Machiavelli judiciously warned that only fools speculate on contemporary politics. The irony of history is that political actions often produce unintended effects. This dictum sheds light on the importance of the role of the human will in political action; it also serves as a warning against historical determinism and a priori explanations. Israel’s 22-year attempt to isolate Lebanon from its natural environment is a classic illustrative case. Israeli decision makers miscalculated egregiously in assuming that their military superiority would trump the resolve of the Hizballah fighters. Despite the importance of the military victory accomplished by the Party of God against Israel, the confrontation was basically a struggle of wills rather than a war in the traditional sense. Despite a huge imbalance of forces, Hizballah delivered heavy blows to Israel’s military apparatus and forced it into a protracted war of attrition whose consequences reverberated within Israeli society. This two-decade conflict finally mobilized Israeli public opinion to demand an end to Israel’s occupation of the so-called security belt in South Lebanon.
The significance of this struggle of wills lies in the emergence of a new attitude within the ranks of the Israeli elite regarding the inherent limits of militarism. Israelis have begun openly to discuss the unwarranted display of their country’s military power. Several seasoned military analysts now contend that Israel has arrived at a critical juncture in its appreciation of the limits of military power. The Jewish state, it is argued, has edged closer to the stage in which it defends itself from within its own borders, without occupying the territories of neighboring countries.
Few had expected Israel’s elite to question the efficacy of physical power that has so informed its strategic raison d’être for the last 50 years. By contrast, in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, Israel’s retreat from South Lebanon shows that it can be deterred and its ambitions contained when the appropriate conditions for resistance exist. The most important of these conditions is the presence of sociopolitical groups, such as the Shiite Hizballah, that have the will and inclination to confront the powerful Israeli army. For example, many Palestinians argue that the Lebanese case has taught them that the liberation of the human will is the first condition for the liberation of occupied land. It is worth mentioning that in their current intifada, Palestinian youths have tried to imitate the symbols and actions of the Hizbullah fighters, notwithstanding Israel=s brutal crackdown and heavy Palestinian casualties.
NEUTRALIZING CIVIL SOCIETY
A qualification is in order here: Hizballah’s achievement could easily be reversed by Israel and turned into a strategic defeat unless Lebanon’s humble victory is contextualized and its lessons learned. The critical question is, what does a victor do with its victory, and what does a defeated power do with its defeat? One of the major shortcomings that afflicted the Arabs from the onset of their conflict with Israel was their belittling of the Jewish state’s will to power and independence. On the whole, Arabs considered Israel a Western dependency, incapable of unilaterally taking initiatives of war and peace in defense of its national interests. While Israel concentrated on building viable, democratic institutions and establishing close diplomatic relations with the Western powers, young army officers seized and monopolized power in the Arab world and suppressed all forms of secular and religious opposition. Unlike Israel, which planted and nourished the seeds of a healthy civil society, the new Arab man on horseback bypassed and repressed civil society and became entrapped in inter-Arab disputes. These prolonged and costly conflicts sapped the strength of Arab states and societies.
Furthermore, in contrast to the Israelis, who fully embraced the concept of a people’s army, Arab officers excluded their citizenry; they feared that they might threaten their autocratic control. The Arab defeat in the 1948 Palestine war delivered a crushing blow to the nascent liberal idea in Arab politics. It also motivated Arab public opinion to blindly support the army officers who subsequently captured power and promised salvation from this humiliating defeat and from foreign domination as well.
One of the critical results of the 1948 war was the militarization of Arab politics and the construction and consolidation of an authoritarian political structure. The Palestine war and Arab defeat enabled zealous and unseasoned young officers to dominate civil society under the pretext that they were preparing for the final, decisive battle against Israel and imperialism. In the name of defending the Arab nation and its honor, i.e., liberating Palestine, the ruling military elite neutralized and marginalized civil society. In exchange, the people kept silent and surrendered their right to political participation. Despite the many crises suffered by the post-colonial Arab state, it succeeded in exploiting this unwritten social contract. Until the early 1970s, Arab regimes’ rhetoric inflamed public passions regarding the existential threat that Zionism represented to the Arab nation. Yet these regimes did not sanction an independent role for their populations. A telling example was the rejection by the pan-Arab Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, after the crushing 1967 defeat of the Arab armies, of the option of a people’s war.
