TWENTY-FIFTH IN THE CAPITOL HILL CONFERENCE SERIES ON U.S. MIDDLE EAST POLICY
"LEBANON AND SYRIA: INTERNAL AND REGIONAL DIMENSIONS"
CHAS. W. FREEMAN, JR., PRESIDENT, MIDDLE EAST POLICY COUNCIL
MARTHA NEFF KESSLER, FORMER CIA OFFICIAL
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON, PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, BOSTON UNIVERSITY
GEORGE EMILE IRANI, CORE FACULTY, ROYAL ROADS UNIVERSITY, CANADA
PETER GUBSER, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN NEAR EAST REFUGEE AID
Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2253
Wednesday, May 23, 2001
9:30 AM - 12:00 Noon
Federal News Service
MR. FREEMAN: Good
morning. Iím Chas Freeman. I have the honor to be the president of
the Middle East Policy Council, and itís a great pleasure to welcome you here
this morning for a lively discussion of the neglected picture to the north of
all of the trauma and suffering that dominates our news about the Middle East
these days. We are here to talk
about the connections between Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians, and
naturally the discussion will, I think, focus on Lebanon because it has been
occupied by Palestinian refugees, by Syria, and by Israel at various points,
although the Israelis have now withdrawn from all but one small, disputed
Let me begin by saying a few words to those of you who donít know the Middle East Policy Council, about who we are and what we do. We are a small, nonprofit organization. Some would say a profitless organization that attempts to raise the level of information and discussion about policy issues of concern to Americans in the Middle East. We do three things. We come up here to Capitol Hill to stimulate a debate of a question which is either considered politically incorrect, or awkward, or for some other reason is not getting adequate attention. There are many examples of this, and you may find them in the second thing that we do, which is to publish Middle East Policy, which Iím proud to say is the most often cited publication in the field of Middle East issues internationally, and which has just had the distinct recognition of being taken over for distribution by Blackwellís Publishing, which seems to think that we produce something of such high quality that it deserves wider circulation.
Finally, outside the beltway, in that forgotten hinterland of the United States, we do a third thing, and that is we teach high school teachers how to teach about Arab civilization and Islam, trying to combat ignorance and the resulting prejudice. And we confuse, we think, about 750,000, 800,000 high school kids every year with a fact or two about Arab civilization and Islam. Weíve now trained 11,500 teachers, and we keep this program going.
I should say in conclusion that we are not a membership organization, but we do depend on donations from the public for support of the work that we carry on, and any of you who feel in a generous mood are welcome to step forward afterwards and write us a check.
Let me turn now to the issues before us. As I said, they probably will center on Lebanon, which has been both a participant and a victim of the vortex of politics in the region. With the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and the end of occupation there, a whole range of issues now present themselves for discussion. We think theyíre important. They deserve a public airing, and not withstanding the obsession we all have with events to the south, weíre happy to present this forum.
There are a series of questions that obviously need to be raised in connection. Are the conditions now ripe, now that Israel has withdrawn, for Syria to carry out its commitments under the Ta'if Accords of 1989, brokered by Saudi Arabia in the mountain city of Ta'if, and itself to withdraw? If not, what other adjustments toward greater equality in the Lebanese-Syrian relationship might be possible?
And what role, if any, can United States play in either inducing such developments, or coercing them? Now that the peace process has collapsed and Palestinians and Israelis are seen hell-bent on inflicting as much pain as possible on each other, what are the implications of this for Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees continue to be an important group in Lebanese politics and in Lebanese external relations?
And finally, in Lebanese politics themselves, which have a reputation internationally for a distinct pathology, is there now a possibility of reconciliation from further move toward a new balance that would provide a better basis for politics? I will not leave out Israel in this. We have the issue of Saavat (ph) farms, and of course the issue of Hezbollah, which, as violence escalates in the occupied territories, is becoming once again a very active factor with drawing Lebanon and Syria back into a relationship with Israel that probably none of them would have liked to have seen.
We have with us three of the four panelists that we had expected. Iím very sorry to say that Richard Norton, who is in many ways the mastermind and organizer of this session, has had a relapse of an ancient illness. Those of you who know him will know what that is, and I would just say that those of who do know him, all will pray for his speedy and safe recovery from this.
But we are very fortunate to have three distinguished panelists with us. Their biographies appear on the back of the program. Iím not going to go into those biographies in detail. I will ask Martha Kessler, George Irani, and finally Peter Gubser to speak, in that order, I think, if thatís acceptable. Martha is an intelligence analyst of great distinction with more years in that community than she would probably like to admit, who, having taken some time at Brookings to produce some very useful work, is now completing a book on Syria.
George Irani I think is about to change his affiliation. Heís going out to Royal Roads University in Victoria in British Columbia as of July, but he has been an assistant professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. He was also a distinguished scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. He is the author of
numerous books on the region. Especially notable I think is ďThe Papacy in the Middle East,Ē given the recent travels of His Holiness to the region.
And finally, Peter Gubser is president of American Near East Refugee Aid, which probably also would welcome a check after the meeting. He has been with the Ford Foundation in Lebanon and Jordan, and has a long and distinguished career of following events in the region. With these few introductory remarks, we again welcome you and ask Martha if you would like to lead it off. Let me say one other thing just so you donít misunderstand bizarre behavior on the podium, normally we have a podium, but we donít today. But I have told everyone that I am absolutely ruthless as chairman in enforcing usually a 10-minute rule for remarks. Today, given the fact that one of the speakers has dropped out, we will allow 12. But about 11 or 12 minutes into this, you will see me rise and advance menacingly in the direction of anybody who is running over it. Donít you be alarmed. They should be.
MS. KESSLER: Iím going to talk really fast here. As Chas mentioned here, I think the two big events of this year is the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon and the collapse of the peace process have really focused attention on Syriaís presence in Lebanon and elevated the hopes of those who would like to see them get out.
The Israeli withdrawal from the security zone, and as Chas has mentioned, with the notable exception of the Sheppa Farms (ph) area, was thought to remove a pretext for Syrian troops in Lebanon in the first place. Collapse of the peace process and the violence it has stirred has spurred all parties in the region to prepare for what they I think must assume will be a long period of uncertainty that will involve constant power struggles among all of them. And pressing Syria to leave now, while there is a fresh rationale in the form of the Israeli withdrawal, is no doubt the strategy of the Israelis and the Lebanese Christians, who are, as you know old allies in the contest with Syria as they look to their strategies for how to manage this period of instability. The fear is that the longer Syria remains entrenched in Lebanon that a likely Syrian-Lebanese symbiosis will become basically unalterable in the future in any meaningful sense.
In my view there is really very little likelihood of Damascus capitulating to any likely combination of pressure to withdraw from Lebanon. And in fact, I think Syriaís rationale for maintaining substantial influence over its neighbor has probably deepened. The only uncertainty in my mind is how effectively the young Assad will manage the relationship with Lebanon and how far Syriaís competitors for predominance in Lebanon are prepared to go. And I count among those competitors Israel, of course, Iran, and Iraq.
I think the issue of Lebanon is a very complex one for Syria, involving virtually every aspect of its national life and its national security. I want to review very briefly why Syria entered Lebanon 25 years ago. Although it is really hard to imagine now, President Hafez al-Assad was very reluctant to become entangled in Lebanese civil strife, and did so only after trying to use the Palestine Liberation Army as a stabilizing force. Its rapid disintegration once it was deployed in Lebanon and the worsening conflict between Christian and Muslim militias, and gathering trouble inside Syria itself, in part stimulated by Lebanonís own religious tensions, finally pushed Syria to intervene. Assad sought and received Arab League validation of his move, which, ironically, was in the first instance to protect Christian communities against Muslim militia attacks.
The point of this brief recollection is to remind that Damascus was initially a very reluctant policeman in Lebanon, acting to protect itself from the destructive confessional forces that eventually tore Lebanon apart for nearly two decades.
While Syriaís role in Lebanon has changed and amplified many times, it still has a major defensive concern that for Assad and his father is the central safety of the country for the foreseeable future. I think there are four primary reasons why Syria, under any leadership, will try to maintain the level of influence it currently has over Lebanon into the future. The first, and the most overlooked, in my view, involves the strong socio and political influence between Syria and Lebanon as a result of their long history together. Despite the Tayev agreement, Lebanonís confessional communities remain factious, and its system of governance based on confessional apportionment of political power and position, is in my view inherently unstable within what is little more than the trappings of democracy.
The demographics of the Lebanese religious groups are changing in ways not reflected in the countryís formal power structure, disadvantaging the fastest growing and most radically inclined segment of the population, the Shiíia. I think it is a special irony, in my view, that Syriaís presence in Lebanon is likely to have the effect of maintaining Christian political primacy, even though Christians are losing the demographic weight to justify their position, and that Christians are probably working hard for Syriaís ouster.
This fairly rickety system and the unhealed injuries over the conflict in Lebanon make the close historical and social ties between Lebanon and Syria dangerous transmission belts of political tension between the two countries, just as they were back in the 1970's. And despite their vastly different political systems, their economies, and their international orientation, these two societies are at their core very similar and share such a long history that their estrangement in the 1950's and 1960's is likely to appear in the future to be the anomalous period of their history rather that what exists at the present.
Even though it has not been obvious in the stable final years of Hafez al-Assadís rule, Syrian leaders believe they cannot afford to let Lebanon, under its own uncertain stewardship, particularly at a time when Syriaís establishment is being tested by generational change, a failed peace process, new leadership, and mounting internal pressure for liberalization. That I think is a primary reason. A second reason is that the Palestinian Diaspora in the Middle East is arguably the most potentially destabilizing force in the region. Syria and Lebanon together accommodate nearly 1 million Palestinians displaced, not necessarily refugees but displaced Palestinians, many of them well trained in guerilla tactics, some having served in Lebanese militias and all of them disillusioned wanting a political voice and a homeland. Maintaining some control over these potentially restive Palestinian communities in Lebanon is thus an important objective for Damascus, particularly since Lebanon proved entirely incapable from shielding itself from the destabilizing acts of Palestinian activism in the run-up to civil strife and its ultimate collapse.
Much of course has changed in Palestinian and Lebanese politics since the 1970's, but in no respect have these changes made the management of the Diaspora easier or less threatening to regional stability. Quite the opposite in fact is the case. For these reasons alone, Syria will want to maintain its ability to police Lebanon. The collapse of the peace effort, which I will discuss in a moment, makes this objective doubly important to Damascus as it tries to equip itself for a new round of regional and inner Arab tensions, which inevitably seem to accompany a stalemate with Israel.
