To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Lebanon is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Unraveling the Lebanese enigma is the objective of a new book by Dr. Mordechai Nisan, Politics and War in Lebanon. Nisan is an accomplished Israeli political scientist and retired Hebrew University lecturer. His body of work covers Zionism, Islam, Arab history, minority peoples, Lebanon, U.S. Middle East policy and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is rare that a book achieves its objective of unraveling the complex nuances of the Lebanon puzzle in both an astute and yet literate manner. Dr. Nisan has views on many issues including why the 80 year old confessional political system persists and has resilience. It has a lot to do with the adoption of the Maronite Christian independence ethos arising from the historic resistance against centuries of Muslim and later Ottoman rule under Islamic Sharia law.
The confessional political system maintains, a Maronite as President, Sunni as Premier and Shiite as Speaker of the Lebanese National Assembly. The Lebanese Parliament has 128 members split equally between Christians and Muslims elected to four year terms in multi-member constituencies, which often produces unexpected alliances. Nisan writes: “the idea of a numerical democracy for Lebanon, as for all typical democratic states, had been, as we know, rejected in favor of political confessionalism by assigning office according to a sectarian key.” Of course the Lebonese paradox was assisted by the fact that it only had one census back in 1932 that reflected a Maronite Christian majority which has since dwindled due to war, emigration and the demographic rise of both Sunni and Shia. Even during the period of the internal wars triggered by Palestinians against the Maronite hegemony that began in 1975, there were episodes where Druze, Shia and Sunni militias protected the precinct of the Maronite patriarch. The confessional political system remains durable despite the inroads made by external enemies like Syria, the Palestinians and internal ones, like Iran’s proxy Hezbollah dominating the country’s southern border and Eastern Bekaa Valley adjoining Syria.
There is also the long standing history of Maronite Christian – Zionist mutual respect that has never been recognized in formal agreements. Yet that figures prominently in understanding the role of Israel in episodic military operations in Lebanon – dislodging PLO-Fatah terrorist armies, only to have them replaced with Shia Hezbollah forces occupying the Southern security belt that the IDF abandoned in 2000. Now, that Southern border is crenellated with underground fortifications and tunnels, equipped with over 150,000 Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles. That could figure significantly in a new Middle East War arising from a possible nuclear deal with Hezbollah’s creator, Iran. Nisan considers that episode one of Israel’s most abject geo-political failures.
Among the issues addressed in Nisan’s timely and cogent book is the political disintegration triggered by the Palestinian war on the Maronites in 1975. He addresses the Israeli incursion in 1978 and First Israeli Lebanese War in 1982 that ousted Yassir Arafat and Fatah-PLO leaders sending them packing under UN auspices to Tunisia and nine other countries. Nevertheless, he is critical of Israel’s pell mell abandonment of the southern security belt, held by the IDF and the South Lebanese Army (SLA) in alliance with Israel. The evacuation was ordered by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May 2000. That catastrophe gave rise to the Hezbollah takeover and ethnic cleansing of South Lebanon. There is also the nearly 20 year predatory Syrian occupation of large sections of Lebanon that began in 1976.
Nisan has nothing but contempt for the behavior of the Assad Syrian regime of both father and son in what could only be characterized as the virtual looting of Lebanon’s economic and natural resources. There were Syrian companies grabbing Lebanese tenders, Syrian officials pocketing tax revenues and running a protection extortion racket with local businesses. The results were a once vibrant economy faltering, with unemployment and poverty soaring. He notes that Syria never recognized an independent Lebanon in 1946. He considers the Syrian occupation the equivalent of the Nazi Anschluss of Austria comparing Lebanese Sunni and Orthodox Christians as the equivalent of pan-Germanic Austrians, because the latter identified strongly with both Syria and being Arab.
Nisan contends that the Israeli justification for the Southern withdrawal in 2000 was faulty. It was based on the following logic:
- Israel had to dismantle the SLA to comply with UN Resolution 425 of March 1978 that called for Israel to withdraw its forces from all Lebanese territory.
- Hezbollah would overwhelm and murder its Christian and Shiite elements prompted by the memories of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp massacres.