Arab governments’ management of the peace process does not differ much from their bungling of the military confrontation with Israel, as demonstrated by their neutralization and exclusion of civil society. In peace and war, the main goal has been to monopolize political space and remain in control. Arab regimes exploited the Palestine question for domestic political reasons and attempted to outbid one another in proclaiming their willingness to challenge Israel. Arabs are still paying the exorbitant costs of this irresponsible behavior. Israel’s decisive 1967 victory over the Arab states was a classic example of how escalating inter-Arab rivalries played into Israeli hands. Moreover, Arab regimes’ engagement in the Palestine-Israel conflict enabled them to garner foreign economic and military aid. This assistance provided the ruling elite with a broad degree of freedom and independence from their societies. It is unlikely that the Arab states– or Israel to an even larger extent – would have been able to obtain foreign assistance on the scale they did if it had not been for the internationalization of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its use as a bargaining instrument in the Cold War.
By contrast, the Lebanese example shows clearly the efficacy of shared responsibility between state and society. The successful performance by Hizballah resulted from the fact that it coordinated its actions with the Lebanese government and co-opted other Sunni Muslims and Christians, who fully embraced it, particularly during the last phase of the Israeli occupation. It may be convincingly argued that the weakness of the central authority in Beirut made possible the emergence of socioreligious forces that challenged Israeli occupation and played a decisive role in Israel’s withdrawal from the south.
Can, however, this victory be maintained and consolidated without restoring the sovereignty and constitutional responsibility of the Lebanese state and rebuilding its institutions? It is essential that the Beirut government assume its legitimate duties in defending nation and citizen. However, bringing the state in does not imply giving it a new hegemonic role over society; rather it means linking the center (Beirut) with one of the historically marginalized regions (the south). With regard to South Lebanon, the consolidation of the victory requires the return of all Lebanese state institutions, including its security forces, and the reclaiming by the state of its sovereignty over all national territory. For the most part, Lebanese authorities have not acted to achieve these objectives. The United Nations and its Security Council have been critical of the Beirut government’s unwillingness or inability to pacify the south and assume control. In the long run, a vacuum of power in South Lebanon invites instability and disorder.
LEBANON'S DIPLOMACY, HIZBALLAH'S PERFORMANCE
Initially, the procrastination of the Lebanese government in assuming its legitimate duties in the south sent the wrong signals to the world community regarding its willingness to insure stability and order in the liberated areas. This ambivalence served Israel’s diplomacy and invited competition between Amal and Hizballah, the two dominant Shiite political rivals in the south. Despite their good intentions and declarations, the two organizations came close to a major confrontation. In July 2000, several fighters from each group were killed and injured in a bloody clash in the south. By contrast, Israel has presented a peaceful face to the world, demonstrating its respect for international obligations by its withdrawal from Lebanon as stipulated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 425. Israel has portrayed itself as a besieged state, willing to live peacefully with its neighbors, who supposedly continue their aggression and who threaten its very existence. In effect, Israel has prepared the ground internationally for future punitive actions against Lebanon in case of an attack from across its northern border. The United States and the European countries have expressed their understanding of the new Israeli position and warned Lebanon and Syria against any armed action.
