the same road systems, the same water supply, and even the same international borders. As a former advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization, he contends that the parallel reality of the interconnectedness and the simultaneous marginalization of the Palestinian population can cease with the emergence of a one state solution. The Palestinians should now push for a binational state with equal rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated an inclination toward this idea, arguing for a “state-minus” status for the West Bank. For the first time, a majority of Palestinians do not support the two state solution. In fact, 56% of Palestinians no longer view an independent Palestinian state as a viable future outcome. With thousands of new Israeli settlements already constructed in the West Bank and a new Israeli law allowing for a retroactive legalization of illegally seized Palestinian land, many Palestinians have warmed to the prospect of full integration into a binational state. Perhaps more importantly, with the increasing popularity of the Israeli right—the likes of Naftali Bennet who argue for a full annexation—many Palestinians are fearful that such a move may necessitate a complete removal from their land. With that nightmarish option looming as not-too-unlikely possibility, full integration and co-equal citizenship carry with it a certain appeal previously not associated with the idea.

 

Mr. Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, argues that such an idea would only be a legitimate alternative if the entirety of the Palestinian population was given the vote. Full Palestinian integration comes at a significant cost. It “means that Jewish democracy in the land of Palestine is not possible.” With a full annexation of Area A, B, and C, Israel will gain approximately three million Palestinians, meaning that Israel will be unable to retain the Jewish character of its state, undoubtedly inciting serious questions of Jewish and Israeli identity. If Netanyahu and his coalition ultimately seek a singular state, they must determine the essence of the state they seek—not an easy task given the heightened partisan divide within Israeli politics. Certainly, it is not out of the question that Israel allows for an integration of Palestinians, but refuses equal rights to the new population. Israeli Jews will certainly resist ceding rights perceived to be exclusive theirs, deepening an apartheid state—which to be frank, is already manifesting itself in the West Bank. The onus then, should be on international intermediaries, particularly Mr. Trump who has now “opened the door to this conversation.” It is unlikely that Mr. Trump sides with the Palestinians, eyeing an Israeli domination of the ‘peace process’ as a relatively simplistic way to ‘finally’ end this decade long conflict. Mr. Trump has always had an affinity for reductionist approaches, particularly in the foreign policy realm. We should not expect any significant deviation from this approach in regard to this conflict.

 

The two state solution is now inviable. To remain in pursuit of this objective does not positively contribute to the ‘Middle East Peace Process.’ If Jared Kushner—Mr. Trump’s appointed intermediary between Israelis and Palestinians and his son-in-law—seeks a sustained peace in the region, he must acknowledge that a singular state with equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis is the only way to effectively resolve this conflict. In the words of Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, “we’ve left the two-state solution long behind. God forbid we leave the one-state behind, too.”