Syria also, I think, feels that it needs the influence with the Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon as a counter weight to what is in Damascusís eyes a suspect in erratic Palestinian leadership. Arafat ended the previous intifada with the Oslo agreement, an agreement Assad senior condemned and predicted would never hold. His son no doubt fears that this intifada could produce another secret random agreement that works against Syriaís interests and at worst could go even further than Oslo in unhinging the region.
And then I would also emphasize that Syriaís triangular relationship with Iran and Hezbollah has the appearance of being a collaborative against Israel, and indeed it is. But it is also Syriaís embrace of two powerful regional actors of significant potential danger to Syria itself. The unrealistic notion that Hezbollah would somehow fade away once the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon is being proved increasingly naive, in part because the prediction ignored the very heart of the groupís belief system and its relationship to Iran. Both are dedicated to reshaping the region to fit their vision of true Islam, its social, religious, and political components, and Islamís rightful patrimony was not for Hezbollah just southern Lebanon. And while Israel may top the list of unacceptable features of the current landscape, Syriaís secularism and Lebanonís Christian predominance are only further down on the list.
Finally, I would emphasize that the collapse of the peace process has confronted the region with a host of dangers, weíre all aware, particularly along the Israeli-Lebanese divide. In this context, Lebanon is for Syria a buffer, an exploitable front through Hezbollah acting as a Syrian proxy, and most importantly, it is its strategic vulnerability, a route for Israel into Syria via Lebanonís Bekka Valley. This of course has been true since the beginning of the conflict, but what has changed really are the perceptions, expectations, and fears that have been generated by this particular collapse.
Any time left? Okay. The implosion of the peace effort really battered and, in my view, may have entirely destroyed the Syrian leadershipís belief that a negotiated settlement with Israel is possible. I will try to compress this because I think there are two important points: the first is with Israel. I think the Syrians have emerged from this 10-year process believing that Israel is a weak nation socially and politically. Militarily clearly the predominant power, but that it is weak internally and it is unable to deliver up a leadership that can negotiate a settlement. I think they worry that the Israeli military is not entirely under the control of the government and that the Knesset is largely out of control.
I donít think the two sides ended with a better understanding of one anotherís governments, but rather Syria saw five Israeli prime ministers trying to negotiate their administrations in one direction or another. All of them failed, one of them was assassinated. And through Syriaís optic, the exercise of democracy Israeli style was chaotic, unreliable, and ultimately dangerous in that a divided public will could not act or be authoritatively represented. Moreover, I think the average Syrian still believes, no matter the details of the negotiations, that Israel is, at bottom, an aggressive, expansionist country that has an insatiable appetite for security, impulses held in check largely by a patron in the United States.
I think I will save my thoughts on Syriaís attitude toward the United States as it was affected by the 10-year peace process for question and answer.
MR. FREEMAN: Thank you very much. I think we will want to come back to that question because it gets to the point about what, if anything, the United States might be able to do not to worsen the situation but to improve it. We turn now to George Irani and I think Martha, actually, although speaking primarily of course about Syria, has done a nice introduction, a reminder of the importance of Lebanese politics and the Christian community in Lebanon, which I think is Professor Iraniís special interest. And I would like to ask George, now, turn your mike on and give us 10 or 12 minutes of insight into Lebanonís internal affairs.
MR. IRANI: Thank you, Chas and the Middle East Policy Council and their great work. By chance yesterday I entitled my brief talk ďFrom the French mandate to the Syrian Protectorate,Ē so Lebanon is still in case of babysitting condition from the French to the Syrians, while it appears the 50's and 60's was a case of indirect babysitting with Egypt, Saudi, and the United States in agreement to keep the country in abeyance.
Unlike other societies coming out of internal ethnic or communal conflicts, Lebanon, like the former Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland, the concept of a postwar society does not apply to Lebanon. As you know, in the peace and conflict resolution studies and field the word postwar has been used a lot in the last few years in studies of countries coming out of internal conflicts or external conflicts.
The fact that we donít have a ďpostwarĒ society in Lebanon is due to the fact that -- a reminder Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Nigeria with Saudi and US blessing we recall here the role played by a famous US diplomat, April Glaspie, you know what happened to her later on, but she was basically one of the engineers of this accord, which was, by the way, based on previous agreements that go to the constitutional agreement in 1976 to other meetings, like in Geneva, Lausanne, and we can develop that later.
Ta'if did not stop the war in Lebanon. In fact, it was the elimination of General Michel Aoun rebellion, October 1990, with US blessing. Syria for the first time used its airplanes, air force to bomb at that time the presidential palace at Bapta (ph) and Aoun at that time had to seek refuge in the French embassy, and then was forced out to Paris, while still staying there.
Instead of Ta'if, what we have now in Lebanon is a pax syriana that constitutes, if you want, a term of reference for Lebanese politics, to use the Arab word mari-yaya (ph). That means nothing that happens in Lebanon or takes place, from building roads, from the most minute issues to the major issues, have to get the blessing of the court in Damascus, the high court to bring the Ottoman-Turkish dimension here.
As a result of a total absence or lack of responsibility of Lebanese leaders several postwar issues were dealt with and are still not being dealt with. The issue of militia absorption, we still have one militia. Martha just mentioned Hezbollah still roaming around. The issue of war crimes and amnesty. We went from amnesia to amnesty, and the issue of what is in the past was not dealt with. The question of the disappeared, in Lebanon today we have, according to recent data, more than 17,000 people have disappeared, internal Lebanese people. No one knew what their fate is. The most recent decision by the Hariri government was that those families of the disappeared, they should, you know, put their claims to their compensation for the government, but there is no willingness yet to put out a list of all the people that disappeared and to have closure, if you want to use a psychological dimension here.
Another issue of question of reconstruction, what comes first, stones or human beings? And that was a big debate in the 1993-1998 period of the first Hariri government that basically stones took the advantage on human beings is still up in the air. And finally the question of relationship with Syria, which was mentioned here before, which was recently raised also by the visit of the Maronite patriarchs here to the United States and the frustration he faced by not being able to meet anyone here at Washington, especially of the higher-up level of the administration, and contrast that with the visit of Prime Minister Hariri two weeks ago, who had access all over the place. Many people said he was welcomed by Powell, Bush, the whole enchilada, because he is a billionaire rather than being the Prime Minister of Lebanon.
Recently there were important documents issued in Lebanon, like the one in the Christian Lebanese heartland and the democratic forum, which are basically calling for the implementation of the Ta'if accords, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. But it is very interesting that all the promoters of these ideas are either Maronite Christians, Sammy Frangia from north Lebanon, Simon Karam from south Lebanon, Walid Jumblad, the famous Druze leader, but very few Sunni or Shiíite Muslim leaders came out in open supporting. They did it, they signed the democratic forum statement, but no one came out openly supporting that.
Another dimension is, coming back to the question of policing the past, also is the selectivity that happened in terms of, you know, putting people to trial. Take the case of Aoun, who is in France; take the case of the former Maronite warlord Geagea, who's still in jail. Take the case recently of the SLA, the former SLA, South Lebanon Army's militias who basically are now facing all kinds of harassments with their families in south Lebanon. And then the case, on the other hand, of Elijo Baker, the infamous responsible for the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, who was a member of the Lebanese government. There was a famous book that come out two years ago written by one of his assistants, Cobra, which became very famous. And the book was banned in Lebanon for a while. Unfortunately you could buy it on Amazon before it was let go. And then Tony Frangia -- Tony Frangia, the son, who had also his own militia and also responsible for all kinds of, you know, exactions and war crimes.
Add to that the issue of economic morass of the Lebanese economy, which as of recent government figures basically 56.3% deficit compared with 37.0 target, and $24 billion public debt, which is horrible and huge for a poor country like Lebanon. And another thing, and Iíd be happy to develop this with you later in the question and answer period, is the question of the political system in Lebanon was totally hijacked. Example being the troika system where by the president of Lebanon was of the Maronite Christian, the prime minister was Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament was Shiíite, basically in some kind of a troika system to basically divide the riches and divide the power system among themselves. And then, last but not least, the role of the intelligence systems, be they Lebanese army or behind the current President Lahud, or the Syrian intelligence, who are pervasive and all over the place.
In a multicultural society emerging from nearly two decades of war and situated in a politically volatile region of contexts, the task of policing the past, which is a beautiful concept, is extremely difficult. And many Lebanese individuals and groups have been calling about to create a truce and reconciliation commission. In Lebanon, recently a month ago, there was a conference on memory and the future in Lebanon, but unfortunately, these are all left as intellectual exercises.
Most Lebanese prefer to forget the warís legacy of suffering, victimization, and disempowerment. Like other wars, like the Balkans or in Rwanda, the memories of violence and victimization are never fully erased. Thatís very important. The other thing is that the Lebanese tradition of compromise, no winner and loser, does not help in terms of getting to this process of policing the past and process of assigning blame for the tragic and unjust consequences of the war.
Establishing war crimes to the tribunals or Lebanese truth and justice commission would be a difficult, if not impossible task. Just look at the trial, for instance, of the bishop Maronite warlord Samir Geagea and the current trial of the former SLA members. Basically they were guilty of several crimes, but they were singled out by the Lebanese state for trial and punishment largely, in the case of Geagea, he did not because he did not play by the rules of the current political status quo. Warlords from other communities, like Walid Jumblatt, who were responsible for equally reprehensible atrocities, are today free, and some even hold crucial positions in the current Lebanese government.
Another significant obstacle, of course, for policing the past in Lebanon, is the presence of external forces, in this case the presence of Syrian troops and the unresolved issue of Palestinian refugees, and the Iranian involvement in Lebanon. Internal healing in Lebanon must be rooted in the will of the Lebanese people themselves rather than manipulated or imposed by outside actors. Since it is clearly to the advantage of outside powers occupying Lebanon to delay genuine conflict resolution and obstruct national reconciliations through policies based on divide and rule, the removal of all foreign troops, in this case Syrian troops, or of any sort should hasten reconciliation.
Last but not least, is the US attitude toward Lebanon. I have only one minute left or I would expand on that, but the biggest illustration of that is the vote last week here on the Hill for stopping any, cutting any economic assistance to Lebanon at this stage, you know the Lantos bill, because of Lantos and other supportersí position that basically Lebanon is not a sovereign country, that the Lebanese army should go to south Lebanon to impose state sovereignty. But it is very clear that behind that decision there's an AIPAC move to hit on Syria and Iran because they are not being players in the so-called peace process.
