Contrary to what many reported immediately after the fact, the debate in the Lebanese Parliament last Tuesday over the issue of Palestinian rights did not slam the door on any potential future reforms.
True, no law was passed. But the outcome — a decision to send the draft laws to a review committee and bring them back to Parliament for a vote in one month — is not just acceptable; it was probably the right thing to do. As a friend on the inside recently wrote to me: “It is not acceptable for this or any other parliament to discuss laws that have not had the chance for proper review. It’s about time someone started holding parliament to account for the job that they do.”
There’s an excellent article in today’s Daily Star that surveys the issue; apparently, several analysts are very optimistic that the law will be passed when it comes up again, thereby rolling back several decades’ worth of institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon. And while I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves, the fact that this government is actually tackling one of the stickiest issues in Lebanese political culture holds out hope that other similarly radioactive topics might somehow be raised as well in the near future.
Take, for example, the issue of deconfessionalizing the political system. Nabih Berri’s recent proposal to establish a national commission to explore the idea fell flat, largely because it was issued informally via the media. Let’s imagine, instead, that Berri and Jumblatt jointly sponsored a draft electoral law for the 2013 parliamentary elections, based on a non-confessional framework. No one could ignore such a law; they’d have to debate it in Parliament and then vote it down, justifying this decision to their constituents. At the very least, such a move would have the effect of putting the issue in the national spotlight once again.
In other words, both the Palestinian rights question and the deconfessionalism question suffer from similar problems of misinformation, messy thinking, and political fear-mongering. We saw last Tuesday that these problems can be mitigated by separating fact from fiction in the form of a concrete legislative proposal. Deconfessionalism can benefit from this approach as well.
Update: I’m grateful to Rex Brynen, professor of political science at McGill University and expert on the Palestinian refugee problem, for weighing in on this issue in the comment section:
Arguments can be made in favour of extending basic civil (not political rights) to Palestinians in Lebanon on a variety of humanitarian and human rights grounds. For me, frankly, those grounds are enough in and of themselves.
However, quite apart from humanitarian arguments in favour of Jumblat’s proposals, a strong argument can also be made on Lebanese national security grounds.
Can anyone seriously argue that the dangers of violent radicalism are somehow *reduced* by having 250,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon permanently poor, marginalized, and discriminated against? The Fateh al-Islams of this world thrive on the poverty of the camps. The impulse to improve Palestinian conditions (initially under the Siniora government, and now with Hariri supporting Jumblat’s proposed reforms) has been underpinned by the recognition that Lebanese security interests were better served by allowing the Palestinians more normal lives.
Of course, the scarecrow of tawteen always gets raised at this point. The naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon, however, has nothing to do with whether they can work or own property–it would require a political decision by a future Lebanese government to extend citizenship. That won’t happen, and in any case is constitutionally prohibited.
Should arms be retained inside the camps? I would prefer not– I think they do the refugees far more harm than good. However, given political realities (and, for that matter, the interests of some Lebanese parties) the camps aren’t going to be disarmed soon. Consequently, it is pointless holding human rights hostage to the arms issue. It provides no leverage at all, and only makes the situation worse.
Finally, it is not as if Palestinian refugees have anywhere else to go in the meantime. If and when a Palestinian state is established, then they’ll have the right and ability to repatriate, as well as whatever return might take place to Israel. In the meantime–tragic as it is–the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are stuck with each other. They might as well make the best of it. That’s precisely what the recent proposals propose to do.
For those of you who support the current initiative, I’ll throw out a challenge: what can be done to move this forward? The PSP have been great on the issue, and Hizbullah will likely continue to be supportive provided they don’t decide to prioritize their alliance with the FPM. Support within Amal and Future is, I suspect, a little more uneven, despite the positions taken by Berri and Hariri in parliament. Finally, for this to really go forward, it is important that at least some of the concerns put forward by the Christian parties be addressed, and–if at all possible–the reformist coalition expanded. How? Does anyone have any concrete, actionable ideas?