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Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
6 August 2007

Many parallels are currently being drawn between the crises in Palestine and Lebanon. A number focus on the most visible similarity: the "two-state, two-government" scenario which has become a reality in Palestine (with different authorities in charge in Gaza and the West Bank) and threatens to do the same in Lebanon (where the country is polarised between major political blocs). But there are more affinities between the two situations and the political developments and players driving them, and it is an unavoidable reality that the regional political strategy of the United States underlies the evolving conflicts in the respective countries.

The common factor in the United States agenda that is a key factor in both crises is its aim of neutralising popularly elected "radical" forces (Hamas and Hizbollah) which militarily resist Israel and politically confront the US itself, using as its instrument the "moderate" US-friendly and notionally democratic governments in the region (Mahmoud Abbas's and Fouad Siniora's).

In a speech in July 2007, George W Bush did little to conceal these parallel US agendas when he asserted:

"(The) conflict in Gaza and West Bank today is between extremists and moderates and these are not the only places where the forces of radicalism and violence threaten freedom and peace. The struggle between extremists and moderates is also playing out in Lebanon where Hizbollah, Syria and Iran are trying to destabilize the popularly elected government."

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a visiting scholar at the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment in Beirut. She is the author of Hizb'ullah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press, 2002)

In making the analogy and pursuing its logic, the US has pursued a policy which has sought to weaken - if not eradicate outright - Hizbollah and Hamas, through diplomatic, military, political and now legal means. As part of this campaign, Washington has adopted a virtually identical strategy in both arenas, transforming pre-existent internal political rivalries into open conflict.

The result of the US's obstruction of any process that could find an accommodation between these rivalries (including regional initiatives and dialogue sessions involving Hamas / Fatah in Palestine, and the Hizbollah-led opposition / the March 14 bloc in Lebanon) has served only to turn local divisions into deeper and irreconcilable differences; these have contributed to civil war in Palestine and near-civil-war in Lebanon. The reference (by officials of the US and its chief ally Israel respectively) to the July-August 2006 war and the intra-Palestinian conflict as an "opportunity" tends to reinforce in Arab minds the description by Robert Satloff of of US policy in the region: "constructive instability".

The cost of taking sides

The United States's tactical desire to keep the two middle-east political entities in a condition of instability is underpinned by the strategic one of ensuring the regime stability of its "moderate" Arab allies.

Lebanon and Palestine combine democratic traditions with the experience of having seen resistance groups, inimical to US and Israeli interests, sweep to or close to power. The Bush administration, accordingly, has abandoned all pretence at democracy-promotion there and engaged in stark de-democratisation of Palestine and Lebanon. The measures the US has used (to be elaborated below) to shake the foundations of democracy and the internal stability of these nations include undermining their national unity, infringing on their sovereignty, refusing to recognise the popular will, and attempting to mask their government's loss of popular and constitutional legitimacy: in short, promoting failed states rather than encouraging state-building.

This enterprise has been intensified since the victory of Hizbollah over Israel in the war of July-August 2006, and Hamas's routing of Fatah in Gaza in June 2007. Both events propelled the Bush administration to scramble for ways to support Fouad Siniora (Lebanon's prime minister) and Mahmoud Abbas (Palestine's president) against their rivals. In contrast to its "moderate" Arab friends of an autocratic mould, with whom the US seeks partnership at a state level - Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - the US's support for its allies in Lebanon and Palestine is defined through particular leaders and/ or factions, not nationwide institutional entities.

But by thus taking sides, Washington engages in the dangerous exercise of falsely presenting political factions - which do not represent true popular majorities, far less overwhelming ones - as truly national forces. In fact, the US's declared intent to "prop" and "boost" Abbas and Siniora indicates its acknowledgment of widespread internal popular discontent with their regimes. Washington's obfuscation here obscures the fact that had it not been for Hamas's and Hizbollah's alliances with these forces in the past, the latter would not have been able to come to dominate state structures.

For its part, Hamas - motivated by the imperative of lifting US-led international sanctions on the Palestinian people and ending the Fatah leadership's military-security campaign to unseat it after its electoral win in January 2006 - formed a national unity government with Fatah, under the Mecca agreement of February 2007. The Palestinian president (and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas used this foothold in government to concentrate power - security and financial prerogatives, as well as key policy-making - in the office of the president its associated bodies; this effectively emasculated Hamas and reduced its rightful leadership of the government to a purely cosmetic one.

