Lebanon, Peace negotiations, Syria

Can Lebanon Play a Role in Syrian-Israeli Talks?

shebaaJoshua Landis, over at Syria Comment, has a good analysis entitled “Why Syria Will Not Get the Golan Back“. In it, he argues that obstacles such as mutual mistrust and the imbalance of power will overwhelm the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, producing “talks and plenty of discussions and process, but no peace.” Landis is planning to argue the case from the opposite side of the courtroom later this week, which should be interesting. In the meantime, I’d like to respond to one of his points. He writes:

“The US is playing a difficult game with Syria. It insists on making Syria pay for every diplomatic concession with an equal concession of its own. The problem with this chit-for-chit game is that Syria has few chits to play. Yes, Syria can reopen the American school it closed a few months ago. It can once again agree to issue visas to Fulbright professors and American scholars. It can allow Amid-East and other State Department-funded organizations back into Syria. It can let out a few political prisoners, such as Michel Kilo, but these small tokens will quickly be exhausted. The US has a rich array of sanctions and privations it has placed on Syria that it can lift one at a time for many years. Syria has nothing of comparable worth, save support for Hizbullah, Lebanese sovereignty (which, to America, is practically the same thing as disarming Hizbullah) and support for Hamas. These cards are absolutely necessary for successful negotiations over the return of the Golan. Syria cannot give them up before getting back the Golan, as the US and Israel are demanding.

Landis’s analysis is remarkable for its candidness. He gives voice to the awkward truth: Syria would like peace, but it is too weak to let go of its few cards before receiving any Israeli or American guarantees on the Golan. In fact, Syria cannot even be seen to be considering letting go of its few cards; why make a weak hand even weaker by tipping it and embarassing its partners? The problem, therefore, is not that Syria is unwilling to pay the price that Israel is asking; it is rather that Syria is unwilling to pay it in advance.

Faced with this scenario, the United States and Israel have three options:

(1) Play hardball: Try to capitalize on Syria’s weaknesses by remaining firm on the precondition to cut ties with Hizbullah and Hamas; delaying the appointment of an American ambassador to Damascus; keeping all sanctions regimes in place; escalating anti-Syrian rhetoric; and generally tightening the screw.

(2) Play softball: Drop all preconditions regarding Hizbullah and Hamas, and resume the negotiations.

The first option would represent a return to the Bush policy, which produced few positive results between 2006-08, led to two wars, and put the Syrian-Israeli talks on hold. On the other hand, the second option is completely unrealistic, given the level of mistrust between the two sides. What is needed is an alternative approach.

(3) Bring Lebanon on board (aka, the “curveball” option).

syrialebanon1Last August, I wrote an article for Syria Comment entitled “Syria & Lebanon Should Hold Simultaneous Talks With Israel”. In it, I outlined the reasons that such a strategy would be beneficial for Syria as well as the United States and Israel, not to mention Lebanon. At the very least, it would send a signal of Syrian commitment and seriousness regarding the talks, as well as a demonstration of its clout with its allies in Lebanon. (You can read the entire article, along with the engaging discussion which followed it in the comment section here).

Bringing the Lebanese into the game — even if only in a ceremonial capacity — could also help the current parties get around the obstactle represented by the Hizbullah precondition. How? By creating a situation where the continuity of Hizbullah’s resistance is treated as a function of Lebanon’s grievances with Israel, rather than a Syrian card to be played or withheld, Syria would effectively be signalling to the U.S. that it is prepared to have Hizbullah dismantle its resistance as long as this is achieved through a process which addresses the various outstanding issues on the Lebanese side (refugees, security, territory, etc.) in addition, of course, to settling the question of the Golan.

Several objections spring to mind, but before addressing them, I’d like to make my assumptions clear. First of all, this proposal is predicated on the notion that all parties involved (Syria, Israel, and the United States) are not merely playing the process. In other words, I’ve set aside all skeptical arguments and assumed that both Syria and Israel are actually serious about reaching a land-for-security deal, and that the U.S. is willing to assume the role of broker.

If this is the case, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Syria is prepared to play a role in dismantling the Lebanese resistance, should the Golan be returned. Just as Syria kept Hizbullah in check during the various peace processes and negotiations of the 1990’s, so too will it do so — one way or another — after a final Golan settlement. The question, therefore, is not whether or not Syria’s relations with Hizbullah will be addressed by these talks, but rather when and how. My argument is that by bringing Hizbullah into the negotiations (using the fig leaf of the Lebanese government), Syria will be allowing these questions to be addressed and settled, and in a more methodical and responsible fashion, rather than through some kind of spectacular and meaningless public gesture.

Some Objections

What about Hamas? I believe that this issue will become easier to finesse if the Syrians allow the Lebanese to come on board. Nobody in Israel is enthusiastic about the Palestinian track, and standing firm on the precondition to cut its ties with Hamas is tantamount to calling off the Syrian track as well. Unlike Hizbullah — which has made no secret of its willingness to turn to other affairs once the resistance has achieved its objectives —  Hamas has no other arena to turn to, and so Syria cannot bring it into the picture without addressing the entire Palestinian-Israeli issue. The Americans surely understand this, and so I believe that the Hamas precondition is a fairly soft ‘red line’.

What about the Lebanese? How can Syria guarantee that Israel will not try to make a deal with Lebanon at its own expense? As much as I would like to imagine that such a scenario were even possible, I have no doubt that it is not. Hizbullah answers to nobody in the Lebanese government — at least on military matters. Lebanon has nothing valuable to offer to Israel that Syria cannot veto. Therefore, there is virtually no chance for the Lebanese to spoil the party. Lebanon’s presence would be, as I said earlier, completely gratuitous, but it would serve an important function nonetheless. Like the brown paper bag that gave cops an excuse not to arrest drunks on street corners, Lebanon’s presence at the negotiating table would give the Americans and Israelis an excuse to engage Syria without the precondition of cutting its ties to Hizbullah.
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41 thoughts on “Can Lebanon Play a Role in Syrian-Israeli Talks?

