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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


Town Hall Conference Call with Dr. James J. Zogby and Dr. Stephen P. Cohen

The US Role in the Current Crisis

On Thursday, July 27, Dr. Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, and Dr. Cohen, a pioneer in the field of back-channel diplomacy theory and practice, spoke about the lack of an assertive US diplomatic role in the current crisis and the ramifications of the US approach for future diplomatic efforts. Below is the text from their addresses.

Dr. James J. Zogby:

This is a difficult time for us, not just myself, but for all of us who worked and felt that we were close to getting Middle East peace, to see it unravel as it has and been replaced not only by the bloodshed that we’ve seen, but by the rhetoric that is so deeply divided.  It’s frightening and to some degree exhausting, because so many years of work have led us to this point.  I frankly am troubled by the Lebanon situation in a number of ways. I am not going to focus on Palestine right now.  I’m sure you’ve spoken about it in previous conversations, and we can talk about it again, but I want to talk about the Lebanon situation, because I think in some ways it is less understood.

Lebanon went through a long civil war.  It was resolved on paper by the Taif accords.  But the Taif accords never got fully implemented.  And even after the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, and pressure from the United States to force a Syrian withdrawal, the UN resolution 1559 only called for a partial implementation, and that was the disarmament of Hezbollah.  There are other problems in Lebanon that remain unresolved, and if they are not resolved Hezbollah cannot be disarmed. 

Principally, the Taif accords called for the implementation of a national dialogue leading to a new national accord that would redefine how the pie gets divvied up in Lebanese politics.  We’re operating in Lebanon still according to a framework created some seventy years ago.  The demographics of the country no longer match that framework.  When the French created Lebanon it was two-thirds Christian and one-third Muslim.  Today the numbers are exactly the reverse: two-thirds Muslim and one-third Christian.  The single largest group in the country is the Shiite community, and it has no power.  Hezbollah grew out of the Amal movement, which had been a political party among the Shia, that became radicalized during the civil war, and most especially after the Israeli invasion of 1982.  Israel had been in occupation of South Lebanon since 1978, and there had been a sense among the Shia that their plight was ignored.  Attention was paid to Palestinians, none to them.  Israel attacked the Palestinians, and they were caught in its realm; the Lebanese government provided these services, and gave them [the Shia] no heed.  In part it was because there was no influence, and no ability to have influence in the country. 

There’s some that still remember that when Israel invaded there was a sense among the Shia, ‘good, the PLO are going,’ but that was only short-lived because the Hezbollah movement and the various groupings that coalesced to form the Hezbollah movement quickly turned against the Israeli occupation, succeeded in forcing a redeployment to the south, and Israel remained in occupation in that region including many villages that were heavily populated with Shia, until 2000.  When we polled in the Arab world, and we asked questions about Israel or about US policy, in every Arab country resentment exists because of the question of Palestine.  In Lebanon, there is the same degree of resentment about Israel, but it is focused on Lebanon itself.  And it is not just among the Shia, but it is actually fairly widespread.  In a poll we did after 1559 was implemented, we asked Lebanese how they felt about a number of issues.  Overall, Syria’s favorability was higher than that of the US.  Actually, they didn’t want Hezbollah disarmed—they saw Hezbollah as a resistance movement, and only wanted it disarmed if it agreed to be disarmed. 

What does Hezbollah represent?  It is in part resistance to what Israel was doing in the south, but I think most significantly for the Shia community it is their leverage, it is their independence from the Lebanese political system.  You don’t pay us attention? Hezbollah does.  You don’t provide us services? Hezbollah does.  Hezbollah is now in government and although it has a limited number of seats, because of the way politics are portioned between the various sectarian communities, it elected more people than it has seats, because it had to have Christians and Sunnis running in Hezbollah’s place because of the portionality issue, but they actually largely represented Hezbollah areas.  What Hezbollah does is represent their power outside of the Lebanese system that inserts itself into the system, to give them a voice. 

That brings us to where we are right now.  Hezbollah committed a reckless act of provocation by capturing those two Israeli soldiers.  There is no question in my mind that is was wrong, that it was provocative, and provided a pretext for this Israeli assault.  However, I don’t think this Hezbollah attack was arranged by Iran, or as Dennis Ross says—and it represents the kind of conspiracy theories you might expect to hear in Cairo and not from a US policy analyst—that Iran arranged this to distract attention from it so that when the G8 summit met ‘London would be in flames’ and no one would be talking about Iran anymore. 

