March 14’s quest for independence has been proven insincere by the coalition’s failure to foster a policy for peace talks with Israel. It has instead tied the fate of negotiations to a toothless Arab Peace Initiative. If other Arab countries are to decide Lebanon’s foreign policy, then we can kiss goodbye genuine independence.
As Lebanon will never defeat Israel militarily, its “conflict” with the Jewish state can only be resolved by diplomacy, despite the failure of successive Lebanese governments to endorse such a track. They have instead delegated the business of war to Hezbollah and peace to the Arab League. Such governmental behavior has proven detrimental to the principle of Lebanese independence.
Throughout the 1990s, the world grew accustomed to a Lebanese government unwilling or unable to deal with relations with its neighbor; delegations have either discussed Lebanese-Israeli peace in Damascus or arrived at truces with Hezbollah. None of these agreements have gone through a sovereign Lebanese state, except in August 2006, when Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s cabinet served as a conduit between Hezbollah and the United Nations to end the July War.
Now we hear that US President Barak Obama’s peace team, led by former Senator George Mitchell, has decided to turn a new page. Mitchell argues that peace can only come by talking to all parties, but does he know that, since May 17, 1983, when Beirut inked a peace treaty with Tel Aviv, the Lebanese state has taken a back seat in dealings with Israel?
Yet Mitchell’s approach might finally offer Lebanon a chance to change the game. According to the Mitchell team, finding solutions for the Lebanese-Israeli conflict is easiest if pared down to Lebanon’s two pending issues with its southern neighbor: the disputed Shebaa Farms area and the roughly 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
Both Hezbollah and Syria have used the Shebaa farms to undermine peace between Lebanon and Israel and to keep Damascus in the driving seat when it comes to negotiations. The area is widely believed to be part of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, therefore part of Israeli talks with Syria. Damascus, for its part, has repeatedly said this barren sliver of land belongs to Lebanon, but refused to provide the United Nations with any documentation to this effect.
A number of Lebanese officials have suggested that the easiest way to neutralize the situation is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the area, which would remove all debate (the area is Lebanese after all) and deny Hezbollah its raison d’être.
Tel Aviv has refused, believing – based on past experience – that any unilateral withdrawal from Arab territory will always be interpreted as a military victory for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. To avoid such a scenario, Israel proposed that Lebanon regain Shebaa Farms through diplomacy, even if it is backroom diplomacy. After all, Hezbollah has negotiated with Israel – indirectly – for a prisoner swap deal in the past. Why can’t such an arrangement work for the Lebanese government?
Then there are Lebanon’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees. It is understood that 10% of them will be offered the right of return to their villages inside Israel. The rest will be given the right of return to the Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza. All of them will be also given the choice to immigrate to Western countries.
With Shebaa and the refugees out of the way, Lebanon and Israel can sign a peace treaty, during which they draw their common borders and agree on the allocation of water resources, as per international agreements.
The outgoing March 14-led government did little to advance this cause. In fact, since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, both governments have failed to produce a policy on Israel. The Mitchell team is determined to change all this, but they need the help of Lebanon’s leaders, who must not be shy about talking peace with Israel, just like their Syrian and Palestinian brethren. The rest will become details.