  1. QN,
    First, I recognize that you pre-conditioned your analysis on “the notion that all parties involved are not merely playing the process…” Before getting into your analysis, I want to emphasize that this is a highly dubious pre-condition. There is no evidence whatsoever that Israel is serious about making peace with anyone, and it is pretty clear that they have adopted a policy of only accepting unconditional surrender. And I make this statement without having seen the belligerence of the coming Israeli government (which will only make things worse).

    That said, I think there is a positive aspect to your analysis and a negative. The positive is only applicable if you restrict the terms of the “conflict” to the occupation/border issue between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. If that is your framework, then it is not unreasonable to argue that Syria and Lebanon have many mutual border disputes with Israel, and their means to address those conflicts often overlap (ie. Hizbullah is doing all the work), and thus it is in the best interest of all three parties to jointly negotiate… As you said, the key point of this is that Hizbullah is the muscle on the Arab side, and Syria can capitalize on that, and I think you made that point fairly well, so I don’t need to elaborate futher.

    But I think there are several terminal flaws in this analysis (even restricting the debate to only the Syrian/Lebanese/Israeli issues, and ignoring the regional and palestinian dimensions). The first is that it’s not in Israel’s interests to negotiate with Syria and Lebanon at the same time. Israel sees Syria as the weak link, and thus would not be interested in allowing Syria to strengthen it’s position by adding Hizbullah into the mix. Further, when you say “Lebanon” the Israelis think “Hizbullah”. And their view of Hizbullah is largely connected to Iran. So when Landis said that Syria has nothing to give, “save support for Hizbullah, Lebanese sovereignty (which, to America, is practically the same thing as disarming Hizbullah)” he is correct. and from an Israeli strategic perspective, this also means neutralizing Iran’s proxy on its borders. OK, fine, but do you really think Israel thinks Syria can sever the ties between Iran and Hizbullah? Because, if an Israeli reads your analysis, that is what you imply. And Israel would not believe that for a minute. From an Israeli perspective, the reason they want to “flip” Syria is not because they think they can get Syria to shut down Hizbullah, but because they think they can take the wind out of Iran and Hizbullah. They want Syria to repeat the words of the Saudi FM today (look it up if you didn’t see). Syria doesn’t have much strategic value to Israel, because of the weakness that Landis pointed out. Obviously, this view brings into play many associated relationships and considerations that make a joint negotiating position very hard. most notibly that Lebanon and Syria have common territorial claims against Israel, but have different strategic relationships to it.

    The second prominent problem to you analysis is that Israel (and the USA) do not fundamentally distinguish between Lebanon and Hizbullah in terms of regional Lebanon’s foreign policy or military matters (and especially if Hizbullah wins the coming election). So in a sense you are asking that Syria work as the third party mediator between Hizbullah and Israel. I can’t see this as suitable for either Syria or Hizbullah.

    Of course, the last is that Israel simply finds Golan too valuable to give up. They keep it because of military considerations, but also because of water and farming considerations (and as a vacation destination, if you believe Shai). And they can’t replace these considerations in another way. So I think you are underestimating the value that Israel places on Golan. I think it is possible for Israel to give back the Lebanese border areas that they control, because they are much less valuable and Hizbullah poses a much larger strategic threat to Israel. But Syria’s power is very low, while Golan’s value is very high.

    Posted by Joe M. | March 3, 2009, 7:35 pm
  2. I hope Landis is getting paid big bucks by the thugs over in Damascus. After all, no one should work for free.

    Posted by chris | March 3, 2009, 7:42 pm
  3. Further to Joe M.’s comments

    If I am reading you correctly, you believe that the Syrians are able to dismantle the Resistance if it chooses to do so and such a threat will bring them to the table?

    Yes it can stop support and make the import of resources more difficult but I think where you say that Syria kept Hizballah in check during the 90’s is slightly misleading. The Syria-Hizballah relationship is far more nuanced than you are giving it credit.

    And for Hizballah to give up its weapons without or before a resolution on the Palestinian front would cost them far more politically than having a cold war with Syria (which ironically would probably get them a few more supporters in Lebanon).

    Posted by Mo | March 3, 2009, 8:00 pm
  4. QN,
    Hizballah is only valuable as a nuisance to Israel if it is disassociated from Lebanon. Otherwise, the duo Lebanon+Hizballah is incapable of doing anything against Israel, just like Syria.
    Therefore, what you suggest, would weaken Hizballah even more. Therefore, it will not happen. Hizballah is trying to figure out how to disassociate itself from Lebanon and change the rules Israel established in 2006. If they don’t figure this out soon, they will become irrelevant against Israel. But surely, being part of the Lebanese negotiating team or being the responsibility of Lebanon is not going to help them.

    What you suggest is good for Syria but not for Hizballah.

    Posted by AIG | March 3, 2009, 8:14 pm
  5. QN,

    I’m still of the opinion that the best way to resolve the arab/israeli conflict is through comprehensive negotiations, with the arab league proposal as a starting point, thus bringing all involved parties under one tent as the tracks are inter related on several fronts.

    Such an approach will have lots of weight behind it like the entire arab countries, EU and one would believe the US also.

    The $64k questions is whether Israel would go for it or is truly seeking an end to this conflict once and for all based on the 67 line. Unfortunately so far Israel have not taken this plan seriously enough. A position not too conducive to a settlement.

    Maybe they’ll see the light one day.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | March 3, 2009, 8:55 pm
  6. Chris,

    I doubt Josh’s paycheck is larger than your AIPAC’s one.