Israeli leaders sent unambiguous messages about the changed rules of the game after their hasty retreat from the south: Lebanon and Syria, not just Hizballah, would be responsible for any outbreak of hostilities on the northern border. As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put it, if one Israeli civilian is harmed, Tel Aviv will retaliate against Syria and Lebanon with all its power. Indeed, all signs emanating from Tel Aviv point in the direction of such massive retaliation in case Israeli civilians are harmed. In a tête-à-tête with a retired officer, Barak confided that he would use all the weapons in Israel’s arsenal against anyone who dared to attack Israel from Lebanon. In fact, even without a specific provocation, officials and public figures alike have called on Barak to attack Syrian and Lebanese targets to avenge Israeli military honor and test the new containment policy. Thus, the atmosphere is prepared internally and externally for Israel to retaliate against its two neighbors in case hostilities are resumed. Although Israel has not retaliated since Hizballah's seizure of three of its soldiers in October 2000, this inaction should not be taken at face value. The Palestinian intifada, coupled with the political crisis in Israel, restrained the precarious Barak government. It is also reported that the Clinton administration impressed on Barak the need to refrain from retaliating and inviting further escalation.
However, it is unlikely that the Israeli army would remain passive if Hizballah continued to attack its troops. For example, in response to Hizballah’s three attacks on the Shebaa Farms, a strip of land occupied by Israel and claimed by both Lebanon and Syria, a senior security source in Tel Aviv delivered a stern warning to Syria: If the Party of God continued its attacks on the Farms, Israel might respond with assaults on Syrian troops in Lebanon. This source also asserted that Hizballah’s operations against Israel could lead to a regional war pitting Israel against Syria and Iraq. In a similar vein, the United States and the European Community cautioned Syria and Lebanon against any miscalculation that might get out of control.
Despite an initially awkward diplomatic performance, Lebanon and Hizballah appear to appreciate the new realities and are showing restraint. Lebanon neither escalated the conflict nor fell into the trap of confrontation with the United Nations. Hizballah also acted responsibly by refraining from unilateral action and by attempting to transcend the sectarian divide. Although Hizballah has a bloody record, its new discourse has emphasized the need for national unity and sought to build bridges to the other communities. Time and again, Hizballah has made it clear that it had no intention of encroaching on or replacing the state in the liberated territories. Despite some minor incidents, it has refrained so far from exploiting the many strategic temptations offered to it by Israeli withdrawal. Hizballah has challenged others to imitate its example, particularly the Palestinians. Indeed, its call for jihad seems to have resonated among Palestinian youth.
However, Hizballah’s initial restraint has given way to inflated discourse and misguided brinkmanship. Since October, Hizballah has inaugurated a new military campaign to liberate the disputed Shebaa Farms. Although Lebanon has finally convinced the international community of its sovereignty over the Farms, it has lost a great deal of credibility by appearing to sanction Hizballah’s armed tactics in the south.
Despite Hizballah’s brinkmanship, on the whole, the Shiite party has concentrated on resisting Israeli occupation and has not become distracted by peripheral issues, unlike Islamist movements elsewhere in the Arab world, which have unleashed bloody onslaughts on their secular governments and societies. While other Arab Islamists have not cultivated or sustained a strong social base of support, Hizballah has allied itself closely with both state and society. In contrast to Islamist movements elsewhere, which have alienated many people by accusing writers and artists of blasphemy and dragging them into court, Hizballah has recently shown a healthy measure of respect for freedom of expression. It remains to be seen, however, if this shift is tactical or strategic.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Islamists elsewhere are unlikely to translate their Lebanese counterpart’s success into political capital in their own coffers. In fact, Hizballah’s impressive exploits have exposed the rigidity, intolerance and shortsightedness of fellow Islamist organizations. Will the Hizballah leadership continue to exhibit the same restraint and political acumen in the future? Will the party revisit its ideological program in light of the substantive changes that have occurred on the Lebanese scene in the last decade? And will Hizballah prove once again that it has grown deep roots in Lebanese soil and will no longer serve as a Trojan horse, as some claim, for regional actors?
Some analysts argue that Hizballah has its sights set on the biggest prize: gaining legitimacy at home and abroad, sharing in political power, and positioning itself as the most credible and well-organized populist party in Lebanon. Critics point to Hizballah’s bloody legacy during the Lebanese civil war, such as its alleged taking of Western hostages and its sponsoring of terrorism. Other skeptics claim that the party’s long-term objective remains the establishment of an Islamic state in multireligious Lebanon. It is contended that Hizballah’s sudden change of heart and its alleged peaceful transformation should be critically questioned.
