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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

May 20, 2005

Lebanon and its message

By Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Lebanon's elections are scheduled to start on May 29, and will continue for the following three Sundays.


Lebanon is estimated to be 95% Arab. In the last election, in 2000, 50% of the electorate voted for Christian parties. How much of the population is Muslim and how much is Christian is unknown. Estimates range from slightly more Christians than Muslims, to 2-1 favoring Muslims. The 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon are not counted as they have no rights and are forbidden to hold citizenship. The last census was taken in 1932.


Lebanese are believed to originate from the ancient Phoenicians. King Solomon, in building the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem approximately 3,000 years ago, purchased timber from Lebanon, according to the Bible (1 Kings 5:30-31).


Later came the Armenians, who spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The Armenians claim to be the first Gentile group to convert as a result of Constantine's conversion in the fourth century; they are still called the Malkites. The word is Semitic and its Hebrew root is the word for king. The Hebrew name for Lebanon is Laban, which also means "white". Laban was Jacob's father-in-law for both of his wives (Leah and Rachel), and he is at times called the Armenian.


More than twice as many Lebanese (7 million) are estimated to live in Brazil as live in Lebanon; the number living in the United States (3 million) is approximately equal to the number living in Lebanon. Most of those living abroad are considered to be exiled Christians. More than 50% of the schools in Lebanon use French as the vernacular language. The codes of the legal system were originally written in French and only translated into Arabic in 1983; most lawyers in court still cite the original French version of the law. Inter-confessional marriages are not sanctioned by the clerics and take place in Cyprus, after which they are recognized by the government. The same is true in Israel.


National holidays include Christian and Islamic New Year's Day, Eastern Christian and Western Christian Good Friday, Easter and Christmas, Ascension Day, All Saints Day, St Marouns Day, Eid al-Fiter (end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Ashoura Day, Eid al-Mawled (the Prophet's Birthday), Al-Isra' Wal-Mi'raj, and, of course, Independence Day.


Perhaps the most-known Arab literary figure, Gibran Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet, was Lebanese.


There are 18 religious and confessional communities in Lebanon. Each group identifies itself first by its ethnic identity and second as Lebanese. Sectarianism is the basis of the Lebanese state. Despite this, Lebanon is the only Arab state that has had a democratic history, when Syria has not interfered. The president and prime minister have changed by election, not by the bullet. Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed. The president is constitutionally a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni, the Speaker of the House a Shi'ite and the deputy Speaker a Druze. The current parliament of 128 members is composed of members from the following groups: 34 Maronite Christians, 27 Sunnis, 27 Shi'ite (11 Hezbollah, four Amal, an unknown number associated with the Lebanese Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah), 14 Greek Orthodox, eight Catholic Orthodox, eight Druze, and the remaining 10 from several smaller parties.


So what will the composition of the parliament be after the May 29 elections? (The French will vote on the European Union constitution that same day.) The assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri has drastically changed political dynamics in Lebanon. Lebanon was once treated by Syria as its surrogate, but its armed forces now have left. What powers Syria still has are unclear.


Hezbollah, Lebanon's most important political faction, demonstrated its power in March by having half a million persons march in Martyrs' Square, the center of Beirut (Hezbollah's territory is southern Beirut). At the demonstrations, Hezbollah flew the Lebanese national flag, not its own flag; that was presumably very significant as to its intentions (see Hezbollah enters the fray, March 10, 2005). The next week the opposition held its own large demonstration. Young people were the strength of this and continuing protests; they represent 20% of the population and have never voted before. Will they follow their fathers in the upcoming elections?


Hezbollah has improved its electoral power in municipal elections in the past two years. Will it receive more parliamentary seats than it has at present? If so, at whose expense? Perhaps Amal's or other Shi'ite parties, though not likely other communal groups.