- That if the SLA put up resistance against Hezbollah that it might complicate withdrawal leading to a possible return by Israel to assist its former allies.
- Israel sacrificed the SLA as a necessity to assure that Hezbollah not interfere with Israel’s withdrawal from the South.
Nisan believes that the debacle that occurred in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal might have been prevented if:
- Israel had bolstered the SLA as an independent force.
- Israel might have disarmed both the SLA and Hezbollah.
- Israel had called upon Syrian Forces to withdraw simultaneously with the IDF.
He concludes, “In Lebanon, Israel was drained of its political and public energy, had done little strategic planning, and in the end lacked a moral compass.”
Nisan notes the three signal events that occurred in 2000:
- In May the Israeli Army withdrew from Southern Lebanon and likewise forced the collapse of its SLA ally there.
- In June President Assad of Syria died and was succeeded by his son Bashar.
- Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, and a variety of political personalities, both Christian and Muslim, called for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
In mid-July 2015, a worldwide gathering of Lebanese activists occurred in Washington, DC in the First Convention on the Cedars Revolution. It was the commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the Cedars Revolution. Several sessions were held with Members of Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon. The issues they addressed concerned the preservation of democracy in Lebanon’s confessional political system, military and security matters with the incursion of Syrian forces, reminiscent of original issue that ignited the Cedars Revolution in March 2005. It is indicative of the abiding concerns of the Lebanese and largely Christian diaspora, estimated at upwards of 14 million.
Even during several Arab Israeli conflicts, Lebanon stayed out of the conflicts. After the failure of the 1970 Black September campaign between PLO-Fatah forces and the Kingdom of Jordan, Yassir Arafat and Palestinian resistance leadership were given sanctuary in Lebanon. Less than five years later, Arafat fomented open warfare on Christians in a ferocious and bloody conflict. It was during that period that Lebanese Maronite leaders like Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz) and Pierre Gemayel reached out to Israel whose military covertly provided training and equipment to Christian militia forces. There were hopes of an eventual enduring peace between Lebanon and Israel. That possibility ended with the assassination on September 15, 1982 of Maronite President-Elect and leader of Lebanese Forces Bashir Gemayel of the Phalange Party. He was allegedly on his way to conclude a treaty with Israel in Jerusalem.
Nisan addresses the transformation of Lebanese Shia under Sayyid Fadlaallah from willing confessional participants to Sharia infused support of an Islamic state, reducing the dominant Maronite and other Christians to dhimmi status. Along with that, Fadlaallah denied Israel’s legitimacy and boosted the Palestinian cause against the “Zionist enterprise.” Instead of involving himself in the Lebanon political structure, Fadlaallah sought out the means of supporting jihad, through zakat, Muslim charity. The person who completed the transformation of Lebanon’s Shia was Imam Musa al-Sadr who, in the political chaos of the mid-1970’s, created the Movement for the Disinherited (al Harakat al-Muhrimum) to promote Shiite social equality and political activism and its companion military wing, Amal (“Hope”). Sadr disappeared in 1978 on a flight to Rome under mysterious circumstances. Leadership of Amal fell to successors Hussein al-Husseini, who later became Speaker, and ultimately, lawyer Nabih Berri. Berri sought resistance against the PLO in the 1970’s and 1980’s including laying siege to Palestinian refugee camps. However, the ultimate destination of Lebanon’s Shia community was to Iranian theocratic influence emanating from Shia seminaries in Iraq. The pro-Khomeinist returnees from Najaf provided fertile grounds to build Hezbollah – the party of God, a Qur’anic designation. Nisan notes that the ultimate leadership of Hezbollah was drawn from Southerners like Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and Abdul Karim Obeid, graduates of the apocalyptic Twelver seminary in Qom, Iran. By 1982, 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards were stationed in the Bekaa Valley training young Lebanese Shia fighters in Khomeinist doctrine and providing them with weapons and millions in funding. Syria under the Assad family became a strategic ally during the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980’s allowing Damascus to become a transfer point for Iran to supply its proxy, Hezbollah. Hezbollah became Iran’s global terrorism arm. That is reflected in Iran’s support for Lebanese Shia émigrés in the Latin American tri-border area that provided a base for the 1992 Buenos Aires Israeli Embassy and 1994 Jewish AMIA blasts. The later is still roiling Argentine politics with the recent mysterious death of Argentine Jewish prosecutor Alberto Nisman and accusations of involvement at the highest political levels in both Iran and Argentina.