MR. FREEMAN: Thank you very much. Thank you, George. I think that anyone who doubted that Lebanese politics have their complexities has been duly corrected, and we will come back to those complexities in the question and answer period. Peter Gubser, I think, wants to focus on the Palestinian dimension of Lebanon: Palestinian exile community. Peter, I hope you will comment not only on their role in Lebanon and Lebanese politics, but their voice in the Palestinian Authority, and their role if any in the current, what is the proper word, war in the occupied territories.
MR. GUBSER: Chas, thank you very much and thank the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me. Iím sorry that Dick Norton is not with us today. My brief is to talk about the Palestinian refugees and that is what I will try to do. I have about four or five types of points to make about them. First of all, numbers. Martha and I were discussing numbers right before the session. And when youíre talking about registered refugees, the numbers may be somewhat different from the total number of Palestinians that are out there. I looked up on the UNRA Web site yesterday to see what number they say, and they say, as of June 30, 2000, there are 376,000 registered refugees out a total of 3,700,000 throughout the Middle East. The actual number of registered refugees in Lebanon from reports I see and from experts I talk to is actually smaller.
During the 80's and then into the early 90's, there was quite a bit of exodus of Palestinian refugees, registered refugees towards Europe, some towards Australia, some towards this country. And so the numbers have diminished from the reports I here. The smallest number I hear, which is probably too small, 190,000, the highest number I am hearing these days is 250,000. To go back to Marthaís figure, there are a lot of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria that are not registered refugees. Some of them have become citizens of the country over the years, especially a lot of Christian Palestinians, and some are just able to work on the economy as guests in the country. So take that, as you will. The numbers are somewhat in dispute.
What is their situation in Lebanon? Their situation in Lebanon, I am talking about the refugees really. Their situation is Lebanon is extraordinarily different from the situation of refugees in all of the rest of the Middle East, and this is from a social standpoint, economic standpoint, and a political standpoint. Just to point out two or three facts that make it very different. One is they cannot work on the economy. They cannot work outside of the refugee camps or on the economy except in two categories of work, and that is common labor of construction and common labor of agriculture. So all the other things, such as being a doctor, lawyer, administrator, whatever, they are not allowed to work. Naturally, a number will work illegally and so forth. That makes it a very different situation than in Jordan, in the West Bank, Gaza, so forth.
Secondly, for the most part from what I understand, they are not allowed to own property. Third, they cannot attend public schools. And this becomes very important, because UNRA offers public schooling for refugee children up through primary school. They actually make an exception in Lebanon for the junior high school level. So there are some students at that level and I think just a few at the high school level, but it does not make up the numbers of young people who would want to go to junior high school or high school, so they are not being able to go to those particular schools. And this is totally the opposite in Jordan or in the West Bank or in Gaza.
Also, very importantly, they do not have passports, they are stateless. This is in contrast to the situation of the people, the Palestinians in Jordan who, for the vast majority, there are a few exceptions, enjoy passports and can travel as Jordanian citizens. In Syria they do not have passports but travel papers, but that is an impediment to them. In West Bank and Gaza, some of them have Jordanian papers, some of them have Palestinian papers.
So that is sort of their situation, and it is not a very good situation. I actually used to say about the Palestinians in Lebanon, that their situation of all Palestinians, Palestinian refugees was absolutely the worst in the Middle East. Given the extended fighting in the West Bank and Gaza, Iím not sure I would say that today. Maybe I would be saying it tomorrow.
What is the Lebanese political attitude towards the Palestinians? Basically what one reads in the press time and time and time again is that the politicians want them out. They do not want them to stay in the area, they see them as potentially disruptive and so forth. However, in their rhetoric we do not hear much more than rhetoric. We donít hear much more explanation than just that they should leave. Somewhat ironically, among the Arab politicians, the Lebanese are the strongest defenders of the concept of the right to return, but for negative reasons as we can see.
Interestingly, if you go back to the old days 15, 25 years ago, you heard talk in Lebanon that the Sunnis entertained the concept of nationalizing a lot of the Palestinian refugees because they too are Sunni Muslims, in order to augment their numbers. However, today you donít hear that at all. I certainly do not from reading the newspapers.
Letís now turn a little bit to the relationship between the Palestinians in Lebanon in relationship to the PLO. Historically and a lot of ways the Palestinians of Lebanon made Yasser Arafat. A lot of his support came from there and he was able to organize there, get money there, get recruits there, and so forth. After the 1970 events in Jordan, in which the PLO was essentially defeated by the Jordanian government, a lot of Palestinians went to Lebanon, and as we all know, we had a state within a state organized by the Palestinians for a number of years. And even after the defeat in 1982, a lot of the Palestinians in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continued to support the PLO.
However, we start seeing a major shift after the Oslo accords in 1993. It was predicted in the press and it became reality that the Palestinians there would feel abandoned and they do feel abandoned by the PLO. And with the PLO having basically gone to the West Bank and Gaza and not very much present in Lebanon anymore, a lot of other things have left and the people, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon enjoy a lot less services than they used to. The PLO services there were, the Palestine Red Crescent services have diminished very greatly. The international NGOís that were serving Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, a lot of them changed their attention to the West Bank and Gaza, because that is where the PLO, Palestine national authority had gone. A consequence of this, naturally, is that the refugees are relatively disgruntled, they are not very happy with the PLO.
Another thing that is sort of noted, not by Lebanon, but it winds up telling you something about the Palestinians of Lebanon, is that after Oslo, the Oslo accords, somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Palestinians from the Middle East went to the West Bank and Gaza in service of the PLO. This is both individuals working for the PLO as well as families. However, most of those came from Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, some perhaps from Syria. Very few from Lebanon because most of those in Lebanon that were working for the PLO had already left and there was not very much infrastructure left by that time.
Now I would like to turn a little bit to Ė so basically my point is that Oslo has changed the relationship of the PLO to the Palestinian refugees within Lebanon. At one time the refugees were quite supportive of the organization at that time, so forth, today they are much less so. I donít know too much about the other factions. I would turn to Martha for that. A lot of those are headquartered in Damascus anyway.
Let me talk a little bit about attitudes of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. There are some polls and then just some observations from people who go there and talk to them, including myself. One thing that some of the polls say is that the poorer one is as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, the more likely he or she will state that he or she wishes to return to historical Palestine. You will certainly see that as a phenomenon among the people, and especially those in the refugee camps, people who do not have very much hope. Another type of attitudes that are more worldview is very anti-Israel, naturally. It goes with the territory. Anti-US, somewhat by extension by being anti-Israel, but also anti-Arafat, PLO, Fatah because of their feeling abandoned.
Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, you will find among some of the more thoughtful Palestinian politicians in Lebanon worry about the nature of a future Palestinian-Israeli Arab settlement that would involve settling the refugee situation. They are fearful that what will be addressed is only the stateís interests having to do with the Palestinian refugees and not the individual interests of the Palestinian refugees. And therefore, because Palestinian refugees in Lebanon feel that their interests are certainly not going to be represented by Lebanon, they are going to be pushed out in one direction or the other, that their individual interests will not be addressed. That makes it one more reason for them to be disgruntled.
As sort of a next to last point, I thought it would be interesting, and this is about attitudes, I remember reading a poll or a study done by a professor at the American University of Beirut in the mid-80's and looking at the attitudes of the refugees in Palestine and looking at a couple of camps in the south. And very interestingly, he polled them and said, what do they fear the most. This is the mid-1980's. The thing that they feared the most was not the Israeli military; it was the Christian militia coming into the camps. The second thing they feared the most was the Lebanese military. And the third thing they feared the most was the Israeli aircraft over their heads. It was a very interesting juxtaposition. Today, in the year 2001, it would be interesting to know what they fear the most, and the most likely is the Lebanese military these days.
As a sort of a last point, what is going to happen to the Palestinians in Lebanon? One was hearing rumors in the last year, year and a half, that there were some discussions by some Western governments to try to pressure Lebanon through money and other types of pressure to accept a large number of the refugees, to settle them in Lebanon. Of recent one is not hearing that as much any more, but I assure you, I was hearing from both British and American and some other European circles for a while.
Last point that Chas asked is what influence did the Palestinian refugees have over the Palestinian national authority in West Bank and Gaza. I donít think very much. It is somewhat ironic; Lebanese are having the influence now, the Hezbollah.
MR. FREEMAN: Thank you very much. We have come to that welcome moment in the morning when those of you in the audience are invited to make comments briefly or to ask succinct questions. I donít know if we have, do we have a microphone for anybody to use? We do take a transcript of this session and we boil your magnificent orations down to a few sentences in the transcript, I confess, but we would like to get your questions and comments right. Let us see how we can proceed. Maybe just invite people to use the mikes at either end of the podium. And who would like to begin to discuss or comment on the various presentations or take up the different questions that have been raised?
Q: You treated the Syrian-Lebanese relations from the perspective of the Syrian interest in Lebanon. I would like to hear your opinion about where does the Lebanese interest lie in this relationship.
MS. KESSLER: My presentation was intended to be focused on Syria, and I think unfortunately without Dr. Norton here we didnít really hear the Lebanese side, but clearly there are many who would love to be out from underneath the yoke of Syrians. I think itís one of the most interesting subjects for really understanding how it is that Syria manipulates the Lebanese, and the various ways of intimidation, of influencing elections. Thereís a long list of its modus operandi in the country, and clearly I think many in Lebanon, not just the Christians but other communities, long for the kind of independence they enjoyed before the Syrians and before their civil war.
My point was really to list those reasons why I think it would be very difficult for any combination of the Lebanese pressures and outside pressures to remove Syria. Certainly the desire and the interest of the Lebanese to be more independent of their neighbors is clearly there. I would want to make clear that my remarks are my interpretation of what the Syrians need in Lebanon, not any kind of enforcement of it.
MR. FREEMAN: I think we should ask George Irani to comment on this as well. Iíd like, George, to have you address the question of what would happen if the Syrians did withdraw. You alluded to this briefly. Perhaps many Lebanese regard the Syrians as very unwelcome in Lebanon, and yet they have been participants in Lebanon and Lebanese politics now for a long time, and presumably their departure would leave some sort of a vacuum to be filled by somebody or other. You indicated that there are many candidates for filling that vacuum, so I wondered if you be kind enough to give your perspective on this question.
MR. IRANI: A long disquisition here, but basically when we talk about what are the Lebanese interests as far as Syria is concerned, but whose interests, or who has an interest in Lebanon to have close connection with the Syrian regime. Itís clearly the ruling elites, those who are basically manipulating the economy. I donít know if you know, folks, that any business deal that goes ahead in Lebanon, the biggest example being the mobile phone companies, the Syrians have a cut of that. Same applies for a cement factory in Shikda (ph), northern Lebanon. The same applies Ė thereís a very close connection, if you want, between the ruling elites in Syria and the ruling elites in Lebanon in terms of basically using Lebanon as a cash cow.
