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March 22, 2002
Enhancing the prospects of Beirut

By Ahmed Amr.


One gets only so many second chances in life. Beirut is getting another chance to take her place as a grand cultural and political center for the whole Middle East. We can only hope that the conference in Beirut will also turn out to be a conference for Beirut, the only Arab capital that has fully tasted the brutality of an Israeli siege. This city, one of the most charming beauties on the Mediterranean, has been ravaged by Israeli tanks and endured months of savage attacks by the Israeli Air Force. Lebanon has paid a terrible price for having a belligerent expansionist Israel on its southern borders. No one needs to remind the Lebanese of Israeli intrigue or the bloody civil wars that plagued their land as a result of the expulsion of the Palestinians. Aside from the Palestinians, who understands Sharon's Israel better than the people of Beirut?

This is a chance for the Lebanese and the Palestinians to appeal directly to the American people. To make the most of this opportunity, we hope the people of Beirut will do their part to enhance the prospects for liberating the occupied territories and creating a Palestinian state. There is a lively press in Beirut and it is freer and more eloquent than most of what passes for journalism in the Middle East. For a change, America will lend a serious ear to the voice of Beirut and the narrative of the Palestinians might get a fair hearing.

Many who have good reasons to doubt might question why this moment is so seriously pregnant with possibilities. But there are also many good reasons why Beirut should welcome the promise of a new birth. After first brushing aside the Saudi initiative, the Bush administration has taken a second look at Crown Prince Abdullah's proposition. It is not entirely clear why there is such a sudden shift in American attitude. But it seems very real and very genuine. It could be that the United States government has concluded that there is a compelling strategic interest in resolving the Israeli/Palestinian problem. In the mainstream press, the President's sudden shift in policy has been treated kindly. This kindness often comes from the same publishers and journalists who have been beating the drums for Sharon's 'military solution' and even pondering the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

But, at the end of the day, In the post 911 world, American national security issues might be of more importance than America's 'special relationship' with a thug like Ariel Sharon. I could speculate about why Bush invited the Crown Prince to his ranch. Or why the Crown Prince was quick to accept the invitation. We could also pay some attention to why, in a very business like manner, the Saudis and Americans have worked out a formula for relocating United States troops to nearby Qatar. It also helps to notice that, in the span of Cheney's visit to the region, the rhetoric calling for an invasion of Iraq has simmered down to barely to a whisper. The American sponsored UN resolution affirming the need for a Palestinian state was anemic. But it is still a Security Council resolution. Add to the mix, the overtures to Arafat and the public criticism of Sharon. All in a matter of a few weeks after a year of giving Sharon nothing but green lights.

Because American policy is always suspect on the fabled 'Arab Street,' there are those who would dismiss such major modifications in American policy as a full blown charm offensive to pave the way for a war to topple Saddam Hussein. They Could be right. But, up close and personal, there seems to be an obvious change in the posture of the administration. When Sharon predictably burnt his short fuse and went on another killing spree in Palestinian refugee camps, maybe he finally went through all the rope the Americans gave him to hang himself. Maybe, the Europeans finally prevailed in convincing the United States that the struggle for Palestinian liberty was something worth supporting. Perhaps, the State Department dusted off the Israeli Prime Minister's Sabra and Shatila file. Maybe the CIA walked through a couple of serious scenarios based on serious assumptions about Sharon's impulsive and murderous behavior during the invasion of Lebanon. In 1982, after coaxing Alexander Haig and the Knesset into allowing him the quick fix of a 25 mile 'incursion' into Lebanon, Sharon conveniently left his tape measure in Tel Aviv and spent a whole summer pounding Beirut with American tanks, American F-16s and American cluster bombs.

Consider this. Before Alexander Haig gave a green light for Sharon's Likudniks to further plunder Lebanon, with the express purpose of re-igniting the flames of the civil war and smothering the Palestinians, America was more than just another belligerent state in the Middle East. In the last two decades, America has drifted further and further towards overtly hostile policies against the people of the region. It got to the point where the Israeli Lobby basically dictated American policies from Tel Aviv. To confirm this sell out of American national interests, one only needs to look down the roster of the Israel Firsters who came to dominate every vital State department office during the Clinton administration. The revolving door between the Israeli Lobby and the State department was so shameless that hardly a single professional American diplomat was left in a position to influence Middle Eastern affairs. Men of the caliber of George Ball and Philip Habib were replaced with men with the ethnic agendas of Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross. And, of course, the Greek chorus of Yiddish supremacists who dominate the mass media came up with mind warping reasons why the violent repression of the Palestinians and the theft of their land was 'a vital American security interest.' Congress, duly servile to its campaign finance requirements, opened a generous expense account for Israeli settlers at our national treasury.

Two decades later, the folly of these outrageous policies are becoming apparent even to the wizards who recommended them. The exponential increase in the number of American military and civilian casualties, not to mention Arab and Israeli losses, is reason enough to abandon the bankrupt political visions of the militant Israel Firsters.

So, there might be cause for great hope in Beirut. Perhaps, in addition to refining the Saudi peace initiative, the conference can issue a serious call for an open and serious exchange of views on what motivated American administrations to adopt such a hostile posture for the last two decades. There is an essential need for an open discourse with the Bush administration about the Israeli Lobby's future role in determining American foreign policy in the region. The destiny of the people of the Middle East cannot be contingent on the good will of media barons like Sulzberger of the New York Times. It is time to demystify America's intentions towards the Arab people and especially towards the Palestinians.

The outlines of a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are predictable. It takes only common sense to figure out what needs to be done. The vast majority of Palestinians are willing to accept partial justice in a small portion of their country as the price of a free and secure Palestinian state. In return, the Israelis must limit their territorial ambitions to the 78% of Palestine they expropriated in 1948. The evacuated settlements will be badly needed for Palestinian refugees. Besides, Israel must not expect any rewards for thrity five years of belligerent land thieving military occupation. As for the right of return, the Israelis flatter themselves if they think that a large number of Palestinians would opt to live in what will continue to be a racist state.

The precise language of recognizing Israel needs to be mindful of Palestinian history and Palestinian losses. Not a single Palestinian deserved to lose their country to invading Eastern European zealots. Not a single Palestinian village or town deserved to be destroyed. The racist assaults by Israelis against Palestinian memories must halt. Israelis must be prevailed on to teach their kids the true history of the land they inhabit and to honor the native people of the Holy Land. Most of all, they need to lose their old habits of voting for war criminals and giving them license to commit more war crimes against an innocent people.

I have always believed that if America gets serious about resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it will get resolved. If I am wrong in calling this major shift in American policy, I will be the first to eat my words. In the meantime, the whole Middle East is depending on a second chance in Beirut.

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