Lebanon has been to taking on a more prominent role in the overall Middle East peace process as the conflict gets more complex with every passing year. And the delay in finding an amenable solution to the crisis — now 61 years in the making — is serving no cause except that of extremism on both sides.
Ironically, during the earlier years of the Arab-Israeli crisis when Lebanon still had no direct quarrels with Israel, it used to be said that Lebanon would be the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. But since then, more blood than water has run under Lebanon’s bridges. Today, given the twists and turns that fate and geo-politics have thrown at Lebanon, the Lebanese will very likely be the last people in the region to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
The fact that Lebanon is increasingly playing a more prominent role in the regional conflict is not terribly good news for the Lebanese. And neither is the news that Islamist fighters have taken refuge in many of the country’s Palestinian refugee camps. The US said it would equip the Lebanese army with M-60 Main Battle tanks, as did the Germans who promised to deliver Leopard tanks and the Russians have pledged ten MiG-29 fighters (NATO designation: Fulcrum). Obviously, none of that hardware is intended to outfit the Lebanese armed forces to fight any external threats. Logic would dictate, therefore, that those weapons are intended for internal housekeeping and meant to be used if and when the day comes that Lebanon is forced to get its house in order so as to close a peace deal with Israel.
In fact, many analysts are saying that there could not be a regional solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute if the Palestinians and the Syrians each sign a peace treaty with Israel and Lebanon remains at war with the Jewish state.
Until just a few years ago, despite it being the stage of much of the Middle East’s turmoil, Lebanon was a reluctant pawn in the greater Middle East games of war and peace. Lebanon’s role in the Middle East dispute came about as a result of the presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its affiliated groups who set up shop in Lebanon.
Until recently it was not considered essential to include Lebanon in regional peace talks, but now Beirut finds itself at the forefront of a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
As difficult as it may be, the Obama administration must realize that Lebanon cannot remain the only country bordering Israel to remain in a state of war with the Jewish state.
At the same time it is of paramount importance to the future stability of the Middle East that Lebanon not be sacrificed at the altar of a Syrian-Israeli or a Syrian- American rapprochement.
One cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring that when such a peace treaty is signed between Israel and Syria, Lebanon is not left out in the cold.
The fact that Lebanon is a small country does not mean it is irrelevant. While Lebanon does not constitute a threat to Israel, the country’s geographic location — on the border of Syria and Israel — gives it an advantage, or as the case may be, a disadvantage. Certain elements within Lebanon have the power to create serious problems for Israel along its northern border, and in so doing, keeping the Arab-Israeli dispute going, even if Syria were to sign a separate deal with Israel.
Among them are Hizbullah and a number of pro-Syrian paramilitary organizations, as well as the vast network of intelligence agents Syria left behind in Lebanon when it withdrew shortly after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
It is without doubt to the advantage of the United States and Israel to ensure that Lebanon remains an independent and stable nation.
History has shown us what happens when the state is weak, as was (and remains) the case in Lebanon. History is also repeating itself in Lebanon, where the Palestinians first took advantage of the weak central government and the PLO became a state within a state. After the departure of the PLO from Beirut, the central government continued to be weak, allowing other groups, some acting at the behest of foreign powers, to emulate the Palestinians and establish themselves as a parallel authority to the Lebanese government.
Let there be no doubt: Lebanon’s continued instability only serves the enemies of democracy in the region. All the more reason why Lebanon must not be omitted from the next round of Middle East peace talks, if and when they take place.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political editor in Washington, DC