So from the grassroots level, from the population level, yes, there is some kind of rebellion, if you want, but unfortunately it is a helpless rebellion because here yesterday I was thinking about my presentation. I think the parallel of Poland was -- the Lebanese like to use Poland as an example of a country that was occupied and was redeemed later on. But in the case of Poland, the Polish Diaspora played a very important role, of course, because it was helped by the Pope, John Paul II. In the case of Lebanon, which has a huge Diaspora Ė I donít know if you know but there are more than 7 million Lebanese around the world, 6 million in Brazil alone. This Diaspora has not been harnessed yet by the Lebanese government with any authority.
Also the Pope himself, when we talk about the Christian strife, asked especially Christian Lebanese to clean their own house, to basically help and nurture new leadership. This did not come out. In a recent review I did for Middle East Journal, I conclude, of three new books on Lebanon, I stated that Lebanon today suffers, is in a transition, and suffers from lack of leadership. We donít have leaders. We have basically a big millionaire, or billionaire, who is the prime minister, we have former warlords that have been recycled. And then the Christians today, their leaders are either in exile in Paris or sitting in Lebanon cowed by the Syrian cover-up. Or we have the patriarch who is trying to use his religious prestige, charisma to try to have some kind of political influence. But to no avail because, back again, Lebanese internal politics today are hostage to Syrian-Israeli relationship and regional.
MR. FREEMAN: I think probably there are many in the audience who donít agree with you, and I invite them to raise questions. Indeed, I hope we can get on to this, but I noted one thing that you said, as a paraphrase of an old adage from Middle East politics, which is that those who complain about corruption generally are the people who are not participating in it.
MS. KESSLER: Could I just add something to that, too? I think itís unclear what would happen if Syria were to suddenly disappear from the scene and not police Lebanon. I think itís an interesting question that any of us interested in the subject should ask. What would happen to the integrity of the country and its ability to lead itself, and most importantly from the Syrian perspective, to deflect outside influences. What situation would occur should the Syrians not be there? I think clearly we have the answer that Damascus has arrived at. Itís unclear to me where US decision-makers come out on this issue.
Frankly, I think there may be a very unrealistic attitude about what would happen to Lebanon if Syria were not there.
MR. FREEMAN: Martha, earlier you said that you had some thoughts on US-Syrian relations in the new era, and it clearly is a new era in the Middle East, as elsewhere, and I wonder if you would take a minute or two to tell us those thoughts.
MS. KESSLER: I ended my formal remarks by saying that Syria emerged from a 10-year peace effort with what it thought was greater knowledge of the Israeli political system, and a great fear of it, I think, than they had going in, and that at bottom they still see Israel as quite aggressive and with this insatiable appetite for security, and that it is largely the United States that can keep that in check. That notion, I think, has been a central aspect of Syriaís security policy, maintaining a relationship with the United States decent enough so that the United States would prevent any aggressive behavior towards Syria.
Now I think what is alarming to the Syrians as a result of their experience over the last 10 years, the Madrid process, is that theyíve also emerged with what they think is sort of a new understanding of the United States. I think they think they have a clearer grasp of our political parties, the role of Congress, and most importantly, the limitations of the US presidency, which they once regarded as much more powerful than they do now.
I think they still make clear distinctions between the individual filling that role, but I think they have come to see the US presidency as much weaker than they had thought. I think they believe Israel and its Jewish advocates in the United States have undue influence on our policy and are able to get any administration to basically act against Washingtonís interests in the Middle East.
I think one of the things that I think the media in this country really sort of fail to tell the story as I think it probably should have been told, and that is the final chapter for Syria was a really very difficult one. The Geneva summit with President Clinton, I think, was regarded by the Syrians as a deception, that there was never an attempt to seriously negotiate. The terms that were presented there were not in any way acceptable and were clearly unacceptable to the Syrians. And it ended abruptly, and that it was a very intentional effort to set up the circumstances for the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, no more, no less. And that this put an incredible strain on President Assad, who was in obviously very frail health, died several months later.
I think this experience has had the impact of reinforcing in Syrian mindset deceptions that have been perpetrated on them from the beginning of negotiations. I mean by beginning not 1991, but 1974. And it has raised long-held fears about being manipulated in order to advance another track, in this case the Palestinians.
Itís unclear to me what this altered view of the United States is going to mean in terms of Syrian security policy. They donít have good choices, and I think certainly Assad, Sr. understood that. I assume his son does. It just isnít clear, but I think the failed hopes for a peace agreement, and this altered perception of both the United States and Israel in terms of what they have to offer at a negotiating table makes Lebanon all the more important to Syria, as a buffer and as an ally, and as a proxy combatant, as I mentioned earlier.
Syria, I think, knows it cannot challenge Israel militarily, and I find it interesting to see the sort of glib remarks about the current violence is going to lead to full-scale war. Iím not quite sure what those who articulate those views had in mind. I mean, I donít know whether they think that the Syrian military is going to present itself for the slaughter in some new 1973 scenario, or what they have in mind, but I think that Syria very clearly understands they are no match for Israel militarily. They donít have any options, in my view, to present the kind of threat they did in 1973, but they can menace Israel from southern Lebanon, and that is important to them. They will need into the future, for sure, the buffer of Lebanon, and the ability to try to stanch that vulnerability that I talked about earlier.
I think also, and I donít know that theyíre looking beyond this, but certainly their history would make them very concerned about a renewed peace effort involving pulling Lebanon away from Syria, and trying to negotiate a deal, a US-brokered deal between Israel and Lebanon, not unlike the one that was attempted during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Or something similar to an Oslo accord of 1993 and 1994. I believe those must be fears that are waiting to be stimulated, should we ever get back to the negotiating track. I think this is a real problem in terms of our ability to influence the situation.
MR. FREEMAN: Thank you, Martha. Several questions from the floor to be raised. I would just exercise my prerogative as moderator, if I may, to say that I think the realistic danger is not all-out war in the Middle East. It is that the process of collapse, first of Oslo, now of Madrid, will extend to Camp David, and that would indeed create a new situation
Peter. Would you please identify yourself?
MR. BECHTOLD: Peter Bechtold. I apologize for coming late. Forces way beyond my control.
MR. FREEMAN: Nice to see you here.
MR. BECHTOLD: I was stimulated by Ms. Kesslerís opening last comments to make an observation Iíd like the panel to comment on. I came to Washington in 1968 and Iíve been inside the beltway ever since. At that time most Middle Eastern embassies were not really functioning embassies. They were little more than tourist agencies. Now Iím impressed by the high quality that most Middle Eastern embassies, including the embassies of the countries weíre talking about today have, in their understanding of American politics, including the relationship between the White House, the executive branch, Capitol Hill, and so on. And I often think that they know more about us than we know about them. It used to be the other way around, although Iím very quick to say that we have been extremely fortunate to have two of our very best as ambassadors in Ryan Crocker and David Satterfield, who are completing their tours. So we do have some major assets in the area.
But this change of perceptions, I think is a huge Ė to me itís a watershed event that Middle Eastern countries, even that the smallest often, Bahrain, has an ambassador who is highly educated and highly qualified. This is happening across the way.
My comment is really, do we not make the mistake inside the beltway, where Iíve been these 33 years, of looking at those countries as a means to the end of our policy? I remember when one of Peter Gubserís close friends told me, please stop looking at us in Oman as a means to the Middle East peace. We are a country in its own right. Does the United States look at Syria as a country, with all of its diversity, its economic issues, its social issues, rather than as the country that we need to get on board in order to solve the comprehensive Middle East peace process?
Similarly, do we look at Lebanon as a country in its own right, rather than a country that is necessary to do something that we here on Capitol Hill would like to see done.
MR. FREEMAN: Who would like to comment on that?
MS. KESSLER: Well, I certainly would endorse your characterization. I think that sometimes players in this process probably do know us better than we know ourselves. I do think that the intensity of the negotiations over a 10-year period, the ability to interact with high level, with decision-makers on a regular basis was an extraordinary learning experience, certainly on the Syrian side, and I would assume the others as well, but not to a good end, unfortunately, in terms of being helpful to a renewed process. I think that they are much more wary, much more concerned about deliverability.
I think this was very much on the Syrian mind during the negotiations Ė can the United States, can Israel deliver what these two people are promising to do right now. I think this has been an extremely big issue for the Syrians. I think it explains better than anything else the hesitations that went on that were so heavily criticized during the negotiations, particularly Assadís unwillingness to respond as quickly as Rabin wanted him to in 1993.
I think that that concern, if it existed before, was certainly made much greater during the process. I couldnít agree with you more.
MR. FREEMAN: Peter?
MR. GUBSER: Just a brief comment on Peterís comment. I would agree we have some superb ambassadors and their staffs, and I suspect that those individuals and those staffs understand the realities of Syria or Lebanon or Jordan or Bosnia or Israel very well. I think they probably really understand it, but when it comes down to fundamental making policy back here inside the beltway, we go back to the fundamental interests of the United States, and our fundamental interests in the Middle East, whether we like it or not, are number one, oil, number two, Israel, to try to get peace between Arabs and Israel, and then some trade issues, and that sort of thing. Itís going to be fundamental along those lines for the next few decades, I think.
MR. FREEMAN: George?
MR. IRANI: The compliment on what was said before, especially Michaelís comments. Regarding Syria, I think Syria has negative leverage in relationship with Israel, in that, for instance, today Sharon is really in a pickle. Heís desperately trying to find a way to get out from the bloodshed in the West Bank, and he would like to provoke a war with Syria and Lebanon, and the visit two days ago of the Syrian foreign minister Shara to Lebanon, basically reasserting [Arabic term], as they say, the concomitance of the two Lebanese-Syrian agreements at the leadership level, which thereís an agreement, there are all kinds of agreements signed that Lebanon will not go it alone. So thereís nothing to worry as far as that is concerned and the top level.
Regarding US-Syria, I think the United States perceives Syria today in terms of the question of Iran, the situation in the Gulf, the relationship between Syria and Iraq, which is very important in the sale of oil, which is crucial. And then the issue of Turkey. Turkish-Syrian relations are very important when it comes to the water, Euphrates and Tigris. The United States perceives Syria in that angle, while Lebanon is some kind of an appendage that is into there. I go back to the famous sentence of Henry Kissinger, when he said, if you want to have peace in Lebanon, give it to Syria.