    Just kidding man. Lighten up dude. Have a puff or two from the argileh ya zalameh.

    No need to throw these kinds of accusations, even if you disagree with the message.


    Posted by Ras Beirut | March 3, 2009, 9:03 pm
  7. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your comments. Let me first address your first and last points, which are similar.

    There’s no way to know how serious the various players are. I’m trying to think constructively about the talks, which requires suspending skepticism. Otherwise, I may as well just turn on American Idol. If I knew for a fact that Israel had absolutely no intention to ever give up the Golan, then I wouldn’t even pay attention to the talks. I don’t know this for a fact. I’m trying to be constructive.

    As for your point about negotiating strategy, you say that Israel has no interest in negotiating with Syria and Lebanon together because Syria is weak, and adding Lebanon (i.e. Hizbullah) to the mix would only strengthen Syria. This does not make sense, in my opinion, because whether we like it or not, Hizbullah is already in the mix. Let’s get serious: Israel is not even going to look at a Syrian offer that does not change the security situation of the tri-state area (!). Syria has helped build up the Lebanese resistance over the years as a means to put pressure on Israel in order to get the Golan back. As Landis says, Syria has nothing else to offer besides Hizbullah, so why are we pretending that Lebanon is not already intimately involved in the negotiations?

    With regard to your point about Iran’s relationship with Hizbullah, there’s no reason that these ties would have to be severed if the resistance is dismantled. If Syria gets what it wants (the Golan) and Lebanon gets what it wants (Shebaa, a deal regarding refugees, etc.) then why do we need the resistance anymore? Why not just a national defense for a country that is no longer at war?

    I didn’t quite get your point about Syria acting as mediator between Hizbullah and Israel.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 5:54 am
  8. Mo

    “If I am reading you correctly, you believe that the Syrians are able to dismantle the Resistance if it chooses to do so and such a threat will bring them to the table?

    Mo, I don’t want to suggest that Syria simply knock some heads together and bring down the resistance, but, yes, I believe Syria has the ability to persuade Hizbullah to dismantle the resistance and integrate into the army. It can do this with a combination of sticks and carrots.

    The Syria-Hizballah relationship is far more nuanced than you are giving it credit.

    Please say more about this. Of course the relationship is highly nuanced, and this is why I feel that Hizbullah should be at the table, not on the table. As I said in the discussion at SC:

    So, squeezing Hizbullah is not simply a matter of deciding on a whim to stop sending them weapons. They are not a bunch of ragtag Salafists with several crates of RPG’s in a basement. This is a major political/military operation with a billion dollar budget, tens of thousands of employees, a construction arm, a growing media empire, social welfare networks, etc. They are not the type who, when Syria says “Jump”, will say, “How high?”

    With regard to your point about the Palestinian front, I think you’re being unrealistic when you say that not giving up its weapons would create a “cold war” with Syria. Mo, it would create a very hot war. Sure, ending the resistance might bring Hizbullah’s popularity down with some people because of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but it would raise it with others. Did the Hizb fire a single rocket during the war on Gaza? Nope. So why do they need weapons (other than for defending Lebanon)? How do their weapons make a difference to the Palestinians?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 6:06 am
  9. AIG

    Again, this comes down to how we frame the thought experiment. If Syria is serious about getting the Golan back, then a consideration of what is convenient or inconvenient for Hizbullah is beside the point. Syria will do what it needs to do, and its weaker allies will have to make adjustments in their own deliberations.

    It’s interesting to me that all of you guys seem to believe that Syria has the ability to “negotiate” for the Golan without putting Hizbullah on the table. It’s just not realistic.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 6:11 am
  10. Ras Beirut said:

    I’m still of the opinion that the best way to resolve the arab/israeli conflict is through comprehensive negotiations, with the arab league proposal as a starting point, thus bringing all involved parties under one tent as the tracks are inter related on several fronts.

    Ras Beirut, I couldn’t agree more. But the Arab League Proposal is currently decomposing like a soggy, half-eaten, labneh sandwich. Until the Arabs figure out how to form a united front, coordinating their own carrots and sticks, then there is no hope for the Arab Initiative.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 6:13 am
  11. Carrots in the soggy labneh sandwich? That’s gross.

    It seems like, from a Palestinian perspective, this would be the worst of all worlds. Even though the assistance the Palestinians get from Hizbullah is limited, it is the only help there is, once one discounts the machinations of the neighbouring dictatorships.

    Cutting the Palestinians out of the negotiations might very well increase the chance of successes in the Golan and on the northern border, but it would make Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza weaker still.

    One problem I could see, however, for the new integrated Syria/Lebanon (inc. Hizbullah) negotiating front is the Palestinian communities inside Lebanon. Already so desperate after Nahr al-Bared that the height of their ambitions is survival, or a Hizbullah blind eye turned to a symbolic single rocket, what would happen to them? Firmly under a Syrian cosh? A Hizbullah cosh? A Lebanese army cosh? Would the new negotiating front offer guarantees of their control to Israel?

    The broader question here is: what is your sense of the ideas for endgames for the Palestinians in Lebanon that might be floating around in Lebanon now, at a time when, at least on this blog, changes are in the air (electoral reform / Hizbullah integration into the army / opposition taking power etc)? Are there any ideas floating around at all?

    Posted by JH | March 4, 2009, 8:15 am
  12. The main problem that I can see with including Lebanon on the Syrian side of the table is the question of Palestinian refugees. While refugees are not a huge issue for Syria, they are a much bigger deal for Lebanon. As such, it’s hard to see how a deal could be brokered without a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians.