Hizballah must ultimately be judged by its deeds. So far, it has confounded its enemies by showing restraint both internally and externally. Rather than continuing its struggle against Israel, its leadership appears to recognize the inherent dangers of overextending itself and of Lebanon’s precarious political and geostrategic position. Any further military operations against Israel would raise questions about Hizballah’s true intentions and would endanger Lebanon's fragile peace. Once again, the reactivation of Hizballah’s attacks on Israeli troops in the occupied Shebaa Farms threatens to engulf Lebanon in bloodshed and turn its humble achievement into strategic defeat.
THE SYRIAN ROLE
At this stage, the regional actors have a vested interest in de-escalation – particularly Syria, which is undergoing a politicaleconomic transition. According to reliable reports from Washington, the Clinton administration impressed upon Damascus the need for political stability in Lebanon after the hasty exit of Israeli forces from the south. In return, Washington promised to keep the Syrian-Israeli track alive. Syrian leaders reciprocated by showing diplomatic flexibility and moderation. Syria’s foreign minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, also stressed that his country opposes any military escalation in South Lebanon after Israel’s departure. He expressed satisfaction at Hizballah´s responsible conduct in the areas vacated by Israel. Syria’s stabilizing role is informed by the need to keep channels of communication open to Washington as well as to deprive Israel of any justification for unleashing its military apparatus. The Syrian leadership knows that the rules of the game have changed in south Lebanon. Its critical reading of the dangerous new situation motivated it to cooperate fully with U.N. efforts to maintain stability.
The continued stalemate on the Syrian Israeli track might motivate Damascus to exert pressure on Tel Aviv by giving the nod to Hizballah to heat up the Lebanese front in the south. Israel and the United States claim that Hizballah’s recent attacks on Israeli troops have been sanctioned by the Syrian leadership. Although Syrian officials deny their involvement in Hizballah’s actions, they stress their support for armed resistance. It seems that the linkage between the Syrian and Lebanese tracks has been reestablished.
In their attempt to both please and outbid their Syrian patrons, Lebanese officials miscalculated and acted prematurely regarding Shebaa Farms. Although initially the Syrians sent ambiguous signals about their claim to the farms, the Syrian foreign minister subsequently agreed “fully” with the U.N. report that did not include Shebaa Farms in Israel’s withdrawal and left open the question of their ownership. This did considerable damage to Lebanon’s diplomatic credibility. Whatever the reasons behind Syria’s revived position, it saved Lebanon from escalating tensions.
Initially, Lebanese leaders committed serious blunders by failing to appreciate the complex dynamics of regional and international politics; otherwise, they would have coordinated their position more closely with Syria before outbidding it later. Lebanon’s stand was viewed as a convenient pretext both to sabotage Israel’s planned withdrawal and to rationalize the continuation of hostilities if withdrawal failed to occur. Syria’s rational decision seems to have freed Lebanon’s hands.
The infelicitous argument over the Shebaa Farms is part of a larger problem affecting Syrian-Lebanese relations. Beirut’s ability to build a modern state depends to a large extent on redefining the one-sided Syrian-Lebanese relationship. The irresponsible manner with which Lebanese officials approached Shebaa Farms shows clearly the unhealthy nature of this relationship. The project of building a modern state in Lebanon is unlikely to be implemented as long as the political survival of its ruling elite remains dependent on Damascus. Constructing a modern state will probably remain out of reach as long as Lebanese-Syrian interactions are hostage to tribal and sectarian interests rooted in Beirut’s complex political system. However, a consensus is gradually emerging in Lebanon regarding the need to bring the bilateral Lebanese-Syrian relationship into a balance based on respect for one another's sovereignty and independence. Many voices in Lebanon have begun to openly question Syria's role in their country. It is doubtful if Syria can maintain its traditional role and hegemony in Lebanon for long.
