Lebanon for a long time has been a victim of its lack of foresight and proper positioning vis-a-vis many of the problems of the region, mainly the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The recent peace deals that the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain signed with Israel are a sober reminder to the Lebanese that their country is stuck in a political twilight zone with no recourse to examine nor engage in any discussion that could help Lebanon reposition itself once again as an attractive regional partner.
This refusal to adapt has put Lebanon at a clear disadvantage, and given that Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war, there is no chance for any kind of peace or proper closure after decades of tumult – even if such a peace would address the historical grievances of all parties involved.
While the Lebanese might be too shy – or perhaps afraid – to say it, such a peace deal with Israel is something some secretly covet. This yearning for peace in Lebanon in any form is not an indicator of lack of empathy with the Palestinians and their righteous cause, but rather stems from a deep feeling that their small country has suffered enough and has also gone beyond the call of duty and has contributed its fair share in the ongoing conflict.
Realistically, however, Lebanon’s abysmal political and economic condition mean that imagining what such a peace would look like is a futile exercise.
Today, the Lebanese state is weak and on the verge of collapse. Where any decision to pursue peace, or even war, requires total sovereignty and proper statehood, Lebanon lacks the status and ability to pursue either.
Above all, perhaps the main obstacle to beginning such a discussion is the presence of Iran-backed Hezbollah where Iran views Lebanon as a forward base in its own war with Israel. Thus, any debate or talk of pursuing peace might prompt a violent reaction from Hezbollah and its patron.
It is concerning that in the Middle East where the views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are changing rapidly and countries have shifted away from viewing the conflict in the traditional framework, Lebanon refuses to reexamine its regional role.
Lebanon has always defined itself as a bridge between East and West and as a melting pot for multi-culturalism and diversity – and more importantly as an educational, medical and business hub for the region. But now, Lebanon has lost its edge in many of these fields as the economy continues to crumble. And now, as Arab Gulf states increasingly recognize Israel, Lebanon will further slip into the background. Where Arab Gulf states have looked toward Lebanon for services it previously had no direct access to, or hired Lebanese to establish homegrown entities – such as schools, hospitals and firms – in the Arab Gulf states, those same countries may now pivot to Israel.
Lebanon can no longer rely on fraternal Arab ties to bring in business. Israel has the competitive advantage over Lebanon in many fields, and Beirut must position itself to still be in the favor of the Arab Gulf states who have clearly decided to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a thing of the past.
Back in the 1950s, Lebanon could have claimed to have an edge over Israel in the fields of education and financial services, and the vibrant Beirut port could act as a hub for the Arab states, but now this is no longer the case. The once strategic Beirut port is now destroyed or no longer strategic, and now the ports of Dubai and Haifa have a clear advantage in the field. Israel will now have access to the important free zone in Jabal Ali, which will ease its access to the Asian markets and make trade cheaper.
Perhaps the most pressing matter Lebanon must address is that there are 350,000 Lebanese working in the UAE and Bahrain who now will have to compete with Israeli talent that will now be welcome in the Gulf.
According to Lebanese law, Lebanese nationals are prohibited from interacting with Israelis in any capacity. For Lebanese working in the Gulf, they could face legal repercussions for simply working at the same firm alongside Israelis. Furthermore, given that these firms in the Gulf will also have to normalize ties with Israel, any failure of current staff to also normalize professional interpersonal relations could reflect badly on their status within the company, potentially even leading to their termination. In the IT and the medical tourism sector alone, Israel has a clear advantage over Lebanon, and with the UAE and the Bahrain market open to them, they will certainly not hold back.
Lebanon now stands at a crossroad. It must find a way to adapt to this rapid regional transformation or Lebanon will be rendered inconsequential. It is one thing for Lebanon to refuse to ride the normalization train; but it is another to refuse to jump off the train that Iran and Hezbollah are driving, bringing Lebanon further into oblivion. Beirut’s refusal to readjust its policy toward Israel is neither smart nor constructive, and claiming neutrality while actually serving as a pawn in Iran’s regional strategy is a losing game.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His forthcoming book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.
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