    I sincerely doubt that Israel would allow the refugees from Lebanon to return to an occupied West Bank, and I’m not sure many Palestinians here would even want to return to anything less than a sovereign Palestinian state. Likewise, Beirut (much less Hrat Hreik) cannot sign a peace agreement with the Israelis without a resolution to the refugee issue. And since naturalization is out of the question in the current political structure, I don’t really see how a lasting deal can be made, meaning that the statement that Lebanon will be the last country to sign a deal with Lebanon may be more a realistic prediction than an oath of defiance.

    Posted by sean | March 4, 2009, 8:24 am
  13. JH

    Ahlan wa sahlan.

    You’re right about this arrangement being the worst of all possible worlds for the Palestinians. But the situation would be no different if it were just Syria negotiating without Lebanon. Syria cannot get the Golan back without dealing on Hizbullah. So, that horse has already left the barn. The Palestinians would not be any weaker as a result of a Lebanon-Syria-Israel deal than a Syria-Israel deal.

    As for the refugees, both you and Sean are right: it’s the toughest issue of all. But my point is this: it’s not going to get any less tough, no matter which strategies are adopted. There is no satisfactory solution on the horizon for the refugees, unless one is hoping that the Arabs are somehow going to rise up and force Israel to accept the right of return. If that’s what you are hoping for, then yes: these negotiations and others like it should be opposed. But if you believe that the refugee issue will have to be settled through some combination of return and compensation, then I ask: what is the difference between doing this now versus later, besides more bloodshed and misery?

    I mean, if some proportion of the refugees in Lebanon is eventually going to be allowed to return to the West Bank while another proportion is settled in Lebanon (which may be the impetus necessary to initiate changes in the political structure), while another one is given visas, etc… why are we just delaying the inevitable?

    These are ugly and uncomfortable questions. But if we can’t discuss them on an anonymous blog, then what the hell are we doing anyway?

    The only argument that I can think of in response is that making a compensation/settlement deal for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will eventually impinge negatively on a similar compensation/settlement deal for Gaza and the West Bank. But again, this would be the same (actually worse) were Syria to negotiate with Israel on its own, without Lebanon.

    PS: Aren’t you supposed to be writing something important, JH? Why are you wasting your time reading blogs? 😉

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 8:44 am
  14. I have to admit I did not read your comments at SC (couldn’t find em) but I agree with Landis; Israel cannot and will not accept losing complete conrol and exclusive access to the Sea of Galilee. As a water source it is too vital. And Syria cannot accept anything other than complete return of the land and anything less will seem like a surrender. So I think these talks, if they continue under Bibi, will be nothing more than a fig leaf to both parties to show Uncle Sam what good peaceniks they both are.

    But I accept that your argument is based on the premise that both parties enter them in good faith.

    First, let me just say, the notion of the Resistance becoming part of the army is very doubtful to me. Yes the army can get the weapons and resources but the Resistance is sucessful, militarily, because it is a Resistance movement and all the secrecy, lack of hard targets, local support etc. that being a Resistance movement entails. Being part of the Army means barracks, an unvetted chain of command etc.

    In regards to Hizballah and Syria, I have to disagree with the assesment that Syria has the power to dismantle the Resistance. Lets not forget that they are not in fact natural allies. It is important to remember that up until 91, Syria and Hizballah were mortal enemeies because Hizballah were eroding Amals power as representatives of the Shia. And I think its important to note the logic that Hizballah did not enter govt. until the Syrians left and not when the Syrians were deciding who got to be govt.

    In fact, I beleive the Syrian “influence” over Hizballah has been over played and used by Syria in the last decade, with Hizballah’s approval because it becomes a win-win for both of them. Syria gets to pretend it has a card at the table and Hizballah get some of the heat transferred off them and onto Syria.

    Analysing what carrot and stick approach they can use, I can’t see anything past the Syrians blocking the transfer of resources from Iran.
    When you say it would be a hot war if Hizballah refuse to give up its arms when Syria says so, are you saying you believe that Syria will militarily try to take on Hizballah? As unrealistic as I think that would be for a plethora of reasons, it would be very interesting to see Geagea cheering on Hizballah!

    But the main reason they wont give up their arms is I think because they wont go to the table, esp. not if they win the elections. They are quite happy with an armistice along the border, but seriously, can you imagine Hassan Nasrallah ever agreeing to sign a document that legitimises the existence of Israel?

    Which leads onto the Palestinian issue.

    Hizballah, is in its essence Arabist as much as it is nationalist. Yes, its weapons will never liberate Jerusalem, but they are also not wholly symbolic. They did not fire a missile into Israel during the Israeli killfest in Gaza because they are realists. I dont think you need to support them to accept that their actions are mostly always meticulousy gauaged (with 2006 being a probably large exception). Firing a missile or two into Israel would have helped the Gazans not a jot and given the Israelis ample excuse to kill some Lebanese children as their quota on Palestinian children was running out. It would also have given Hizballahs local opponents plenty of political points which is probably not a good idea in an election year.

    But the fact that the weapons are there, that the threat is there is something the Israelis have to take into account.

    We both know that the Israeli end game is Palestinian submission. They want a peace treaty with the Palestinians without concession and one way of doing that is to make the Palestinians feel that they have been abandoned by everyone; That they should have no hope and should just sign whatever piece of paper is put in front of them. And considering Hizballahs beleifs on the subject, I do not think that they will take their support, no matter how symbolic, away from the Palestinians.

    Ending the resistance might bring Hizbullah’s popularity down with some people because of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but it would raise it with others. Yes, but it is those whose support it would lose that make it what it is; Without that support it would be nothing.

    Therefore, to answer your original point, its not that I believe that Syria has the ability to “negotiate” for the Golan without putting Hizbullah on the table.
    Its that I do not believe that Syria will be allowed to put Hizballah on the table, not by Iran and not, not least of all, by Hizballah itself.

    Posted by mo | March 4, 2009, 8:53 am
  15. Mo

    Interesting analysis.