Israel’s retreat from Lebanon complicated Syrian-Lebanese relations further, especially after the death of President Hafiz Asad. Aware of the upheaval in Lebanon, the new Syrian president, Bashar Asad, has alluded to the need for greater efforts to improve the nature of the “special relationship” between the two countries. A consensus exists among Syria’s specialists that the economic, political and strategic importance of Lebanon to Damascus has increased rather than decreased following Israel’s departure and will continue even if Syria signs a peace treaty with the Jewish state. Hafiz’s death has not dramatically altered this reality.
THE STRUGGLE FOR DEVELOPMENT
Do Lebanon and Hizballah have a comprehensive blueprint for the development of the war-torn south? Do they recognize that the challenge of development may be more difficult than the military confrontation with Israel? Can Hizballah’s rank and file be fully integrated into Lebanese civil society, and through what means and institutions? Are there any hurdles that might undermine the transition from the mentality of resistance to that of citizenship? And will Hizballah devote its energy to politics and gradually shed its paramilitary character? These last two questions raise the important issue of how to enable Hizballah to participate fully inthe political field, with all that implies for a substantive shift in its ideological and tactical structure.
No causal relationship exists between the military success of liberation movements and their capacity to confront the challenges of political and human development. Lebanon’s achievement will ultimately depend on the country’s ability to convert its intangible capital into a springboard to a comprehensive development strategy. Such conversion requires the reform and modernization of the country’s political and legal institutions. To what extent will the liberation of South Lebanon contribute to the emergence of a new and inclusive nationalism that may serve as the basis of a modern state? The key question is whether the liberation of South Lebanon will promote a rethinking of traditional loyalties and a nurturing of liberal constructs. Of course the project of building a modern state must await both the rethinking of the unequal Lebanese-Syrian relationship and intra-Lebanese relations as well.
ISRAEL'S WITHDRAWAL AND THE ARAB STATE SYSTEM
Israel’s retreat from Lebanon appears neither to weaken the legitimacy of the Arab state system nor to endanger its stability. In the last decade, some Arab regimes faced existential security threats that escalated into prolonged wars of attrition and resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in damage. Despite being besieged by Islamist opposition forces, Arab regimes delivered crushing blows to radical Islamist movements, particularly in two of the most populous Arab states, Egypt and Algeria. Despite the structural weakness of Arab states, they have proved surprisingly durable, neutralizing civil society by preventing it from actively participating in the political process.
Hizballah’s success raises serious questions about the credibility and efficacy of the Arab regimes’ management of the Arab-Israeli conflict and peace making. However, these questions are unlikely to force Arab regimes to dramatically alter their strategies toward the Jewish state. One cannot understand the Arab states’ conduct in peace and war except through the political economy of the Arab ruling elite, particularly their need for the foreign aid that enables them to maintain their control. One should not be surprised if the Arab regimes do not celebrate Hizballah’s achievement. They know all too well that this humble victory exposes their military and diplomatic failure in dealing with Israel.
It is no wonder that Egypt, which plays a critical role in the Middle East peace process, refrained from expressing its joy after Israel retreated from Lebanon. Although Egyptian President Husni Mubarak called his Lebanese counterpart to congratulate him and reiterate his country’s support for Lebanon, the government-controlled press in Egypt was more restrained, as was the press in the Gulf. As one Egyptian diplomat told Agence France Presse, Cairo often takes a reserved position whenever other Arab parties make progress in their peace talks with Israel.
Egypt has come to insist on its primacy in the normalization process with the Jewish state because such primacy gives it recognition on the international stage. In addition, according to this diplomat, Egypt’s ambivalence toward Israel’s retreat may also result from its reluctance to give the Islamist and pan nationalist opposition another pretext to criticize official Arab “timidity” toward Israel.
While the Egyptian public viewed Israel’s forced retreat from Lebanon as the first real Arab breakthrough against Israel, the government press expressed its dissatisfaction with this partial, misleading portrayal because it believed it ignored the Egyptian military “victory” in the 1973 war. Simply put, the Arab ruling elite fears that reverberations from South Lebanon might set fire to the tinder of its ideologically charged population. Here lies the rationale for trying to neutralize any spillover effects from events in Lebanon and to push forward on the negotiating front. Arab rulers hope that peace will enable them to appease anti-Israeli, nationalist and Islamist sentiment now exacerbated by deteriorating socioeconomic conditions.
