Toni Nissi/WSJ:There’s Hope for a More Peaceful Lebanon/طوني نيسي/ولستريت جورنال: الأمل الدائم بلبنان السلام والإستقلال

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طوني نيسي/ولستريت جورنال/الأمل الدائم بلبنان السلام والإستقلال

There’s Hope for a More Peaceful Lebanon
Toni Nissi/WSJ/April 25/2022

Hezbollah dominates the country’s politics, but activists are trying to reclaim the title ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ for their country.

Billions of dollars in Iranian support and a menacing military-media machine have allowed Hezbollah, a creature of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to dominate Lebanese politics and wage war as if it were a state. This has brought the country to economic disaster, but it has emboldened a new wave of activists determined to upend this status quo. Their demand: Restore Lebanon’s historical posture of neutrality toward regional conflicts, which spawned generations of balanced foreign policy and open society and earned it the moniker “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Among the new movement’s champions is Bechara Boutros Al Rai, patriarch of Lebanon’s ancient Maronite Christian sect.

On Saturday in the town of Harissa, near Beirut, my organization, the International Committee of the United Nations Resolutions for Lebanon, convened a conference of notables from across the world and representing the country’s religious and ethnic spectrum: Shiites and Sunnis, Druze and Arabs, and Lebanese Christian sects. Broadcasting live on Lebanese television, we gathered under the patronage of the patriarch. The plans that emerged from this conference should give hope to those who want peace and development in Lebanon.

In a morning panel, Father Bassem Rai, a priest and professor of political philosophy, made mincemeat of Hezbollah’s attempts to stigmatize neutrality through propaganda by showing how the principle is enshrined in Lebanon’s founding National Pact, reinforced in the 1949 Armistice Agreements and reiterated in major U.N. resolutions to which our government has committed. Shiite speaker Jad Akhawi took Father Rai’s remarks to their logical conclusion. On the one hand, he said, Lebanon’s present war footing is an imposition by a foreign power. On the other, “the call to peace and the principle of neutrality are part of our DNA.” Carlos Abadi, an American philanthropist with Lebanese Jewish roots, stressed that Lebanese neutrality has the potential to “pave the way for an investment-fueled recovery.”

Other remarks breached the taboo around the question of normalization with Israel. Yousef Salameh, a former Lebanese government minister, noted that Israel is now officially at peace with numerous Arab countries and forming partnerships under the table with others, making it “effectively part of a broader alliance of Arab states.” Sirouj Apikian, a prominent lawyer and activist, said that Lebanon’s “antinormalization laws”—prison or worse for the slightest contact with an Israeli citizen, even a text exchange—are incompatible with neutrality because they block one of the principle’s central tenets: the idea of an open society. “To be clear,” he said, “I am not calling for normalization in the sense of government-to-government relations.” Instead he laid out the harm that restricting person-to-person encounters inflicts on Lebanon and for civic action to repeal these laws.

Consider that 300,000 Lebanese citizens in the United Arab Emirates, now teeming with Israelis, face legal jeopardy if they come home, and many of these citizens are withdrawing their assets from Lebanon. Meanwhile, many other Lebanese fear working with multinational companies because these companies don’t honor such exclusionary laws. In prepared remarks, he asked, “Has the ban on human contact with our neighbors, whatever their faith and creed, enabled us to truly support the Palestinian people in their legitimate aspiration to statehood, or helped us contribute to a culture of peacemaking on any land? . . . Has the ban on religious pilgrimage to the mosques and churches of Jerusalem made us spiritually stronger, and better morally equipped to grapple with the problems of our nation and region, whether in war or in peace?”

The final panel aimed to develop the vision of neutrality into an internationally coordinated plan of action. As moderator, I raised the question of whether greater American assistance would come as more Lebanese stand up for nonviolent change in the face of the most powerful terrorist organization in the world. It was heartening that in response Joel Rayburn, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Levant affairs, said that while serving in government he had seen cause for frustration about Lebanon’s prospects to muster strong leadership, he felt “astonished at the very brave speakers I’ve heard in your room today.”

Riyadh Qahwaji, a Lebanese military-affairs specialist, laid out a vision for the Lebanese armed forces that would merit greater American support. “The army should not designate countries as inherent enemies,” he said, “but rather define the enemy as whoever threatens our country’s sovereignty, regardless of its religion, ethnicity and so on.”

Those of us who labored long and hard to bring this event to fruition are bracing for a response by those in the country who do not place the interests of the Lebanese people first. We feel emboldened, however, by the expressions of support we have received from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. In remarks made via video, Rep. Mike Waltz (R., Fla.) said that he was praying for us and stands united with Republicans and Democrats in Washington who “truly hope and pray that we see a Lebanon at peace.” In the same spirit, former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat, affirmed that “those of us who believe in growing American support for peace and development in Lebanon and elsewhere see, in gatherings like yours, a cause for hope and a case for perseverance.”

Buoyed by our loved ones and placing our faith in God, we look forward to hastening a bright new era for our country.

Picture Enclosed: A panel at International Committee of the United Nations Resolutions for Lebanon Conference in Harissa, Lebanon, April 23.

Mr. Nissi is president of the International Committee of the United Nations Resolutions for Lebanon.