    Its that I do not believe that Syria will be allowed to put Hizballah on the table, not by Iran and not, not least of all, by Hizballah itself.

    You may be right about this. In fact I would say that this reading is much more realistic than the thought experiment I’ve devised.

    But given that Syria is projecting a very different message right now, I thought it would be worth taking it at its word.

    Re Hizbullah/Army integration… you may be right, again. I’m not a military expert. But I have to imagine that creative solutions can be found. After all, this is the country that invented the concept of RENTING a bottle of Cristal to place on your table at a nightclub, instead of buying one for 10 times the price. We’re creative bastards, we Lebanese.

    With respect to Hizbullah’s Arabism, etc… this may be true, but if there’s one thing I’ve come to believe about actors in this region (esp. this COUNTRY) is that nothing is forever. Once upon a time the Shi`a collaborated with the Israelis against the Palestinians. Now they are their champions. Tomorrow… who knows?

    As for Geagea getting cozy with Hizbullah, what’s so hard to believe? (Aoun did it, and he was just as, if not more, critical of Hizbullah, once upon a time).

    No, I don’t think Syria would militarily disarm the Hizb. But Syria has its ways of making anyone uncomfortable.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 9:08 am
  16. There was a play in the mid-eighties called something like Saif 840 at the Piccasilly theatre in Beirut.

    It was about the Ottoman rule in Lebanon. In one scene a Turkish guard approaches 2 women who are whispering and shouts “What are you whispering about?” and the women reply “not politics we swear”. The guard bellows back:”Lebanese and not talking about politics?! Now I know your’re lying!”

    God, we do love talking politics don’t we…!

    Posted by mo | March 4, 2009, 9:46 am
  17. Thankfully I’m a one-blog man – I just wish you’d put some more sport in… I’m going on North End / Crystal Palace this weekend and could do with some analysis of the Beast.

    Some in the DFLP were at the point of being seriously happy with a return to the West Bank and Gaza well before Nahr al-Bared – one can only imagine that now they are much closer to the state Mo described: ready to take anything that gets them out of the grimness and stagnation of the camps – be it visas abroad, WBG resettlement, money, Lebanese nationality.

    The problem is that the second party in this case is not the Israelis, but rather the Lebanese (including Hizbullah plus Syria).

    I call on QN to lift the veil from the Arab street, and give us a sense of what people think will happen to the Palestinians in their midst in the long-term….

    Posted by JH | March 4, 2009, 12:10 pm
  18. Long term, Lebanon and the Palestinians probably cannot afford the “nationality” route.

    Personally, I think they should be given a “resident” status, akin to the resident status in the UK or having a green card in the US. It would allow them to leave the camps, work, own property without affecting the ever so delicate secterian balance by not allowing a vote.

    This would also benefit the state as they would be contributing to its coffers and removing the tension and desperateness of living in the camps (therefore reducing the pool of people the Salafist groups are able to recruit from).

    And the Palestinians would be able to get on with their lives without notionaly giving up the right of return by taking another nationality.

    As for the Beast, wtf a team with a goal difference of 3 is doing in 5th is beyond me

    Posted by mo | March 4, 2009, 12:25 pm
  19. The Beast does his best, but it’s a tough league. Only sheer grit and games in hand are keeping us up there…

    Such a green card would make a huge difference in the quality of Palestinians’ lives, and, by making them less desperate and powerless, reduce the ability of extremists from outside to wade in and set up camp.

    What do you think is holding such a step back? Economic fear that Palestinians will replace the Syrians as cheap labour? The orientation of the government (which might change soon)? Fear it would create instability (memories of the past)?

    Posted by JH | March 4, 2009, 12:46 pm
  20. A mixture of third rail politics, social elitism, fear of instability and out and out racism. I’m not sure the past still has much sway outside of some small areas;

    There are armed Palestinians today but they do not come close to matching the strength and numbers the PLO had in Lebanon.

    If M8 win the elections by enough of a margin there may be a change in politics towards the camps, but I doubt it will be either quick or easy.

    Posted by mo | March 4, 2009, 1:00 pm
  21. Back to “sport” – How tough can a league be if the team at the top can go 5 games without a win and stay top?!

    Oh I forgot Im a Liverppol fan – forget I said anything

    Posted by mo | March 4, 2009, 1:01 pm
  22. Thanks.

    Liverpool’s internal politics put Lebanon to shame, no? I thought we had you worried for a bit in the second half of that FA Cup game though…

    Posted by JH | March 4, 2009, 1:06 pm
  23. Yeah, Rafa Nasrallah has had his May 7th moment and got Parry to quit.

    With Liverpool at the moment, Tadamoun Sur (Lebanese football team just in case youre not up on the Lebanese football scene) could give us a run for our money. And after Barnsley last season I expected anyone to give it a good shot.

    Isnt QN going to be happy we turned his post into a football forum…..

    Posted by mo | March 4, 2009, 1:13 pm
  24. Nice post, QN, but I tend to agree with Mo, vis-a-vis the nuance in the HA-Syrian relationship. In my own view, it was the Israeli redeployment in 2000 that starting something of a clock for the post-Taif Syrian order in Lebanon. That is not to say that Syria does not continue to have state interests in Lebanon or that the cultural, economic, demographic, political, familial ties don’t still bind, but I think in general the Syrian regime (and Iran, for that matter) is much more (and increasingly) dependent on HA than vice-versa — one may call the Lebanese Opposition pro-Syrian, but just look at who is driving that bus.

    One good indication of whether or not I am right is to listen to the Syrian rhetoric wrt the International Tribunal. My guess is that they will not protest so loud and will largely follow the lead of the Lebanese Opposition in tone, tenor and volume. Of course, some elements of the Syrian regime and certain Syrian apparatchiks in Lebanon will shreik that the Tribunal is Zionist plot, but in the main, these might well be outliers.