Briefly, regarding Lebanon and what would happen if Syria leaves, you forgot the issue of confactions in Lebanon. Here we are, 50 years after the independence of Lebanon, weíre still talking about political confactionalism and the non-Shiíia Lebanese fearing that given the Shiíia are demographically the largest unit in Lebanon, theyíre going to take over the country and basically keep the others under abeyance. So these are issues to keep in mind when we are talking about this.
MR. FREEMAN: It must be a side-effect of compassionate conservatism that no one has mentioned the new administration and its views of the region such as we know of them. I wouldóI find this quite striking because, of course, the administration came into power pledged not to treat the countries in the region as the means to a sole end, to take Peterís comment, but to deal with them in their own right. Not to make one issue the centerpiece of the region, but to deal with its multiplicity of issues and determined they said to take a more therefore balanced region-wide view. And they also, as I recall, indicated that they did not wish to give any country a veto over bilateral relations between the United States and any other, which some took at the time to indicate and American receptivity to explore new relations with the son of the late Hafez al-Assad, assuming that Syrian economic reform proceeded to the point where it would facilitate such relations and yet weíve just had a discussion of this northern tier of the Levant without mention of the administration in the non-partisan spirit of the Middle East Policy Council, I would like the partisan people on the podium to ponder that and perhaps say a word or two either now or later about the positive or negative effects of the emerging distancing of the United States from the region that many people see to be happening.
Q: Don Peretz. Question to Martha Kessler. In your comments about Syrian attitudes, you referring to they, this and the other thing. Could you give a little more detail about who ďtheyĒ is? Is it the president? General staff? The Baíath? The man in the street? Who is they?
MS. KESSLER: Well, I think my distinctions in discussing how Syrian attitudes emerged from the 10 years of negotiations with the United States and Israel really referred to those who were involved in the negotiations, either directly which was a very small group or those who were brought into the decision-making process during those 10 years and then separately, I think the average Syrian emerged with the same negative attitudes towards Israel as they had held prior to the negotiations, even though there was brief period in there that I would say from about 1993 until 1996, in which the Syrian government was clearly trying to prepare its population for the possibility of peace and had worked with various groups to start changing those attitudes. I think its very quickly been reversed and so you have a general population in Syria and I would include most of the Baíath party, included in the more nuanced understanding. I would count probably no more than 15, 20 people.
MR. FREEMAN: Yes? Would you go to the microphone and identify yourself please?
Q: Melissa Dobbs, Saudi Arabian Information Office. I think my question might be a little out of left field, but Iím going to ask it anyway.
MR. FREEMAN: Itís actually right field from my perspective.
Q: But it has more to do with sort of the domestic situations then the relations with Israel, for Mr. Irani, I was struck by your sort of opinions about Hariri and that he is just this billionaire. I did spend a lot of time living in Syria, though not in Lebanon, and it was awhile ago, but a lot of people seem to like him and think that he did really care deeply about the Lebanese people and I wasóthis is just sort of a devilís advocate question, and I donít necessarily agree with him or with you, but Iím wondering what you think and where does those opinions come from? And then my second question which is very much internal which is probably you, Ms. Kessler, when I was living in Syria I really noticed although there was this entanglement with Lebanon, the economies of the two countries seemed incredibly separate and I was wondering how it was possible to the extent that it was? And what the implications of that are as far as the continuing sort of political occupation of Lebanon is?
MR. FREEMAN: George, youíre first.
MR. IRANI: Okay. Thank you. Actually, there's an interesting character in Lebanese politics today, Hariri. He resembles a lot another one who just came out in Italy, Berlusconi. But anyway, Hariri is no Berlusconi.
Basically, Hariri is a creation, if you want, of Saudi Arabia. You know he is a Saudi citizen, too, Saudi-Lebanese citizen. In the 1992-1998 period which was the first cabinet if you want, his first government, he was perceived to be as a savior of Lebanon, coming, you know, bringing his economic contacts, and so on, and it ended up being a disaster. Disaster, corruption again and mismanagement and a huge deficit that weíre still saddled with today. Also its very interesting that Hariri had to bow to Syrian diktats when we had the presidential elections in 1995 when President Haririís mandate was over, and there was a big debate about whether to expand that mandate or elect a new president. You remember the Syrians postponed the election for three years. And then the elections of the current president, General Lahoud as you know. Between Lahoud and Prime Minister Hariri there is no good blood going on. Even today, basically Lahoud doesnít have a good relationship with him. So thatís that. Now, today, Hariri, this new government that came up almost a year ago. Heís an implementer, and I think the next few months are going to really show us whether he is going to succeed or fail in terms they are now trying to downsize a bloated administration. One example, Middle East Airlines, the airline today. They have 1,200 political appointees within the airline, and Hariri has decided to kick them out. And today the Shiíite leader Berri doesnít want that to happen. So you have a struggle going on. The same thing happening with the telecommunications industry and other places. So we'll see. Plus, Hariri is hostage to whatís going on in south Lebanon. Remember that two days before he came here, there was an attack in south Lebanon, which he condemned in his own newspaper. Then he had to backtrack, and then he had a period of illness with his relationship with Damascus. He went back yesterday. Finally they warmed it up. But basically he is less a powerful figure than he was before. He's another puppet in the Syrian one, who may be tragic, to use the Italian word, melodrama.
MR. FREEMAN: Martha?
MS. KESSLER: Well, I think the differences in economic orientation basically reflect the differences between Lebanon and Syria in their international orientation and their historical experience and they as I am sure you know, really developed quite different approaches to economic activity, with Lebanon being very laissez-faire and Syria following a socialist model.
I think there was a lot of thought when Syria became so heavily involved in Lebanon that somehow the Syrians would learn from the Lebanese and somehow they would be able to take their very ossified system and model it more after the vibrancy that used to exist in the Lebanese economy and I was very skeptical of that and I think the reason why is that in the early days of the Baíath party and Hafez al-Assadís rule particularly, thereís a real belief that liberal economies are unfair and while I think itís very hard for some people to look at this very corrupt Syrian system and a very authoritarian ruler as having concerns about such issues as equity, I would just remind that Assad was a reformer when he started and he had a very different vision of where he wanted to take Syria than where he did in fact take it.
But I think that many of those ideas and sentiments persisted up until he died. I assumed he conveyed many of them to his son and they are shared by many other leaders, particularly the old guard. Again, I certainly am not suggesting that the kind of corruption that exists in Syria is compatible with those kinds of ideas, but they have, I think watched with some alarm what goes on in Lebanon. And to be more specific, there were barriers set up for decades really prevented the kind of economic interchange that youíre talking about. Very stylized and they insulated themselves from one another in many ways.
MR. FREEMAN: Corrine?
Q: -- from Churches for Middle East Peace.
Iíd like to return to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, and perhaps Peter is the most appropriate person here to answer this or maybe someone else. Considering the great difference between how the Palestinian refugees are treated by the Lebanese government and the Syrian government, Iím wondering if the government of Syria tries to influenceóit seems like in every other aspect of Lebanese life thereís a strong Syrian influence. What are they doing relative to the Palestinian refugees? And my other question is that we here in Washington have opportunities to hear what the Palestinian leadership say when they come here and both Faisal Husseini and the legal team with the Palestinian negotiators, when they talk about Palestinian refugees, they start talking about options, about which return to Israel is one option. Yet the refugees in Lebanon and I was there just a year ago doing a study tour on the refugee issue, they donít talk about options at all. No one in Lebanon talks about options, itís only about the right of return and Iím just wondering what about these two different messages?
MR. GUBSER: With respect to Syria trying to influence Lebanonís policy with respect to the rights of Palestinians in the Lebanese context, I donít see any evidence of it whatsoever. If they wanted to try to do that, I suspect that they could have some influence, but I would imagine that they donít seeóthat they have interests in that and therefore why bother. There is another level of Syrian utilization of Palestinians, though, and that is through some of these factions of the PLO. I donít know a whole lot about that, but they obviously -- number of them are based in Damascus and they have followers in Lebanon, but they apparently utilize that particular set of relations for their own interests, but thatís quite different from the type of question you asked.
If there is a settlement, we have to use the word ďifĒ these days. What happens in Lebanon with the Palestinian refugees thatís what I was basically talking about, the Lebanese politicians are not interested in solving the Palestinian problem in a Lebanese context. They want to see them out and their rhetoric is very strongly that way, across the board among politicians. Iím sure that there are some exceptions, but itís certainly among the politicians we hear in the media. I donít see any real difference with that. As I mentioned, they were some of the strongest advocates of the right to return, therefore, get out of Lebanon.
MR. FREEMAN: Anyone else want to comment on that?
MS. KESSLER: Well, I would agree with Peter that Syrian interest in the Palestinian community in Lebanon is not humanitarian, and although I think the Palestinian refugees in Syria really do quite a lot better than those in Lebanon and are treated very differently, that Syriaís main interest in those communities is making sure that it doesnít set off the same kind of destabilizing forces that it did in the 1970ís, number one, number two, to manipulate those communities to better Syriaís interest, in terms of dealing with Israel. In those cases, the rejectionist groups that Peter referred to are headquarted in Damascus and Hezbollahís activities among Palestinians the most important tools. I think itís also interesting that Syria over the course of negotiations and throughout the conflict, I mean really going back decades, has associated itself with the Palestinian cause interesting ways and has been a great promoter of Palestinian rights, both cynically and seriously I think and I think itís important for those who watch this issue to note that Bashar al-Assad has gone to a language that was abandoned for a long period of time after Oslo and that is comprehensive now means a Lebanese-Syrian track associated with the Palestinian track. And I think thatís going to be an issue that we have to deal with should we be so lucky to have negotiations started in earnest.
MR. FREEMAN: Sir?
Q: My name is Stan Burdlington (ph). I'm a former analyst with the CIA, and I work with Ray Close in August International. I wonder if the panel would like to turn its attention to Hezbollah, its major player in Lebanon and has been since 1982 and since that period, it has changed considerably from being purely a terrorist/military organization to one which has a considerable political infrastructure and is now participating quite openly in the Lebanese political scene and from what I see that Hezbollah has ceased to be doing is recruiting from Palestinians in the refugee camps of southern Lebanon because of the neglect by Arafat, even though that Hezbollah is Shiía and they are Sunni, but finally perhaps maybe in the future some sort of conflict between Hezbollah and itís relationship with Iran, if Iran and Syria ever have some disagreements that could be a major impact on where Hezbollah goes.
MR. FREEMAN: Thank you. Who would like to start? George, would you like to begin and I think that everyone will have a comment.