The Lebanese opposition to Syria expects to win the elections. Who is this opposition to the former pro-Syrian community: the Maronite Christians, the Greek and Catholic Christians and the Sunnis. Will the Christian groups combine with the Sunnis to form the next coalition government?


The election law was allegedly written by pro-Syrian legislators and approved by pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. The League of Maronite Christian Bishops has already complained that the election is rigged, before it has even begun. Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former premier, with no political experience, has announced he will form his own political party.


General Michel Aoun, a Maronite leader and former prime minister, left Lebanon 15 years ago and lived in exile in France. He was opposed to the Syrian occupation and returned on May 7 (see Michel Aoun comes home to roost, May 13). His old friends and enemies are still in Lebanon. He has met with Hezbollah leaders and is already being talked about as the next president. His friends will no doubt soon compare him to Charles de Gaulle, his enemies to Napoleon.


'Not a nation, but a message'

A key to understanding Lebanon is the civil war that began on April 13, 1975, between the Lebanese Christians and the Lebanese Muslims allied with the Palestinians. The Israeli invasion in 1982 (a mistake in this writer's opinion) was the result of this civil war. Many Lebanese argue that the 15-year war was caused by the Palestinians, particularly their leader Yassar Arafat, who had been expelled by the Jordanians for attempting to cause a civil war there. The war began to end (despite continuing for another eight years) when Arafat was expelled from Lebanon in 1982. None of Lebanon's confessional groups favors giving rights to the Palestinian refugees. Permanent settlement by the Palestinians is forbidden by the Lebanese constitution. The Palestinians are known to be militarized within their refugee camps. They are also surrounded by Lebanese armed forces. They are considered by nationalist Lebanese as "foreign forces" under UN Resolution 1599 and are therefore required to disarm and/or leave Lebanon. Recently, President Lahoud stated, "All the Lebanese people agree that the permanent settlement of the Palestinian refugees is a time bomb."


The Taif Accord of 1989, signed by the various communal representatives, can be considered the end of the war. But Lebanon remains in a precarious position. The late pope John Paul II said, Lebanon was "not a nation, but a message" of Christian-Muslim coexistence, one that obviously Europe could learn from. Maronite intellectual Georges Naccache said in French: "Two negations do not make a nation."


The United Nations has demanded that Hezbollah (which has been called a state within a state) disarm. Hezbollah has been supported by money and arms from Islamic Iran and secular Syria for many years. The Bekaa Valley training camps run by Iran have trained Hezbollah and other terrorists for jihadi operations. Since April of this year Hezbollah has been sending air drones over Israeli territory. The questions is, how will Israel react?


Maronite leader and Lebanese defense minister, Abdel-Rahim Morad, has said the Lebanese army cannot fill the vacuum the Syrian soldiers have left behind. He was suggesting that Hezbollah could fill that space. He did not say so explicitly, but it is clear from his remarks that the most effective Lebanese military force is that of Hezbollah. He did not mention who would fill the vacuum on the southern border with Israel if Hezbollah is disarmed. But the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said disarming Hezbollah is not in the cards - though he had said two weeks earlier that Hezbollah ought to be disarmed. Even the EU has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.


What changed Jumblatt's mind? One story is that the Shi'ite demonstrators caricatured him in signs as an "Orthodox Rabbi"; he felt after Hariri's death, his end was coming. His father, Kamal, was murdered after opposing Syrian forces in Lebanon. On the other hand, a Lebanese Christian opposition figure stated, "Jumblatt's head has gotten swollen. Everyone is courting him. He was in Saudi Arabia, where he apparently got money, he is meeting with world figures, he was in Egypt and met with [President Hosni] Mubarak. Suddenly this man has become, in his own eyes, an omnipotent leader - according to his will, the opposition will either exist or collapse. Suddenly he is [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah's friend." Both comments are from biased parties.


On March 16, Nasrallah said, "Disarming the resistance will be up for discussion, and we expect our partners [the opposition] to offer us alternatives to defend the country and people." From whom? Nasrallah has recently threatened the United States. The question had been asked in Arabic newspapers whether Nasrallah has "lost his mind" (Kuwaiti Daily, April).