    While I tend to dismiss any notion that the Syria regime has or ever had a ‘coherent’ policy in Lebanon, I do think its neighbor has always presented the regime (itself not a unchanging monolith) with a series of dilemmas and opportunities. My point being that I think Syria has fewer levers in Lebanon than ever, which is funny because its Lebanese levers were never that reliable in the first place.

    We shall see. Anyway, good post.

    Posted by dadavidovich | March 4, 2009, 1:50 pm
  25. Re footie, happy to oblige.

    Not that I understand a goddamn word of what you’re talking about. 🙂

    With respect to the camps, the biggest factor is the hysteria surrounding tawtin generated by the tag-team effort of Christians and Shi`a combined. A “green card” sounds like the first wobbly step on a slippery slope, for the likes of everyone from Naim Qassem to Samir Geagea.

    That’s why this statement is probably off base:

    If M8 win the elections by enough of a margin there may be a change in politics towards the camps, but I doubt it will be either quick or easy.

    What interest do the FPM and Hizbullah/Amal have in ameliorating conditions for the Palestinians? Their constituents are overwhelmingly suspicious of the Sunni inhabitants of the camps. Not good politics to touch that issue.


    I’ll have you know that I’ve made comments similar to the one you made above, and have been roundly abused by my Syrian friends for a “Lebanon-centric” outlook. So I’m glad you’re not Lebanese… gives some more authenticity to the sentiment.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 4, 2009, 2:13 pm
  26. Hi QN,
    There isn’t really much I would add to this discussion at this point, and I just want to say that I appreciate Mo’s analysis. Except I did want to respond to one point you made above, you said:

    “As for your point about negotiating strategy, you say that Israel has no interest in negotiating with Syria and Lebanon together because Syria is weak, and adding Lebanon (i.e. Hizbullah) to the mix would only strengthen Syria. This does not make sense, in my opinion, because whether we like it or not, Hizbullah is already in the mix.”

    My point was a strategic point. You say Hizbullah is already in the mix, and that is true, but why would Israel prefer to negotiate with both Hizbullah and Syria simultaneously rather than independently (assuming they want to negotiate)? By doing so they would take one party (who’s demands are internationally recognized) with no military capabilities and substantial territorial demands, and pair them with an internationally demonized party that has minimal territorial demands and significant fighting ability. In doing so you would allow both parties to use each others strengths to their relative advantages…

    If you are Israel, you want Hizbullah’s territorial demands to remain as small as possible, and you want Syria to remain as strategically/militarily weak as possible. For that matter, you want to decouple the Palestine question from all other points of conflict so that your strategic negotiating position is a strong as possible. For the Arabs, it’s advantageous to tie their grievances together, but for Israel it is best to address each individually. it maximizes Israel’s negotiating power.

    Anyway. I don’t think there is much more to add here…

    Posted by Joe M. | March 5, 2009, 8:55 am
  27. QN,

    I guess its a case of thinking laterally. “Green cards” dont have to be a slippery slope if implemented properly.

    I agree that it is unlikely to happen and that it is third rail politics to touch the issue. I am only suggesting that M8 are more likely than M14 to touch it based on the logic that if the Palestinians in the camps are given the ability to improve their lives without affecting the secterian balance they wont have to worry about the mistrust and they will remove the issue of the arms in the camps.

    This problem is two fold for them. On the one hand, they know many of these groups would love to take them on, so they have to be very watchful of that. More importantly, those that are working towards removing the arms from the Resistance have and will attempt to use the arms in the Palestinian camps to pass legislation that will affect the Resistance.

    But like you say, its unlikely and all based on supposition.

    Joe M.,
    I really like that analysis. And its basically why Israel has wanted to and largely succeded in de-coupling its negotiations with the Arabs and the Palestinians

    Posted by mo | March 5, 2009, 2:30 pm
  28. I think mo made a good argument for why Syria is unable to use what is ostensibly its best negotiating card. I would add, much more speculatively, that one of Syria’s aims in negotiating with Israel is to keep Iran and Hezbollah on their toes and ensure they do not take Syria for granted. Especially since 2006, Syria is beginning to look like the junior partner in the resistance camp and keeping their options open is one way to increase their value with their allies.

    QN, the problems in Lebanon are not awaiting creative ideas (there are plenty), but await the political will to accept them. Something like a Palestinian ‘green card’ is an example of a pragmatic approach to a problem that is rejected because of communal paranoias among various Lebanese and Palestinian groups.

    I think you would find the March 14 Sunni leadership more amenable to tawteen than you think, not just because of narrow electoral considerations, but also because they expect a substantial reduction (if not outright elimination) of Lebanon’s public debt in compensation. However I think their own constituents are much more ambivalent about abandoning the right of return.

    March 8 definitely has an incentive in improving the situation in the camps. Not only to alleviate security concerns, as mo points out, but also to increase support for ‘their’ Palestinians (ie Hamas) in the camps. There is a Lebanese battle for Palestinian hearts and minds within the camps. Do not think March 8 will simply look at this through a sectarian lens.

    However, based on March 8’s track record in Lebanese state building, I wouldn’t expect much from their Palestinian projects either.

    Posted by RedLeb | March 5, 2009, 4:55 pm
  29. Especially since 2006, Syria is beginning to look like the junior partner in the resistance camp …

    I have to pinch myself and remember that this is not Syria Comment when I read statements like this one. 🙂

    I’m all in support of a green card (and more). Let’s see if it happens.