MR. IRANI: I give it a shot, even though the expert on this is absent unfortunately, Richard Norton. Certainly, Hezbollah today is a player on the Lebanese regional scene because of its connection with Syria and Iran, but Hezbollah also has to be careful how it plays its cards on the Lebanese scene and how far it can go, because they know that thereís always a Syrian veto which is always, you know, controlling them. So they are part instrument of Syrian-Iranian policy, part instrumentalizers in a sense that they use these two countries for their own purposes.
The problem now for Hezbollah is to try to find a reason for their existence, because you know following the Israeli withdrawal a year ago, they have lost a major card in their hand and we have now today the famous Shebba (sp) farm conundrum and two days ago, the UN representative in the Middle East, Terry Larson, who played an important role in Oslo, he was saying clearing that Shebba farms have nothing to do with Israeli-Lebanese relations, but the Sheba farms are Syrian territories occupied by Israelis. That means the Shebba farms will fall into Resolutions 242, 338, Wye Resolution 425, was totally implemented with the withdrawal of these Israeli troops, so the Syrians are using Hezbollah and vice versa to try to maintain for Hezbollah some kind of role in Lebanese politics.
The other thing also is what will happen as the outcome of the struggle in leadership for the Shiía community in Lebanon between Nabi Berri, on one hand, and the Amal movement, which as you know, staying in power because of its patronage system I just told you, 1,200 employees of MEA, mostly of Shi'ia and under Berri's patronage. Then you have the leadership, emerging leadership or coming back leadership, revival of the Sadr family. Imam Moussa Sadr, the famous imam who disappeared in 1978. His family is now trying to come back. His sister was here two months ago at MEI. She gave a very interesting talk about South Lebanon which represents one of the most enlightened, open aspect of the Shiía community and then we have Hezbollah which also is wracked in a struggle between those who want to create and Islamic republic in Lebanon which still exists, and those who want to create some kind of coexistence with the Lebanese.
MR. GUBSER: I donít know a whole lot about Hezbollah in recruiting Palestinians. Iím certain that it is happening, given that there is a void within the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. I was trying to think about what its impact over time might be and I can see the impact being quite large as we saw Hamas was hardly an organization that Israel had something to do with its founding and it takes on a total life of its own, unlike what anybody imagined. So here we have Hezbollah is really recruiting Palestinians and organizes them, and they are obviously somewhat successful organization. I can see that taking on as a branch of Hezbollah, a life of its own, or eventually splitting off and having a new type of organization. One that could roil up the Middle East, roil the West Bank and Gaza from a different perspective, something very definitely to watch. You pointed looking at terrorism so forth to be fearful of.
MR. FREEMAN: Martha?
MS. KESSLER: Well, I think there has been this notion that somehow Hezbollah arose primarily as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and I think that in many ways has been a misleading understanding of Hezbollah from the very beginning and as I mentioned in my earlier presentation, I think it missed the core values of this group, which are not dissimilar from the revolutionary types and the Iranian government, and that is to really change and re-Islamize the area. And so the withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon, I donít think removed the raison díetre, Hezbollah. It merely made it politically more uncomfortable for them and thatís why we have this sort of strange Shebba farms issue and interestingly, I mean Iím not absolutely certain of this, but Iím sort of wondering whether that isnít more to deal with the sensibilities of Syria, for example, which I think has always been deeply concerned about the Islamic revolutionary tendencies of Hezbollah and has handled it very carefully and so, Shebba farms has really sort of the tactical, national reason for continuing the struggle. But in fact I think thereís a much, much larger agenda here has always been a much larger agenda. So that would be my first point.
My second would be this. I think that Hezbollah may be the most important player out there to watch in terms of whatís going to happen. I think Nasrallah has elevated himself to a real icon in the sense that he is the one that has led the group that has done the most to achieve what Arab governments and other groups have not been able to achieve, and thatís basically to menace the Israelis enough so they withdrew and I think theyíre those who are deriving the notion this is the formula. This is how we have to do it. We donít sit down at negotiating tables. We donít have all-out wars. We get ready for a very long haul and I think that is what he has brought, Nisrallah has brought to the table and I think thatís what Hezbollah represent.
And then finally would make the point that there are serious incompatibilities between Syria and Iran and between Syria and Hezbollah. And I think that one of the major tests of Basher Assad is how well he handles the emergence of those. Now they may not come any time soon. Maybe not even in his time, but they will be there because Syria is under this leadership, a dedicated secular state and I think that the relationship that Assad Senior developed with Iran was basically to contain Iran and to keep it from seeing Syria as a very attractive target for anyone who wants to influence the Middle East, in terms of the Islamic aspirations of the revolutionary types in Iran. So I think that it exists out there and I will just end by saying that this lesson on how to handle the relationship with Hezbollah and Iran was the very first thing that Assad Senior taught Assad Junior, and itís a close-in micromanaging task and I think its one of the other reasons that I would emphasize even more than I did in my formal remarks. One of the things that is going to tie Syrian interests to Lebanon in the future.
QUESTION: -- What struck me most about it was the issue of development of the south, and particularly the establishment of local government in the south. And I was wondering if you could talk about, especially in light of the important of Hezbollah in the south, whether there will be municipal elections and the establishment of local government, and if Peter has any comments about the overall economic development of the south. That would be great, thanks.
GEORGE IRANI: Thank you. A very important question, thank you. The municipal elections it seems they are supposed to take place by next fall, they are working on it now. And I think it's very important in terms of empowering local leadership to take control of what's happening, given the abandonment by the Lebanese government, the central Lebanese government, of South Lebanon. From a socioeconomic perspective the South, of course, suffers a lot and has not been getting the attention it ought to get. Coming back to the question about the patronage system we have the Council for the South, which is under control of the Speaker of the Parliament, the Council itself was used as his patronage network to help his people. That's why Hezbollah came and filled that void that was left by the government. And then Southern Foundation, they've been doing, and they're currently doing very interesting and very useful medical and other education works in South Lebanon.
The other thing to keep in mind too is the question of the mines. Yesterday or two days ago there was a very important conference in Beirut about the mines, land mines left by the Israeli army. As you know, the Israelis never provided a map of where they put the land mines, using the reason that there is no peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. That is very dangerous, because there are many innocent kids and people who have been killed by that. And the Lebanese government finally woke up to try to do something about that. So that is another major problem.
But all in all, all this ties up to what was said before, that as long as Lebanon's sovereignty has not been extended to that part of the country, that the Lebanese army going to the south, all of this is a precarious situation. Plus, it is also linked to what's going to happen in the regional dimension. It's not to be excluded that the south is going to explode again. It's going to be used by the Syrians and the Israelis to ‑‑ it's what I said before about Syria having negative leverage. With the Syrians for a time, they have their card in their hand. They can at any time they want blow up the south, and provoke the Israelis, they can also keep it quiet and not give any reason to Sharon to do another adventure in Lebanon.
I hope this helps.
MR. FREEMAN: Peter?
MR. GUBSER: With respect to sort of redeveloping the south, I think a lot of it is going to be a hostage to what George just talked about. We don't know whether or not it's going to blow up again. Go back to the beginning, over the years of the conflict the area was not depopulated, but semi-depopulated. A lot of people left. We're reading now that some people are returning. That being said, I suspect that the number of people returning will be nowhere near equal to the number of people that left. People are up in Beirut and have jobs, they're not going to leave jobs, that's just the nature of it, the mobility of labor and wanting to stay where the jobs are.
A couple of other aspects. There has been talk about some special money from this country, from some other countries, for redeveloping the south, but a lot of it is being held ‑‑ certainly in this country, being held hostage to the lack of the presence of the Israeli or Lebanese military. I don't think we're going to be seeing those monies move towards the south, voted by Congress and then moved towards the south for some time. And that's pretty much equal for some of the European monies. But the last point is, going back to what George says, as long as the political environment is such in Lebanon as a whole, and the south specifically, you're not going to see very much private investment, and private investment is what drives economic development always. People with money have alternative places to put their money. So as long as there's a Syrian occupation, as long as the political situation is very unstable, you're not going to see very much investment.
MR. FREEMAN: When you first started your response, Peter, I misheard you, I thought you said that the development of south Lebanon would be hashish, but I understand you said hostage, and thank you for clarifying that.
Q: Adir Huley (ph). I'm with the Embassy of Lebanon. It's not a question; it's more of a clarification for Peter. You said with regard to the Palestinian issues most of the Lebanese position has been mostly rhetorical. And I mean, basically it's not, it has been explained over and over again, and basically if it's not being mentioned lately in the newspaper, it's because ‑‑ I mean, it is mentioned on a daily basis in all kinds of political debates, and all kinds of discussion, but it's not mentioned in the newspaper out of "political correctness". And usually the argument goes along three lines, one of them economic, that the economy cannot sustain an addition of 7 to 8 percent of its labor force, most of whom are uneducated and unqualified, that is one argument. The second argument goes along the confessional division in Lebanon, where you're going to add to ‑‑ not only are you adding to Christian-Muslim disbalance, you're also adding to the Muslim disbalance. And the third argument is that Lebanon has all kinds of ‑‑ you're adding an ethnic ill to it, an ethnic dimension to all the problems that Lebanon has faced. And then finally, irrespective of whether it is true or not, a lot of Lebanese perceive that most of what has happened to them in the last 25-30 years has been caused somehow, this is the perception, by the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. So this is not a question, thank you.
MR. FREEMAN: Thank you for that summary of Lebanese views. Peter, I don't know, do you want to respond at all?
MR. GUBSER: Only on the first point, though I recognize what you're saying. On the first point, the Lebanese are making their own problem. If people ‑‑ you said the people are not ‑‑ Palestinian refugees are not well educated. Well, they're not allowed to be well educated. And from a humanitarian standpoint, I run a humanitarian organization, that's just flat out wrong. Kids should be allowed to get as much education as they possibly can, and then they will contribute to the economy in which they live.
MR. FREEMAN: I heard a basic agreement, actually, on the fundamental point which Peter made and you made, basically, which is that most Lebanese want the Palestinians somewhere else, anywhere but in Lebanon.
Miss, please identify yourself.
Q: Yes, Katherine Harscorlano (ph) from SAIC. I have a question on the energy dynamics of the Levant countries. I'm interested in your views on how the security issues will have an impact on the current and future energy dynamics, the various gas and oil projects that are underway that involve outside actors, Turkey, perhaps China, and Iran, and where there might be opportunities and challenges for the United States.