I think there were domestic reasons why Hezbollah did what it did, to assert itself in the face of what was going on in Gaza, in effect to say, we are the vanguards, we are the leaders, you want a prisoner exchange, we’ll show you how to do it.  It was a reckless act, it was an act of provocation, it was done outside of the concurrence of the Lebanese government, and Hezbollah was rebuked for it.  I believe that had Israel behaved differently that this could have been resolved differently, but it was not and what we got instead was a massive assault on Lebanon, not only its people, but its infrastructure, going not only into Hezbollah areas but all the way to the north of Lebanon, bombing Christian areas and doing it rather indiscriminately. 

I’m too old right now to believe in smart bombs, I’ve seen it too many times in our wars, Serbia and in the Gulf war, and I see it happening now, when the United Arab Emirates sends medical supplies in trucks clearly marked and they’re bombed by Israeli planes and I read the Israeli press the next day boasting that they took out some Hezbollah transport vehicles coming in from Syria, and then we find out they were actually contributions from the Emirates in the form of medical supplies clearly marked and had been assured safe passage.  I know the bombing is indiscriminate and is not targeted and the cost in life, in property, and I believe in bitterness this has created in Lebanon, is going to be very steep.  At the same time Hezbollah has been dropping rockets recklessly, with careless abandon all over Israel, killing and frightening, and causing the economy of the north of Israel to suffer.  I don’t think this had to go in this direction.  Hezbollah miscalculated, and I think Israel responded—I know it’s become a bad word—but it’s responded disproportionately, and I think criminally because of the amount of destruction that they have caused to date. 

When the dust settles we will be right back where we started.  Hezbollah may be pushed back from the border but they were pushed back from the border up until 2000.  When the dust settles the Lebanese political system will be no more fixed than it is today.  Unfortunately it is not on anybody’s agenda to fix it.  When the dust settles there’s going to be a lot more anger and bitterness on both sides.  And I fear a whole lot more anger towards our own country, because we’re viewed once again as complicit in this action. 

What needs to happen is an immediate ceasefire.  It’s become a dirty word because neoconservatives think that ceasefire is compromising with evil and you never compromise with evil—you have to roll it back and defeat it.  But that’s what they tried to do in Iraq and it caused chaos.  And it’s doing the same in Lebanon.  The bloodletting has to stop and we have to begin to unravel this mess.  And yes there has to be a multi-national force that provides peace keeping capabilities, and yes there has to be reconstruction and assistance on both sides of the border, but you’ll excuse me if I suggest disproportionately in Lebanon, where the infrastructure that Hariri had built up was devastated as it was. 

But finally there has to be a Lebanese peace process, not unlike the Irish peace process, where the Lebanese come together, and we link political reform with disarming Hezbollah.  The Lebanese army cannot control the country, because the general command remains Maronite and Sunni, with sixty-two percent of the personnel being Shia.  It is not equipped sufficiently enough to control nor does it have the capability, politically speaking, of ousting Hezbollah from the south.  And you will not oust Hezbollah until the Shia community feels they have a stake in governance which they currently do not.  And that will not come until this political reform that rejiggers the political equation in Lebanon, creates a one-man one-vote formula for president, reapportions seats in parliament more appropriate to the percentages of the different communities in the countries, which was called for prior. 

I think you have to maintain the special character of the country.  You do not want the Christian community totally secluded, but you cannot have forty percent of the population which is Shia also being dispossessed.  If a process not unlike Ireland were to occur, where you had Unionists and IRA disarming after many years of haggling, or ‘decommissioning’ as it was called, something similar could occur in Lebanon, but it will require patience, and diligence, and finesse.  If it doesn’t occur, I don’t believe that you can ultimately do away with the resentment felt by the Shia community that has given form to this Hezbollah movement.  And I don’t think that what Israel has done in the last couple weeks has done anything to alleviate the problem that gave birth to Hezbollah.  I feel in fact that the anger, if not addressed, will give form to a more virulent form of resistance down the road. 

And one final note, Israel got itself in similar situations in 1994 and 1996, and the US Administration, while initially hesitant, did act, and held Israel back.  I remember speaking to Yossi Beilin one time, he told me, “We needed somebody to pull us back and it took you too long to pull back.”  That was the year Israel bombed a UN refugee center in Qana.  Ultimately, there are pathologies on both sides, but what is needed is adult supervision.  When America is missing, when there is no leadership, and you allow the pathologies of the Lebanese, or the Palestinians, and the Israelis, to play themselves out, there’s no restraint to hold them back, and the dynamic begins to unfold, with attacks escalating, and as more arsenals exist as they do in the case of Hezbollah, they become more lethal.  At the end of the day, you end up where you are. 

