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What Are the Chances for a Dialogue on Lebanon’s Neutrality?

What Are the Chances for a Dialogue on Lebanon’s Neutrality?

Neutrality at the heart of a meeting between Aoun and el-Rahi last week. File Photo Dalati and Nohra

Will President Michel Aoun comply with Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara el-Rahi's request to convene a national dialogue meeting in Baabda to discuss Lebanon's neutrality? So far, there is no indication that President Aoun is planning to go in this direction and take the risk of upset-ting his Shiite allies, who looked at the patriarchal initiative with concern.

Aoun, however, welcomed el-Rahi's call for Lebanon's neutrality but warned of the dangers it entails because of disagreement over this matter, reflected by hostile reactions of forces and political and religious figures close to the two main Shiite parties. Such a contentious issue, Aoun said, risks deepening political divisions; something Lebanon cannot afford at a time when it is in the grip of an unprecedented financial and economic crisis.

Yet, the head of the Maronite Church asked the president to try to convince his allies, including Hezbollah, of such an appropriate initiative. El-Rahi had expressed the same reasoning to Prime Minister Hassan Diab who visited him at his summer residence in Dimane. For the patriarch, it is important that the leaders, who supported his call but linked it to a prior agreement, work to make it a reality and hence contribute to the creation of a political climate that can pave the way for resolving the country's crisis.

The opposition considers Bkerki's appeal as a political modus vivendi project to remedy all the dysfunctions that led the international community to shun Lebanon, and to support the creation of a strong central state. Neutrality would thus appear as a counter-proposal to the policy of axes that is isolating Lebanon and weakening its state. For Bkerki, it is simply a return to Leba-non's primary status, not too much with the East nor too much with the West, and a return to times when the country experienced a period of great prosperity, precisely thanks to this neu-trality.

However, this return to neutrality will have a price that the two main Shiite parties are not pre-pared to pay, especially at a time of great regional changes and the tug-of-war in the Middle East. Amal and Hezbollah, which were annoyed by the fact that the call for neutrality came from the highest Christian religious authority, tried to foil the initiative by highlighting the con-flict with Israel and the threats facing Lebanon. The two Shiite parties would not have hesitated for a second to retaliate if the opposition had advocated Lebanon's neutrality, but neither can afford to engage in a political quarrel with the Patriarch.

Also, none of them can afford to make concessions and support, even verbally, a project that risks signing their death warrant. So they decided to engage in this battle on equal terms. Shiite religious dignitaries were tasked with responding to the head of the Maronite Church, starting last Friday with the weekly sermons, followed by a veritable diatribe launched on Sunday by the head of the Shiite Higher Council, Sheikh Abdel-Amir Kabalan, who criticized the initiative as nothing but "a drift." On Monday, it was the turn of the Jaafarite mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan, who made a virulent statement, in which he said that "Lebanon is not for sale" and that "the UN and the Security Council have never been useful to us," recalling in passing that the Shiites rep-resent the majority in Lebanon. This was an indirect response to the patriarch's earlier remarks to a delegation from the Phalange Party when he expressed hope for a Security Council resolu-tion concerning Lebanon's neutrality.

At the same time, Hezbollah's Christian allies set a series of conditions for the consecration of neutrality as voiced by Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), while visiting Dimane: It was necessary that first, Israel withdraw from the territories it continues to occupy in Lebanon, put an end to terrorism on national territories, demarcate the borders with Syria and Israel, resolve the two issues of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, disarm the Palestini-an refugees and relocate some of them to Arab countries.

Some political circles believe that this showdown over an issue that inevitably engages the fate of the country and some of its components ruins any chance of dialogue, since Hezbollah has made it known through its allies that it categorically refuses to engage in discussions over pro-jects that risk clipping its wings and limiting its room for maneuver. It is true that the patriarch has recognized that neutrality does not prevent Lebanon from supporting just Arab causes and from regarding Israel as an enemy, but these are not the words Hezbollah heard. What the pro-Iran party heard were the criticisms of the policy of axes in which it is involved and which made it succeed in establishing itself as a powerful force in the region as in Lebanon, where it man-aged to constitute, together with its FPM Christian ally, the majority in power.

Can Hezbollah, which disavowed the Baabda Declaration that its ministers had signed and which subsequently turned its back on the policy of distancing from regional conflicts, approved by the government of Saad Hariri in which it was a member, now give the green light to a UN draft resolution on Lebanon's neutrality? The answer is no, according to concordant sources.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 21rst of July)



Will President Michel Aoun comply with Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara el-Rahi's request to convene a national dialogue meeting in Baabda to discuss Lebanon's neutrality? So far, there is no indication that President Aoun is planning to go in this direction and take the risk of upset-ting his Shiite allies, who looked at the patriarchal initiative with concern.

Aoun, however, welcomed...