MR. FREEMAN: Would anybody like to take a chance at that. Its' an interesting question, but I guess my reaction to it, Katherine, is that in fact this is one of the few regions in the Middle East with only peripheral impact on the questions that you're mentioning. The fractious politics of this region inhibit any serious examination of it as a source of channel for energy pipelines. For example, I think very few people would like to have the people who inhabit that region, whether Israelis or Syrians or different Lebanese factions, with their hands on the faucet, as it were, of a gas pipeline or an oil pipeline going through. And, in fact, those pipelines that did work don't, pretty much. So I don't know that I have any great comment. Do you have a comment on this? If you have a comment on this please do come forward and tell us who you are.
Q: I'm Quincy Lumsden (ph). I'm a retired foreign service officer who had the unfortunate experience to be the managing director of one of the major pipeline operations in the Middle East. It was $8 billion of natural gas that was supposed to go to the Indian subcontinent by way of the Gulf. The problem starting in 1995 with participation of American, but basically Western capital in these projects, all got hung up between the Clinton administration and Senator D'Amato and his friends, that prohibited the investments that were necessary.
Most of these projects do not go through the countries that we're talking about here today, however the ones from Central Asia through Turkey, and the ones from the Gulf to the Subcontinent, are held hostage right now to the Sunset clause of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which is due to expire, I believe, on the sixth of August. Whether or not that will happen will depend probably on thins that do happen within the countries here, such as whether Hezbollah kicks up its traces and Congress gets exercised enough to not let that sunset clause sunset, and it's back in again and then we're all back to ground zero.
Now that I'm up here, can I ask a question?
MR. FREEMAN: What the hell.
Q: For those of us who are old enough to have been living in Jordan before, during, and after the 1967 hostilities, we find an intriguing possibility coming up now, not that I think it's very viable, but I just think that I've heard it several times. Back in the period between the end of the 1967 war, prior to Black September in September 1970, there was a fear in Jordan that U.S. support of the Hashemite kingdom has dwindled to the point where the antipathy between Syria and Jordan was useful to the United States, which actually wanted to accommodate Israel. There was a tremendous out flux of refugees across the Jordan River into Jordan at that time. And basically what was going to happen was ‑‑ remember, this was before September 1970, that the U.S. would withdraw its support from the Hashemite kingdom, and ergo Jordan becomes Palestine.
Believe it or not, I've heard this sort of thing again in the past couple of months from reasonable sources, and probably coming from elements that are not overly represented in this room today. That Sharon will do a Nixon in China, that Syria will be offered everything right down to the Tiberias shoreline if the grinding up of the Palestinians is permitted to continue, that the Lebanese occupation will continued, Hezbollah will be capped, the refugees will be dealt with in a political rather than a humanitarian way. I do not say that I think this is viable and going to happen, I'm just saying I've heard it a couple of times recently. Any comments you might wish to make on that apocalyptic thought would be appreciated.
MR. FREEMAN: Well, we always welcome thoughts of apocalypse, and I think we all should thank you for reminding us of the tradition of Machiavellianism that is alive and well in the Middle East, and the nefarious possibilities this gives rise to. Perhaps people on the panel would like to comment on this. I would simply like to say, Quincy, in response to your very useful comments on pipelines that the Middle East Policy Council some time ago published the transcript of a very lively and interesting discussion of Caspian energy and the pipeline difficulties that derive from that. We had such a session last year, and I can't remember which issue of the Middle East policy it was published in, but if you have not seen that I urge you to look at it, because it was really a very good discussion. No thanks to me, but thanks to the excellent panelists we then had. And I now turn this matter over to those panelists.
MR. GUBSER: I comment just on a couple of things. I had not heard such a scenario. I had heard the scenario of Jordan is Palestine again, despite what Prime Minister Sharon says, or maybe even because of what he says. So one does hear those sorts of rumors. But the Syrian angle of it is quite interesting and Machiavellian, as he says. Let me add one other comment on the period between '67 and '70, it so happens I spent the year of 1968 in Jordan, not talking to the elites and knowing their fear of American moving away from the Hashemite. But I did hear people on the ground, East Jordanians talking about moving away from the Hashemite. But a lot of that reflected the fact that King Hussein lost a war. Middle Eastern leaders who lose wars lose popularity on the street, '70 reversed that.
MR. FREEMAN: George?
MR. IRANI: Just a few comments here, that the Sharon government, by the way, is a very unstable government. Don't forget it's a national unity government. I don't think that his labor partners would allow any further crazy adventures that he's involved with, or would like to be involved with. So that's something to keep in mind. Even today Sharon's government is very unstable because there are a lot of dissenting voices coming from inside now from the settlers.
The other thing is that today the Jordanian regime, the current monarchy in Jordan is very solid, and has the total support of United States and major Western powers. So I don't think there is any threat that we can see some type of scenario that was talked about 10 or 20 years ago.
MS. KESSIER: Well, I am certainly old enough to remember that. Those of Sharon's age group talked about Jordan as Palestine as a real viable solution, and this was across the spectrum. So I don't think it's unrealistic at all that that is out there as a possibility, because when you think of what the options are at this point there are not good ones. And this has been part of the sort of Israeli psychological history of this problem, and that is turning Jordan into Palestine. The idea of buying off Syria I think is the twist that I haven't heard, and I frankly don't think any government in Syria could survive that. I don't think they would accept it, and I don't think they could survive it.
MR. FREEMAN: I'd simply note that the future of Jordan, or the existence of Jordan, the creation of Jordan, the sustaining of Jordan as a state has rested in no small measure on its utility to all its neighbors as a buffer. That utility was very jeopardized during the Gulf War when Jordan cast its lot with Iraq, and that raised serious questions on the part of many of Jordan's other neighbors about whether its viability was important or a strategic asset, but I think that is now history and I would expect that others would have a strong reaction to any such scheme that you mentioned, and some would include Saudi Arabia, for example, which is an important patron of Syria, and to which the Syrians do pay some attention. So I agree with Martha there are major inhibitions, both internal and external, on Syrian acceptance of any such daring proposal.
Sir, you've been very patient.
Q: My name is Ben Cahn (ph). I'm a Marine Corps officer at the Naval Post Graduate School, and so I guess by all preconceived notions I'm on the wrong side of the podium. My question specifically for Dr. Irani, based on my very limited and amateur understanding of internal Lebanese politics, the division of power between the various confessional groups is based primarily on a census that was taken many years ago, decades ago, and there's been a lot of pressure to take a new census to redistribute power equitably. What is the status of that census, and what impact will the battle over the census have on the future of Lebanese internal politics?
MR. IRANI: Thank you. You ask a crucial and very important question. The last census was done in 1932, by the way. There are all kinds of statistics and data coming out on the Lebanese populations. The latest were, I think, the CIA estimates a few years ago, which gave the Shia population a relative majority. There is no question today, or no debate, or no idea to introduce a census in the Lebanese political morass today, where they have so much on their agenda. This would be adding another insult to injury, to put it that way, because this would open up the gaping wound in Lebanon, which we were talking about, and we skirted, but I want to focus briefly on it.
The gaping wound of Lebanon that today Lebanon, as our friend Michael Hudson a few years ago defined it a few years go, the precarious republic. Today Lebanon was defined by my colleague Kamal Hamdan not too long ago as the discontinued republic. So it is some kind of virtual state kept together by outsiders, if you want, and by this elite that has used the country for its own purposes, without empowering citizens, without first creating a rule of law in the country. We don't have a rule of law in Lebanon; the proof is that we don't have yet a trial of what happened during the war. Who is responsible for the 100,000 people killed during the war, the 17,000 disappeared, the 800,000 displaced, and so on. This has not been dealt with. That's crucial.
Number two is the confessional identity, which is stronger today than before the war. Today every community is very jealous of its sectarianism and they would like to keep that. And that, unfortunately, does not allow the creation of a Lebanese citizen. That's the big challenge that we are facing today. When we talk about what would happen to Lebanon if Syria leaves, mayhem. I would wager whatever you want that if Syria leaves Lebanon today there is going to be mayhem, because there is no agreement today between the Lebanese on what type of country they would like to have. There are different visions. Hezbollah has a vision, the Christian right wing has a vision, Aoun has his vision, the Druze has their own vision.
Just to give you an example, the Druze of Lebanon, they're a minority of minorities. There are 400,000 of them, I think, between Lebanon, Syria and Israel. They are scared, they're scared of the Shia majority surrounding them, and the Shia is buying land in the Chouf Mountains. That is why today Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt is desperately seeking the return of the Christians to the mountains. I work there, I've been involved in a project on reconciliation in the Chouf Mountains, and I know this for a fact. The Druze are desperate, they would like to have the Christians back to counter the Shia onslaught, or the Shia majority. You see, the thinking how it works, not Lebanese, but Shia, Druze, Sunni, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, you name it. So it is getting out of this fragmented mosaic to create a state. And that's why you don't have a census.
MR. FREEMAN: There is a Chinese proverb usually applied to two people and the differences between them, to sleep in the same bed but have different dreams. It sounds like Lebanon is an entire orgy sleeping in the same bed.
Q: My name is Judy Barsalou with the U.S. Institute of Peace. There is a debate raging inside Israel about the implications of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, and what this means in terms of the Intifada, in terms of exports of tactics used in Lebanon by Hezbollah. Can you shed any light at all on relationships between Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas. We know, of course, of the interception recently of the boatloads of weapons to Gaza, but information you could provide about this would be helpful.
MS. KESSIER: If I understand your question correctly you're interested in the inter-relationships between the groups. Is that right? I think there are probably growing reasons to pull them into cooperative relationships, and linkages have always existed, I think. The debate inside Israel, in my view, I think will go on for interminably, no doubt, but I think in retrospect, in my view, looking back at this decision by Barak and its implications, I think it was a very serious mistake. And he was driven by politics to do it, the promises. Interestingly, I think his mentor Rabin made a similar very serious tactical mistake, and that was offering a referendum on an agreement with Syria, that too I think would have been a very serious impediment had Rabin lived and been actually able to offer a referendum.
But, I'm not sure that I see the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as being the impetus for causing the cross fertilization of these groups and cooperation, but rather the very steady success that Hezbollah has had over time of toiling the Israelis in a way that no other group has been able to. Now, obviously the circumstances of operating against Israel in southern Lebanon is dramatically different than the challenges of Hamas operating against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, and inside of Israel proper, or other groups sitting in Damascus.