This administration is responsible for not helping bring this under control.  And I must say, the Democrats have been no better.  They’ve actually, in some ways, been worse.  They’ve played with this in a cavalier manner.  I was disgusted with comments that were made in the last several days when they reprimanded even the Prime Minister of Iraq for denouncing Israel without any attention at all to what the internal dynamic in Iraq is, and then the vice-party chairman called the Prime Minister of Iraq an anti-Semite last night, which made no sense to me at all.  But the political debate here has just become so distorted, and not helpful, and I thank you for your patience and for giving me the opportunity to talk to you.

Dr. Stephen P. Cohen:       

This has been a very disappointing example of US leadership in the Middle East, because what we have seen for the first time is a situation where the United States has not been willing to cooperate in the idea of ending the violence by creating a ceasefire, and instead has been encouraging the continuation of this conflict.  Now it is true that the United States has made an explanation of its behavior, which is that we need a more robust process that would have a chance of lasting, but the United States has not taken the steps necessary in order to create such a robust process. 

How could the United States be thinking about a long-term settlement here when it is not talking to Hezbollah, it is not talking to Hamas, it is not talking to Syria, and it is not talking to Iran?  It is not dealing with any of them, so the notion that the US is preparing for a longer term process is hard to believe, hard to credit, when it is not in communication with all of the parties it considers to be necessary in order to solve the problem.   And so, it is very hard to accept this American position, other than to see the way the United States has now not only engaged in this major attack on Iraq and in this way disturbed—which is a very moderate word—the relationship between the United States and the Arab world, but has also unbalanced different parts of the region, between Iran and the Arab countries, between Sunni and Shia in very many countries, and has given a new legitimacy to the use of force as the main method for producing change in the region. 

This, I believe, should not be the kind of role the United States should be playing.  And I also don’t think this is a good way for the United States to be showing Israel how it can be helpful to Israel in this new era, because what Israel needs from the United States is for the United States to show the way that it can help to bring Israel into a relationship of peace on equal footing with the other states of the region, and with the Palestinians becoming such another state in the region.  So, I would say that we don’t see here an example of the proper kind of American leadership.  But we have to understand that the United States is looking at this not as a problem between two communities who are unable to resolve their conflict now for over eighty years, but rather trying to reconstruct it as part of this war on terrorism and therefore not being able to see the real regional and real communal problems that are coming. 

And in that same way we have done a lot to reverse any progress that was made in the reinstitution of Lebanon as an independent sovereign state after all the efforts taken, especially by the Lebanese civil society to convince the Syrians to get out of Lebanon.  But let’s remember, that it was the cedar revolution in which the young people of Lebanon stood up and insisted on the end of this Syrian occupation and brought it about, not the efforts of the international community and certainly not the kind of pressures the United States had been bringing on Syria over these years.  It was the people of Lebanon who brought about this change.  And now all of that has been reversed.  And I would say that what we need now is a parallel to that cedar revolution in which the civil societies of all these neighboring countries must rise up and insist that their own governments and the neighbor governments give them a chance to breathe, and to have peace, rather than to continue this endless war one against the other, from which none of them benefit and from which each of them suffers great sadness and great loss.  What we need is leadership in encouraging all of the civil societies to assert their own right to life, to live and not to die from their relationship with each other.  And I believe the United States’ people have a desire for the United States to play such a role, to not be a force which encourages conflict, but rather to be the force that helps to bring about a peaceful resolution based on respect for each of the groups and each of the cultures and each of the societies of the region. 

The United States has done a very important thing in not allowing a consensus to be built that the Middle East could exist without the full acceptance of Israel.  But at the same time, it is now essential for the United States to make it clear that the region cannot have a future unless it accepts the right of all of these peoples to have a life not made up of the destruction of one another.  And if we are going to see a situation in which Hezbollah is going to be disarmed we’re going to have to see a situation in which the Shia role in Lebanon is no longer so minimized but they are given a portion of leadership of their country which is consonant with their being the largest single group in the country.  Nobody has ever really worked out that proper relationship and I think that we will not get a situation in which the Shiites and also the whole of the Lebanese society will feel that they can really do something to pressure Hezbollah to give up its militia role unless they also see a way for their people and their constituency to have a decent place in their society both politically and economically.

Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.

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