In the shadow of Hezbollah

Marwan Bishara says the prisoner swap could bring stability to Lebanon and the region.



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    The prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel, the last in a series of similar exchanges over the last two decades, could signal the end of a volatile era and the beginning of a new more stable one in Lebanon and in the region. 


    Israel's three decades of occupation of Lebanese territories - beginning with the 1978 and later 1982 invasions and the 2006 war - have been met with bitter Lebanese and Palestinian resistance.


    The Israeli military’s humiliating unilateral withdrawal from most of the Lebanese lands in 2000 and its poor performance in the 2006 war have allowed Hezbollah to declare victory and celebrate the return of its last prisoner from Israeli captivity.


    For many in Lebanon and the region, this represents a strategic and moral victory for Hezbollah and a vindication of its position since it captured the Israeli soldiers in July 2006.


    Though the capture led to the outbreak of full-scale hostilities, many in Lebanon and the region say the war could have been avoided by a straight-forward prisoners swap from the very beginning.


    This "victory" also came in the wake of the establishment of a national unity government. These two elements have contributed to positioning Hezbollah’s victory as de-facto relief for the whole country and its 'united' leadership.


    Meanwhile, Israel mourns its dead and laments the failure of its leaders.


    Stability within Lebanon


    But Hezbollah's actions must also be seen in light of the gradual change in Lebanese internal politics.


    Three years of sectarian violence, assassinations and war with Israel, brought the country to the brink of civil war in May as regional and international powers cheered them on.


    And suddenly it hit the Lebanese - its déjà vu all over again.


    Scarred by more than 15 years of civil war that tore apart their nation, the Lebanese realised the futility of resolving their political differences through military conflict.


    No longer would they allow proxy wars to be fought in Lebanon.


    Nor would they tolerate that their political leaders facilitate regional and international intervention in their country to use against their opponents.


    This awakening in Lebanon facilitated its political factions, including Washington’s nemesis, Hezbollah, to meet in Doha, Qatar and reached a monumental agreement toward national reconciliation.


    What the Bush administration ridiculed as a futile exercise based on “foolish illusion” of change of heart, led to a new roadmap for peace and national reconstruction with four distinctive benchmarks.


    The Lebanese roadmap ended all street protests and clashes in the capital, allowing for the election of a consensus president, General Michel Suleiman.


    It also paved the way for a national unity government that will oversee the implementation of the last benchmark, national elections next year on the basis of an older, but more adequate electoral law.


    Not bad for four days of talking.




    But obstacles and risks remain.


    In fact, as former acting foreign minister Tariq Mitri told me recently, the scars of sectarianism and factionalism remain deep in the country and could fester again in the shadow of a political vacuum.


    This means Lebanon remains by all measures a volatile place with armed groups. As a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state, it encompasses religious, primordial as well as liberal and secular extremes that accentuate both self-preservation and self-sacrifice - in passion as in war.


    Since it was carved out of Greater Syria by European colonial powers in 1943, Lebanon's confessional democracy has been a curse in disguise. Three decades of Christian domination led to the breakout of civil war in 1975.


    Only after agreeing to rectify the imbalance among the country's confessions and committing to end religious affiliation as basis for political representation in the future, did the bloodshed stop in 1989.


    Today, the Lebanese have a window of opportunity to forego their bullets in favour of ballots and write a new electoral law that terminates the confessional system in favour of the more stable and democratic republic of the citizens. 


    Shadows of Lebanon


    Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, celebrates the repatriated prisoners in Beirut [GALLO/GETTY]

    This is especially important because Lebanon has long been a barometer or even a laboratory for change in Middle East politics. Already Lebanese talks seem to be both a symptom and a trigger of diplomatic fervour in the region.  

    The new unity government is expected to improve the tense relations with Syria which shares special historical, cultural and even extensive family relations with Lebanon. The Syrian president has already committed his country to diplomatic ties with Lebanon including opening of embassies, a first since independence.


    If the country continues its march through a relatively peaceful summer, it is a sign the Middle East is turning its back on war in favour of diplomacy.


    Israel is already conducting indirect talks with the Syrian government in Turkey.

    And Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has already announced his intention to hold talks unconditionally with Hamas over national reconciliation as the latter conducted indirect but successful talks with Israel over a ceasefire in Gaza.

    Nevertheless, the Bush administration still considers the democratically-elected Hamas and Hezbollah who are anxious to rejoin their respected governments, as "terrorist organizations" supported by "radical" regimes in Syria and Iran.


    Which make it less likely for any major diplomatic breakthrough to see the light until after the US presidential elections. The Syrians who are considering direct talks with Israel made it clear they would not commit to any agreement without US guarantees.


    If the present administration is not willing to facilitate serious diplomatic breakthroughs among the region's players, it should be restrained from torpedoing the next administration’s chances to help forge peaceful talks by attacking Iran, a confrontation that would have dramatic regional implications.


    If Hezbollah's and Hamas' approaches towards national dialogue and political reconciliation in Lebanon and Palestine are any guide, their regional allies in Iran and Syria are also open for constructive dialogue and even agreement with the US and Israel respectively.  

    It is a hopeful beginning that Washington is dispatching William Burns, the under-secretary of state, to hold indirect talks with Iran.

    But this is hardly sufficient to produce the needed results sooner rather than later.

    It is high time for Washington to conduct high level negotiations with Damascus and Tehran.  

    The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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