So I'm not sure exactly what you're interested in, that there is going to be probably increasing cooperation I think has to do with a variety of circumstances that were in. I think there are limits, also, to how much cooperation we will see. And I think one of the big questions in my mind is will there be an international terrorist front opened up over time. I think Chas mentioned earlier that one of the things he's concerned about is this unraveling reaching all the way to Camp David. I think another thing that we need to be very concerned about is that the unraveling will lead to another kind of international terrorism we've seen in the past. It hasn't happened yet, but I think it lays out there. And if it happens I think the cooperation between these groups will escalate.
MR. FREEMAN: I would say before I think George and Peter may also want to comment on this, it is a very good question, but I think in a sense some of the principal instructors and the cross fertilizers of the Al-Aqsa Intifada are the Israelis and the Israeli armed forces. The escalation in the type of weaponry, the heaviness of the weaponry that's involved invites counter-escalation. The use of political assassination invites counter assassination. And unfortunately for the Israeli armed forces this sort of low intensity conflict is one in which the advantages do not necessarily go to those who possess heavy weapons. So a whole curriculum of military instruction is being administered by the IDF to Palestinian resistance, and the maqi (ph), if you will, that's emerging is much more united in its tactics and arguably more effective than it would have been if it had not faced the sort of unrelenting pressure that it has faced from Sharon's government, and the Israeli armed forced.
MR. IRANI: The Israeli occupation of Lebanon basically was a taxing and very costly adventure for the Israeli army, and government, and people. So I think that there forced withdrawal, if you want, was a combination of these factors. With regard to the second aspect of your question, I would again bring you the role that Iran is playing as a center or focus of all these radical Islamist groups who are basically willing and ready, and radical Palestinian groups who are ready to use "terrorism violence" to bring back the old line, and to also extend Iran's rift in the region.
The other thing also as far as Hezbollah is concerned, of course the Al-Aqsa Intifada is a boon, because you know again they can use it to mobilize public opinion, because they don't have any more battles in south Lebanon to deal with, so they have another battle, the battle for Jerusalem, which is another of their objectives if they read the literature, the Hezbollah literature. So it gives them a lot of leverage on that. Of course, the Syrians, too, are happy in that. If you take the case of two weeks ago when the Israelis caught a boat full of weapons that was sent by Jabril, a faction up in Lebanon, of course this wouldn't have happened if the Syrian intelligence wasn't aware of what was going on, and their manipulation. So all these factors together I think need to be taken into consideration, as far as this is concerned.
MR. GUBSER: Just very briefly, I agree with what people are saying. I think probably the most important aspect of Hezbollah is the model. It's a model that the people on the streets see in the Palestinian area. I was over there a couple of months ago, I go over frequently to Palestine and Israel. And in conversations while certainly most of the people I talk to are not in favor of having conflict, want to peacefully resolve things, I certainly heard a lot of conversations saying, we can fight just like Hezbollah for a long period of time, and we will prevail. So it was the model that was presumably successful in their minds. And remember, that model, we're hearing it in writing, but also on TV in Lebanon, from Hezbollah TV and radio. So that element is being expressed. And if Hezbollah really is recruiting quite a few Palestinians, it's going to be even more powerful.
MR. FREEMAN: In many ways this seems to be a game to see who can excel in [Arabic term], and I'm not sure who will win, but we're fortunate to have with us a panelist from our last panel. And I should say that on Friday the next issue of Middle East Policy with the lead article on the death of the peace process and what may or may not succeed it. And Patrick Lang, I think it would be useful if you would make a comment or two on the connections between the military struggles in Lebanon and now in the occupied territories as you see them, or the lack of connections.
PATRICK LANG: Actually that wasn't what I wanted to ask about. But, my name is Patrick Lang, I'm a businessman. I travel in the Levant a lot. And I'm particularly struck by Dr. Irani's comments about the artificiality of Lebanon at the moment and the region's history, and the fact that it largely exists as a reflection of the interests of external actors. And I think that there's something really ‑‑ that you've got something there. You said earlier in your remarks that the Lebanese government's national debt now was around $24 billion. I think your numbers are somewhat on the low side, rather conservative, I think we're above that level by quite a bit now. My company operates in Lebanon in the industrial way, and we keep close track of where the economy is, and I think things are worse than that, in fact.
But having that in mind, I'm struck by, and I'd like to hear your comment on the consumer economy in Beirut. I go there a lot, and I'm always fascinated in the last few years by the enormous amount of activity in terms of private retail economy, in terms of the activity at boutiques, which sell the very best Italian and French consumer goods of the highest quality. And the fact that people in these shops never seem to care if they ever sell anything, things are always on sale. And there are all these hotels and restaurants, which are chain branches of most of the American restaurants where there always seems to be a lot of activity in these things. What's going on there? I mean, here's a country whose economy is sliding toward oblivion, and it's not Egypt, I mean, there are bottomless reserves of fellaheen on which to call, and foreign aid as well, we've seen what happens to Lebanese foreign aid, but instead there's all this activity in all these glitzy places in Beirut. Surely we have to have some idea where this money comes from. I've been told where it comes from. I'm interested to hear what you say about it.
MR. IRANI: Thank you. It's an important question, and of course opens another can of worms here. But, anyway in 2001 it seems that the public deficit is going to exceed $27 billion, there was an article yesterday, or 165 percent of the GDP. It's one of the top rates in the world. The folks that you see in Beirut in the stores, by the way, they are only Beirut, but you see few people buy. The rate of poverty in Lebanon, according to a study that came out a couple of years go is 1 million people living below the poverty line. So Lebanon has been pauperized. A friend of mine recently said that in Lebanon was have the prices of Paris and the salaries of Bangladesh, which is the reality of the situation.
Many people are indebted, many people cannot even afford a piece of bread basically to survive. So that's the fundamental. So what's happening is that you have the parasitic environment that is held together by this patronage system we talked about before, like Middle East Airlines, the telecommunication, Tele Leban, the national TV company was shut down for three months now, because they don't have any more money to feed all these useless people, basically, but they're all patronage. So the people you see buying or in the restaurants are always the same people who made their fortune either selling weapons, drugs, or other kinds of nefarious activities, or made their fortune in Africa in the case of the Shiites of south Lebanon or Brazil.
But, the rest of the population is in dire straights, all across the board, be they Druze, be they Christians, be they Shiía, be they Sunni, they are all suffering, especially today. Many people are withdrawing their kids from schools because they cannot afford the salaries that they have to pay. So the economics tuition as I said before, Hariri has a few months to go. If he doesn't succeed in doing the reforms he promised the World Bank to do, I don't know where Hariri is.
PATRICK LANG: Thank you. I had one other question I'd like to ask you. Also in your remarks earlier you mentioned the fact that in fact to a large extend, Rafiq Hariri is a creature of his experience in Saudi Arabia. And to some extent I would think it's probably remains the case. And you have considerable interest in Saudi Arabia in what happens in the Eastern Mediterranean in Syria and Lebanon. But, at the same time Mr. Hariri has to reconcile this with what you described by the Pax Syriana, and the interests of the new Assad regime. To what extent would you say these two issues are a conflict for him?
MR. IRANI: I wouldn't say it's a total conflict for him, because Hariri in a sense is investing in Syria, he's an ally of the Syrian leadership today, the Syrian regime. He has investments, and he would Ike to stay in power too. Don't forget the elections in Beirut, the parliamentary elections in which he won big time in Beirut, Hariri and this would not have happened had it not been for the consent of the Syrians. Haririís predicament today is the economic situation.
On one hand when he was here his major message is, come and invest in Lebanon, he had a closed meeting at CSIS and other places urging U.S. businessmen to invest in Lebanon. But, then the big question comes, how do you want us to invest in a country where its sovereignty is totally a shambles, where the army is not doing its duty of going to the South and protect its border, where the economic situation is problematic, and the laws, too. The laws when you invest in Lebanon, when a foreign company invests in Lebanon, the laws are totally inadequate to protect from various corruption issues, from various arbitrary decisions, legal issues. So all this has to be reformed. And as of today the Lebanese leadership, those who are in power today, they are not wiling to touch these issues because they're very sensitive, it touches upon their patronage system, and the Syrians are happy with that, because the Syrians also are eating from this trough, all the way.
In a sense, in the relationship between Syria and Lebanon, Syria is benefiting big time, basically. One billion dollars are siphoned off Lebanon every year to Damascus. Syrian workers come to Lebanon they are treated better than Lebanese workers, this is also because Lebanese don't work in menial jobs, one, two the Lebanese government does not guarantee a minimal salary, a basic salary. So the Syrian will do the work for $3 a day, and eat a piece of pita and some olives, while the Lebanese would like to keep a family and go to school, the cost of living and so forth.
MR. FREEMAN: We have come to the end of our time, really, because we have a panelist or two who have to leave. So I'm sorry to cut off the questions, I apologize. But, I would like to ask each of the panelists, Martha, George, and Peter, whether they have a final word of wisdom to impart.
MS. KESSLER: I don't have a final word of wisdom. I do think that, Chas asked us earlier to think about what this particular administration has to do with ‑‑ what are its options. And I must say I don't have the sense that they have made up their minds how they are going to manage. And it's almost as if they're waiting for the inevitable explosion that will pull us in, whether we want to get re-involved or not. And interestingly we seem to see a greater interest and concern about Iraq, which probably is a more manageable problem than what we have going on now in the Arab-Israeli arena. And it's a real concern.
MR. FREEMAN: George?
MR. IRANI: Basically, for Lebanon to redeem itself, and try to find some kind of sovereignty, independence if you want to use these clichťs, there are two things to happen. One would be peace between Syria and Israel, how long that tall order is no one knows. Number two is upheaval in Syria itself. Take the case of Eastern Europe; the former Eastern Europe, Lebanon is a satellite of Syria like Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia were a satellites of the USSR. When the USSR crumbled all these countries emerged and created democratic societies. So that is another challenge that probably could be the topic for next year's meeting.
MR. FREEMAN: Peter?
MR. GUBSER: Just very briefly, to take up what Chas was saying about the current Intifada and where it might lead. It could lead to the destruction of Camp David, et cetera, it could go that far. I would hope that the United States, the Bush presidency, others, would see to do something about it beforehand, because our fundamental interests are not only with Israel but also with some of our Arab friends. Egypt is a long term ally, Jordan I know is a buffer, but is important for the Arab-Israeli peace. If we don't do something, we could lose those allies.
MR. FREEMAN: Well, I'd like thank everyone for coming today, and urge you to await on Friday the next issue of Middle East Policy. This discussion will, of course, in edited form appear in a subsequent issue of Middle East Policy, along with another similar program that we will be conducting in the near future. And I would like to thank the panelists and urge you all to join me in applauding their contribution.
Thank you very much.
[END OF EVENT.]