The Israel invasion of 1982 launched a series of terrorist spectacles by the late Imad Mughniyahin. In Beirut in 1983 he killed over 400 French paratroopers, US Marines and US embassy staff. That was followed by the 1986 TWA flight hijacking and killing of a US Navy diver hostage. Mughniyah, went big time with the Khobar Towers blast in Saudi Arabia in 1995. He had links to the East African US Embassy blasts in 1998 and a major role in training and facilitating the travel via Iran and Germany of the 19 Sunni perpetrators of 9/11. Mughniyah’s leading terrorist role ended in Damascus in February 2008, when his vehicle exploded in what many believe was a Mossad revenge attack.
The big breakthrough for Hezbollah was its campaign of attacks in the South of Lebanon and Israeli border incursions in the late 1980’s to 2000. Nisan notes that Hezbollah undertook 1,030 military operations over the period from 1990 to 1995, escalating to more than 4,928 operations from 1996 to 2000.
Nisan links Hezbollah’s political rise with the adoption of the triumvirate Lebanese Presidency system with the Taif agreement. That enabled Hezbollah to secure seats in the Chamber of Deputies in competition with the Shia Amal party. Its further rise to power was the product of one of its three expressed objectives of a 1985 Open Letter:
- Accepting Ayatollah Khomeini as leader of the world’s Muslims.
- Wiping out Israel and opposing America.
- Forming relations with Christians in Lebanon while calling them to embrace Islam.
Nisan noted the impact of the third objective expanding the 128 member Assembly split 64 Christian/64 Muslim. He wrote, “many Muslim voters were electing Christian deputies in the South, while Christians elected a Shiite in Jbayl and Sunnis were elected by Maronites and Druze in the Shouf.”
By 1999, when the US State Department designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist group, Hezbollah was a mini-state within a state. In May of 2000, the ring of fate was sealed in Southern Lebanon with the Israel evacuation and collapse of the SLA resistance. Under a secret agreement between Hezbollah and the IDF, the former agreed not to attack Israeli forces as they completed their retreat. That action, as Nisan notes, led Yassir Arafat to instigate the so-called Temple Mount Second Intifada triggered by the visit of Israel PM Sharon on September 28, 2000. Sharon was the Defense Minister who undertook the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
At the conclusion of Nisan’s book, he posits three scenarios:
- The Iranian Shiite axis could collapse with a short time.
- The Arab world could continue its slide into fissured decay while distracted from its historic and national vision.
- The Arab-Israeli conflict will likely remain intractably irresolvable according to the tried and tested formulae for peace.
In the midst of Nisan’s speculations he draws attention to the aftermath of the Maronite Patriarch a-Ra’I 2012 visit to Jerusalem. That enraged Hezbollah, but brought commendation from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Maronite President Sleiman whose term ended in 2014 paid a visit to Jumblatt’s home town of Mukhtara before he stepped down. The message was one of reconciliation within the confessional system that might bring the sectarian groups together and avoid a civil war. With a vacant presidential post and parliamentary elections postponed until 2017, trouble looms for the country caught up in the vicissitudes of the Syrian civil war spilling over its borders, bringing in a flood of refugees. Currently, Lebanon is embroiled in a highly politicized trash crisis involving a protest Group “You Stink” that some believe may cover a possible power grab by the Hezbollah party and Michael Aoun’s Free Patriot Movement. The concern is the crisis might bring down the National Unity Government of Sunni Prime Minister Tammam Salam.Reuters reported both Saudi Arabia and Iran gave their blessing to the present government with a Cabinet composed of Sunni Muslim former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future movement, Shi’ite Hezbollah and Christians. Nisan wrote about a hopeful sign, “The March 14 camp asked Patriarch Beshara a – Ra’I to suggest names for the presidential post. Maybe somehow two Maronites – patriarch and president would help save the country from oblivion.” The expression in Hebrew is, alevai. Its English meaning, “that should only be.”
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.