Will Hezbollah attempt to control Lebanon politically? Will Nasrallah have a surrogate run for Speaker of the parliament? Or alternatively, will he use the weapons, including missiles he has from Iran, to become the strongman of the country? Could the latter cause another civil war?


Looking at Lebanon's surrogate parent

One cannot discuss Lebanon without reference to Syria, its "surrogate parent"; however the subject has already been discussed to the saturation point (see The twists and turns of 'Syria first', March 25). Syria claims Lebanon is part of Greater Syria. As in Egypt, where there is no map that shows a State of Israel in Syria, the State of Lebanon is not to be found on maps, just Greater Syria.


Tripoli, the second-largest city in Lebanon, has long been in American history. In 1801 the US attacked Tripoli and had a four-year war. For that victory Tripoli stars in the US Marine Hymn adjacent to the Halls of Montezuma. The American University of Beirut has long been known as the best university in the Middle East.


President George W Bush has not had a policy toward Syria, other than calling it a "rogue state", a home for terrorists, and even accusing it of having weapons of mass destruction. There is a Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which imposes strict sanctions against the Syrian government. And the US is now considering imposing sanctions on Syria's financial sector under the Patriot Act. Since 1979 Syria has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US. But after 25 years, this approach has not had any affect on Syrian behavior or strategic and tactical calculations.


Is Bush now inching toward a policy? Is it "regime change"? (It would be easier than "regime change" in Iran, another possible candidate.) Whatever the case, the US is likely to continue its demands that Syria democratize its government as this dovetails with the Bush administration's overall policy of transforming the authoritarian states of the Middle East into democracies.


Meanwhile, the Lebanon-Syria conflict has managed to reconcile the dispute between the US and France, which have had problems since shortly after September 11, 2001. Both countries have agreed to pass UN resolution 1599 demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and Hezbollah's disarmament.


Another relevant party in any discussion of Lebanon and its surrogate parent, Syria, is Israel. According to Flynt Leverett, a former US diplomat and author of a recent book, Inheriting Syria, Washington told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel not to agree to open a negotiating front with Syria over the future status of the Golan Heights. Assad is willing - perhaps even anxious, according to Leverett - to open negotiations on that issue. The US is in no mood to offer any opportunity to Syria whereby it would gain any momentum stemming from a potential breakthrough on the Golan Heights, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.


Israel's policy was once invasion. That failed. The connection between the Israelis and the Christian Lebanese who cooperated in that war is that both are considered outlaws in the Muslim heartland.


Israel could defuse Hezbollah by returning a small enclave known as Sheba Farms (200 square kilometers), which even the not-Israeli friendly UN agrees belongs to Syria and therefore is part of a Syria-Israel peace process (if one existed). However, Hezbollah claims Sheba Farms belongs to Lebanon; it is not clear what the Lebanese government's position is. Hezbollah claims it retains its arms to free this farmland. Given the Gaza disengagement, Israel is highly unlikely to give up Sheba Farms despite its obvious advantage.


If Hezbollah decides to use its military power to suicide bomb Israelis or attack them with rockets or even missiles that they have from Iran, will Israel attack from the air and bomb Beirut or an electric grid or water dam? If the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon take control of a new government, can they negotiate with Israel? What would Syria do? Israel signed a peace treaty with Lebanon in 1983 during the civil war and Israeli occupation; Syria canceled it.


Will Syrian President Bashar Assad still have the power after the election to control certain red-line events in Lebanon? Yes.


Rabbi Moshe Reiss is a graduate of Oxford University and was assistant rabbi at Yale University. He was the first rabbi invited to teach in the Department of Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium (founded 1425), and has lectured in various countries. He has posted three books on his website on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His book on Judaism is being published by sections in the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He now lives in Israel.


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