IMPACT ON THE PALESTINIAN TRACK
If Egypt, the oldest nation-state in the Arab regional system, can afford to ignore the consequences of Israel’s retreat from southern Lebanon and probably succeed in restricting its spillover effects on its civil society, the situation is much more complicated in other Arab countries, particularly the occupied Palestinian territories. The Palestinian public was elated at the Israeli retreat and overwhelmingly called for learning the lessons of Lebanon’s resistance to Israeli occupation. Hamas and Islamic Jihad demanded that the Palestinian Authority terminate its peace negotiations with Tel Aviv and adopt the strategy of Hizballah. One statement by Hamas added that the case of Lebanon shows the efficacy of armed resistance and that jihad as practiced by Hizballah is the only means to victory over the “Zionist enemy” and the liberation of the land.
It is worth mentioning the difficulty of exporting the Lebanese techniques to other Arab theaters. The sociopolitical situation differs dramatically from one Arab country to another. Moreover, Israel's commitment and investment in South Lebanon was relatively low. The situation in the Palestinian territories is dramatically different, and Israel is fully committed. Nevertheless, after Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon, some observers wondered whether Arafat had the will and the independence to put an end to the deterioration of his negotiating position. Does Arafat in fact want to democratize the Palestinian decision-making process and involve civil society in supporting and consolidating his peace talks with Israel?
Regardless of the difficulty of exporting what happened in South Lebanon to other Arab theaters, there exists the fear within the ranks of the Israeli and U.S. ruling elite that the Palestinians may be influenced by the Lebanese model. Several Israeli strategists have expressed their concern that the virus of resistance might well infect the Palestinians, especially if Israeli-Palestinian talks fail. In their view, the most dangerous scenario would take the form of the mobilization of Palestinian civilians and their march by foot to reclaim their occupied homes and villages. Even the Clinton administration felt obliged to warn the Palestinian Authority against drawing the wrong conclusions from Israel’s retreat from Lebanon. Aaron David Miller, coordinator of the U.S. team in charge of the peace process, cautioned the Palestinians against generalizing from the Lebanese case. As Miller put it, any attempt to draw lessons from Hizballah’s success is very “dangerous.” Miller added that the most effective way to undermine the efforts of the opponents of the peace process is to make negotiations work and obtain a treaty that preserves the interests of the various players.
The critical question is not whether the Lebanese example may be imitated on the Palestinian track, but what the effects of Israel’s forced retreat may be on Israeli Palestinian peace negotiations. Indicators show that what occurred in Lebanon has had a direct effect on Arafat's ability to offer further concessions to Israel. Despite this obvious fact, few analysts have recognized the linkage between Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon and the failure of the Camp David peace conference in July 2000. Arafat’s refusal to make further concessions is one very important result of the Israeli army’s retreat. Despite strong pressure from the United States and Israel to accept their proposals on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, Arafat resisted and requested that U.N. resolutions be implemented. The Palestinian leadership recognizes that there exist certain red lines that it cannot cross. In particular, the PNA cannot compromise on its demand that East Jerusalem be the capital of the future Palestinian state or that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return. Although Arafat would have liked to show flexibility toward the Clinton administration, Hizballah’s achievement and its aftermath appear to have changed the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Arafat expressed this new reality before his departure for the Camp David conference. He said that he could not accept less than what Lebanon had achieved: Israel’s acceptance of U.N. resolutions. This statement was not meant for public consumption, but it reflected the changed realities on the Palestinian home front. Many Palestinian voices, including that of the mufti of Jerusalem, made it very clear to Arafat that any concessions on fundamental Palestinian rights would be unacceptable. Arafat knows full well that tampering with these rights, given what has happened in Lebanon, would lead to the further polarization of relations between the Palestinian Authority and its powerful opposition, particularly Hamas, and to the further division and fragmentation of Palestinian civil society. Such a perilous development might well plant the seeds of a future civil war in Palestine.