    But let me ask you, RedLeb, is there really a battle in Lebanon for the hearts and minds of camp-bound Palestinians? I have never felt the effects of this battle. If anything, there seems to be a battle for the hearts and minds of Lebanese who are against anything related to the Palestinians.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 5, 2009, 5:10 pm
  30. March 8, March 14… this is too manichean. The points and arguments made in this blog are very interesting, but the thoughts are scattered. If bloggers would elaborate their thoughts without considering March 8 and March 14 each as solid entities (even though they know that they’re not), then it would be much more consistent. I understand that by using March 8 and March 14 as such reduces the amount of paragraphs to write, but it also sligthly distorts the thoughts which are being constructed.

    Thanks for the effort, guys.

    Posted by Nidal | March 5, 2009, 8:27 pm
  31. QN,

    I must say that I also do not think Syria can “deliver” on anyone – not Hezbollah, not Iran, and not even Hamas. The only thing it can do, is change its military relationship with all three, if it chose to do so. And it won’t choose to do so, until well after a final agreement on the complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan is reached.

    So then how will Israel ever agree to such a withdrawal, given its current preconditions? I believe the solution lies in perceptions, and in the manipulation each nation’s leadership will be willing to carry out on its own people. In Israel’s case, whatever government signs such an agreement will have to claim it has “removed” Syria from the “Evil Axis”. In Syria’s case, the ruling regime will have to present the agreement as part and parcel of a larger, more comprehensive process (note – not “deal”). In Lebanon’s case, it’ll be about the occupied Lebanese territory, and various “stipulations” about Right-of-Return for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

    But in all those, if I had to guess, I’d say they would all entail vested interest of the respective leaderships to manipulate their people, and a vested interest of the people to “swallow” these bitter pills. As sad as it may be (and I do honestly think it is), I’m quite certain that the Syrians care more about the Golan than about Ramallah, and that the Lebanese, including Hezbollah, care more about their lands, than about Gaza.

    I do agree with Joe M. that Israel will always prefer to divide-and-conquer, by negotiating with one party at a time. In that respect, I doubt Israel will accept negotiations with Hezbollah (to Israelis, that would be accepting HA as something other than terrorists). Will Israel accept negotiations with (Lebanon-minus-HA)? Sure, but we both know that’ll never happen. HA won’t allow it, and neither will Syria.

    If Obama is smart, he’ll force the Arabs to unite, by bringing everyone in the region to a Madrid-III. He should stop wasting his time sending Hillary to Mahmoud Abbas. He should now send his envoys only to prepare the Conference.

    Posted by Shai | March 5, 2009, 10:41 pm
  32. QN,
    There is definitely a struggle between Fatah and Hamas for control of the camps. Institutionally, Fatah is more dominant and is directly supported by March 14 (I would say supported by Future, but considering the number of appearances Abbas Zaki has put in with Amin Gmayel, I think I am allowed using March 14 here as an entity).

    Hezbollah’s relationship with the Palestinians in the camps is more ambiguous. Obviously they have ties to Hamas. But also on an emotional level, Hezbollah’s rhetoric with respect to Palestine and Nasrallah’s ‘red line’ on Naher El Bared (as ineffectual as it was) resonates with a broader segment of camp Palestinians. There are also lines of communication and support between opposition Sunnis and Palestinian factions.

    My reading of the current volatility of the camps and the periodic flare ups we witness in the news from to time is that they are caused by this struggle for power between Palestinians factions, each supported by a Lebanese patron. We don’t get to see the campaigning itself, just the violent effects. Considering the changing balance of power between Gaza and the West Bank, the camps will be even more volatile in the immediate future.

    The only way a ‘green card’ approach could work would be as a Palestinian initiative. Something in the lines of a Palestinian citizenship the Palestinians would issue that all Arab countries would then recognize and give certain rights to. If it came out as a Lebanese initiative, it would not have the necessary credibility. But here we’ve entered the realm of fantasy.

    Posted by RedLeb | March 6, 2009, 3:37 am
  33. Shai, you said:

    I must say that I also do not think Syria can “deliver” on anyone – not Hezbollah, not Iran, and not even Hamas. The only thing it can do, is change its military relationship with all three, if it chose to do so.

    I guess that’s what I mean by “deliver”.

    Let me be clear everyone: I’m not under the impression that Bashar al-Asad can sign a peace deal one day and then Hasan Nasrallah wakes up with a dead horse’s head in his bed the next.

    Okay?! 🙂

    Obviously there is nuance, complexity, etc etc etc. But at the end of the day, Israel has no interest in dealing with Syria unless something substantial changes in its security situation. Nobody — not Bibi, not Livni, not Moses — can sell a Golan deal to the Israelis unless the quid pro quo is VERY tempting. I’m assuming that most Israelis look at this like AIG does. And AIG prefers “low intensity warfare” to a deal with Syria any day of the week.

    If Obama is smart, he’ll force the Arabs to unite, by bringing everyone in the region to a Madrid-III. He should stop wasting his time sending Hillary to Mahmoud Abbas. He should now send his envoys only to prepare the Conference.

    I agree, but do you think he should abandon the Syria track, then? Are you changing your mind on this?


    Are you in Beirut at the moment? We should get a coffee if so.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 6, 2009, 12:09 pm
  34. QN,

    I wish Obama will choose the Syria track. My thesis hasn’t changed – I still believe this track has the best potential. But, if some of the comments I’ve read about the Kerry-Assad meeting are correct, and if the U.S. seems to be continuing the dictating-stance or relationship it had before with Syria, then I think the Syria track will not work out. And when I hear how Hillary is so “committed” to the two-state solution, saying it next to the person whose term in office has expired, and who does not enjoy the support of the majority of his people, then I’m not terribly optimistic that the Obama administration understands the reality on the ground here.

    I thought Mitchell was going to address the need to develop dialogue also with Hamas, but so far I haven’t heard it. Hillary has given every indication that the U.S. plans to continue viewing the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people (Hamas) as illegitimate.

    So my hope now is that Obama will at least consider a Madrid-style conference, where all the sides will have to once again face one another, and address the comprehensive issues jointly, as they did almost two decades ago.

