Monday, January 25, 2021

The Tragedy in Lebanon Has Been Years in the Making

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What happened in Lebanon on Aug. 4 is heartbreaking. What’s been happening in Lebanon in recent weeks is heartbreaking. What’s happened in Lebanon in recent decades is heartbreaking.

The country is falling apart and has been for many years and many reasons. It has been bleeding a slow death by a thousand cuts. On Aug. 4, those wounds were suddenly visible.

In a chilling coincidence, The New York Times published on Aug. 3 an article by Lina Mounzer, a Lebanese writer and translator. The headline, written before the tragic explosion says it all: “We Lebanese Thought We Could Survive Anything. We Were Wrong.”

Read it, and cry for the good, innocent Lebanese. “It has become clear,” Mounzer writes, “that there is nothing truly resilient about Lebanon except its politicians and ancient warlords, who refuse to step down, even after their profiteering has bankrupted the country and its people.”

When so much is unknown, it is tempting to speculate about the blast. Was it an accident?  What exactly was stored in the harbor, by whom, for how long and why?

In a functioning country, the answers would be known at some point. There would be a trusted investigation, a believable conclusion and consequences that would make another blast less likely. But Lebanon is not a functioning country. The power brokers make sure to sabotage investigations and avoid consequences.

Fifteen years ago, American policy makers still believed that Lebanon could be an exemplary Middle East democracy (other than Israel). Following the 2006 Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah, the United Nations intended to make things right.

Lebanon is proof that global fantasies and noble intentions are no match for a well-funded militia. Lebanon is a playground for Iran and Syria. It was a playground for the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and, at some point in the past, for Israel.

Much like America during the George W. Bush years, Israel in the ’80s also believed that it could engineer a new Lebanese order. One that would be better for most Lebanese. One that would be better for Lebanon’s neighbors. Israel failed. America failed. The U.N. did not even try.

Dilemmas are to be expected, and they are just around the corner. How does one square the need to assist the Lebanese without simultaneously helping the power brokers keep their tight grip on the country? These are questions we are familiar with from other places. Gaza is one example. The population suffers. The population needs support and assistance. But assisting the population means assisting Hamas.

First aid is easy: get medical support, doctors, mobile hospitals, and ship them to Beirut. Israel and other countries in the region offered to take in patients. Israel is unlikely to receive any because for Hezbollah, keeping Israel as an unacceptable partner is much more important than the wounded people of Beirut.

Long term assistance is where the real difficulties begin. Precedent teaches us that world organizations and generous countries will assist Lebanon. In return, they will demand — and get — empty promises from the power brokers. The U.N. made a vow to de-weaponize Hezbollah. It did not. So, long term assistance to Lebanon must be handed under the assumption that no promise to change Lebanon’s political situation will be kept. This is as sad as it is true.

Those who believe in only one state should watch and learn: This is what an incoherent and sectorial Middle Eastern country looks like. Bret Stephens did not mention Lebanon when he wrote in his Aug. 3 New York Times op-ed that the idea of a one state “is utopian in theory and would be disastrous in practice.” Today, he probably would have used this example.

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