Viewed from this analytical and historical perspective, Arafat’s decision to be resolute at Camp David (despite Israeli and U.S. pressure) stemmed from his reading of the internal and Arab scenes, and from the existence of other options that the Palestinians might pursue. The new Palestinian intifada is a case in point.
A NEW ROLE FOR ARAB PUBLIC OPINION AND CIVIL SOCIETY?
In the last decade, one of the principal achievements of American diplomacy and Arab official policies has been the neutralization of Arab public opinion as an independent variable in the political equation. To what extent will Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon and its aftermath rekindle the role of Arab public opinion in the making of policies affecting its future? But before one celebrates the breaking of a new dawn in which Arab public opinion begins to play an effective role in the peace-making process, a question is in order. Are there any mechanisms and institutions that might enable citizens to fully express their views to the ruling elite?
It is unlikely that Arab public opinion is now capable of halting or reversing the peace process. The challenge now is to base the peace making on sounder principles. This critical shift in strategy requires adherence to international legitimacy as reflected in U.N. resolutions and a genuine commitment to a historical reconciliation that will guarantee the fundamental rights of all actors. In the case of Palestine, for a settlement to be just and viable, it must be based on principles of justice. This essential premise flies in the face of U.S. and Israeli attempts to bypass international resolutions and to replace them with half measures under the pretext of existing new realities on the ground. In this context, Palestinian and Arab public opinion has so far forced Arafat’s hand, making him rethink his previous negotiating strategy. Will he persist, or will he be forced to submit to U.S. and Israeli pressure, for lack of Arab/Muslim support?
Another arena where the consequences of Israeli retreat might be felt is the normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Pressures from groups opposed to normalization with the Jewish state have already intensified as a direct result of Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon and its aggressive response to the Palestinian intifada. The spontaneous outbursts of public joy in most Arab countries show the psychological and mental boost that Israeli withdrawal has fueled. Israel’s retreat has energized the anti-normalization camp and empowered it. Similarly, the Palestinian intifada intensified Arab campaigns to cut all links with the Jewish state and even to boycott U.S. products. Ironically, calls for slowing down the train of normalization do not emanate just from those countries that share borders with Israel and have historically faced the brunt of its military power. Public opinion in several Gulf states has organized anti-normalization chapters and has impressed on its governments the danger of opening up the national space to Israeli interests. The anti-normalization camp has a near political monopoly in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well as in Lebanon and Syria and among many Palestinians. Arab governments have been receptive to calls by groups in civil society to slow down normalization with Israel. Neither Egypt nor Jordan – close U.S. allies and the first Arab states to sign peace agreements with Tel Aviv – has blatantly defied public sentiments on this explosive issue. A consensus appears to have emerged in Arab societies that full, normal relations with Israel must await the successful completion of peace agreements on the Palestinian and Syrian Lebanese tracks.
One of the important lessons to be learned from the Lebanon case is the significance of the close cooperation between Hizballah and the Beirut government. This implicit partnership played a critical role in augmenting the internal front and in absorbing Israel’s military attacks on the civilian infrastructure. In contrast, analysts agree that the hostility between most Arab governments and their civil societies has been partly responsible for the failure to achieve sociopolitical progress and for the series of military defeats that have characterized contemporary Arab history. The critical question is not why Israel militarily crushed the Arab armies, but rather why Arab states have not been able to build transparent and liberal institutions that mediate the relationship between state and society and strengthen them both as well. Arab military defeats are a natural extension of the larger failure of the Arabs to fully develop and join the modern world.
To what extent will Israel's retreat represent a new beginning that enables the Arabs to rid themselves of the defeatist mentality of the last 50 years? Will this achievement motivate Arab intellectuals and politicians to build a second renaissance on principles that are deeply anchored in diversity, human rights and a respect for legitimate protest? Or will the Arabs waste this historic opportunity as they have wasted dozens of others in the recent past?