    (As a side note, if Lieberman does become our next Foreign Minister, I would LOVE to see him sitting there, surrounded by so many Arab leaders and their delegations… I’ll even heat up some popcorn for the event… 🙂 )

    Posted by Shai | March 6, 2009, 9:42 pm
  35. As for your comment: “I’m assuming that most Israelis look at this like AIG does. And AIG prefers “low intensity warfare” to a deal with Syria any day of the week.”

    Unlike AIG, most Israelis certainly do not prefer “low intensity warfare” to a deal. No one has given them the option of that versus a deal, since no Israeli leader has talked concretely about a deal. AIG has, on more than once occasion, stated very clearly that EVEN if a deal was presented to him, he STILL wouldn’t take it. He WOULD prefer continuing to fight with Syria either directly, or indirectly through HA, Iran, Hamas, whoever, just not to give up on the Golan.

    To remind ourselves, not a SINGLE Israeli Prime Minister has EVER made preconditions upon Syria (or any other Arab nation) that require Democracy first, before peace. This is a purely-AIG demand, that no Israeli leader, and hence neither the overwhelming majority of Israelis, have or will ever demand.

    Posted by Shai | March 6, 2009, 9:53 pm
  36. Yes, unless Syria becomes a democracy it would be foolish for Israel, in the current circumstances to give it the Golan, which is an integral part of Israel. But once Syria does become a true democracy, the Golan should be given to it as a gesture of goodwill and as an incentive for other Arabs states to democratize.

    QN is right. No Israeli PM can sell the deal unless there are very clear and very big short term benefits to Israel that would make giving the Golan worth it. I cannot see any such benefits that Syria can deliver. Syria is in dire economic straits and in any case the Syrians do not buy the high tech Israel exports. Remove support for Hamas or Hizballah? Not worth the Golan given the inability of these organizations to be a serious threat to Israel. And it is not even the case that Syria will disarm Hizballah. It will still be left with its rockets. So what are we giving the Golan for? Nothing concrete. We have to count on Asad’s word that he can deliver something in the future. Very few Israelis will buy that.

    There is a chance that if Asad comes to Jerusalem and tells the Knesset: “No more war, no more bloodshed” that maybe a majority of Israelis will be carried away and support a deal. But that is not something Asad can do without jeopardizing his regime.

    Posted by AIG | March 7, 2009, 12:05 am
  37. I’d like to back up 2 steps and provide what I think is a bit of a background to this from Israel’s side.

    Israel’s (perceived) interests in the Golan (in no particular order) are:
    (A) Recreation/tourism. Joe M, believe Shai. This is also an economic concern. The Golan helps keep tourism spending local.
    (B)Security. High ground, defensible hills etc. etc.
    (C)Water/Water Security. Even no water rights and a border away from the Sea of Galilee threatens water security (this one isn’t as important any more)
    (D)Commercial/Agricultural/Food Security. Some of this has roots in previous generation self sufficiency debates.
    (E) Potential costs of evacuating. They would need to move the military and/or

    Israel’s (perceived) costs of holding the Golan. Actually, this is easier explained as lack of costs:

    (A)Holding the Golan is cheap.
    – Not many soldiers.
    – Not much hassle with the supposedly loyal-to-Syria population.
    – Not much population.
    (B)Hizballah-Syria threat. Not very threatening (it’s all relative, no?). Not perceived as being directly related to holding the Golan.
    (C)No serious humanitarian concern. This means ambivalence from the type of people that protest in the WB.

    Looking at the above, you might conclude that Israel wouldn’t agree to a peace deal. But that’s missing the highly important nuances.

    While these are all perceived as real pros & cons, in Israel, they don’t really amount to that much. More to the point, they don’t amount to very much to anyone in particular. On any side of the debate. The whole political/economics of the situation is different. I wouldn’t recommend trying to understand Israel’s position on the Golan via the concepts for understanding the WB issues.

    Compare the Golan to Hebron. On the ‘support the 500 Hebron settlers’ side of the debate, it’s pretty desolate. There are religious reasons. There are nationalist / Historical reasons relating that (by some accounts) form a pivotal part of the justification for Zionism. But compared to the con side, it’s insane. Hebron is hugely costly: soldiers, millitary, international condemnation. There is also the huge humanitarian/rights issue which is important to a lot of Israelis and very important to a significant number.

    But the debate is structured in a way that Americans might call ‘special interest.’ A small minority really really want a Jewish Hebron. They are willing to put their lives and their children lives at enormous risk. A larger minority are willing to bear some costs dangers. A largeish minority want a Jewsish Hebron, but are as acyive about it as they are about better health care. The opponents of a Jewish Hebron are more numerous & less involved.

    Back to the Golan. Most of the people that were in favour of a 2 state solution with the Palestinians until recently are (maybe were, I’m not sure) probably OK with a Syria deal. The reverse is also true. But no one cares that much. A motivated political leader could push such a deal through but, he is under no internal pressure to do so.

    What does this amount to? I think this is an issue for sale.

    Two more points and I’m done:

    1) The prevailing belief inside Israel that these sorts of deals (‘territorial concessions’ to the opponents) do not achieve diplomatic/security wins. This is why the motivation for a deal with Syria is pretty low in the first place. I would advise any deal maker to work within this framework. Israel will pay more for a bird in the hand.

    2) The only real reasons why Syrian & “The World” are concerned about the Golan in the first place are face and the fact that there is a long standing UN rule (perhaps the only one), that wars are not allowed to be for-profit exercises. To keep this enforced, you cannot gain anything material from a war, including territory. It is understandable that the world would be interested in keeping this rule. But it is not a moral argument. Israelis are not interested in Syria’s rightful ownership.

    Posted by netsp | April 29, 2009, 9:36 am


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