In a similar vein, Hizbollah struck an electoral alliance (the so-called "quartet agreement") with Fouad Siniora's March 14 camp in the 2005 parliamentary elections, in exchange for the latter's pledge to support and legitimise its resistance; this was indeed later enshrined in a cabinet policy statement. As a result of this alliance, the March 14 forces won twelve additional seats in parliament, giving them the parliamentary majority they enjoy today. Thus, while the political bloc to which Siniora belongs has a political majority, the opposition camp of which Hizbollah is part constitutes the popular majority which would almost certainly be translated into a parliamentary majority should early elections be held.

But these political and electoral compromises have cost Hamas and Hizbollah dearly, as both Abbas and Siniora used the political power their factions were afforded to overturn the respective basis of agreement. The Mecca agreement was supposed to foster national unity, dialogue and partnership, but the Fatah leadership used it (with US and Israeli assistance) to continue its offensive to oust Hamas from the government, eliminate its leadership and intimidate its supporters. As a result, Hamas was pushed into a defensive war for survival that culminated in its takeover of Gaza.

Likewise, Hizbollah's erstwhile electoral allies reneged on their support for its resistance even before they began to blame the movement for the destruction of the 2006 war (a stance they sustained after credible reports appeared of a pre-planned, US-sanctioned Israeli onslaught against Lebanon, which are confirmed by Ehud Olmert's testimony to the Winograd committee). Hamas and Hizbollah (backed by some commercial media in the west, Arab countries and even Israel) have accused elements in both Fatah and March 14 of collaboration with Israel and the US - and the two movements claim to have the documents to prove it.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Lebanon, Israel, and the fallout of the 2006 war:

Fred Halliday, "A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah" (20 July 2006)

Jihad N Fakhreddine, "The Lebanese enigma: strength in weakness" (16 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)

John Le Carré, "Lebanon, Lebanon" (29 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (8 December 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)

Such allegations against the Siniora government at least have not been incontrovertibly substantiated - though his cabinet's request for a special session to discuss the disarmament of Hizbollah on the day United Nations Resolution 1701 was issued (11 August 2006) did little to quell Shi'a fears of a conspiracy hatched against the resistance by the US, Israel, "moderate" Arab states and the March 14 forces. In view of this trend of events and its suspicions, Hizbollah sought to preserve its armed status and prevent Lebanon from falling fully under the US-Israeli orbit by launching a protest campaign against the Siniora government, centred on the demand for a national-unity government in which the opposition would control one-third-plus-one seats, giving it veto power on such strategic issues.

A strategy of disunity

In the face of staunch resistance to its agendas for Palestine and Lebanon, the United States has done everything in its power to ensure the crises it helped create remain irresolvable by blocking and/or destroying national-unity governments and promoting factionalism and sectarianism.

The leading Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported in December 2006 the admission of close Abbas ally Nabil Shaath that the Palestinian president had suspended talks with Hamas until he managed to "convince the US to change its position on the unity government". The US's obstructionist role in Palestine was confirmed by the former senior United Nations middle-east envoy, Alvaro de Soto, who (after resigning in May 2007) stated that the US had pressured Fatah to refuse to join a national-unity government with Hamas, against the latter's solicitations.

Once the Saudi-sponsored national-unity government was put in place in the weeks following the Mecca summit meeting in February 2007, the US set to work immediately on bringing about its demise. The success of this enterprise, and Abbas's fervent refusal to hold a dialogue with Hamas to restore such a government, make it highly unlikely that the US will reverse its divisive policy in Palestine.

In Lebanon too, the US has scuppered every single political deal struck between the Siniora government and the opposition; this is evidenced by the former's repeated backtracking from any potential breakthroughs after agreements that brought them near. The Bush administration's dismissal of two colossal demonstrations staged by opposition supporters demanding a national-unity government at the end of 2006, and the American president's expressed "pride" in Siniora's "tenacity" in ignoring such popular demands, is further evidence of Washington's strong objection to the formation of a national-unity government.

The US under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns, admitted as much when he asserted in December 2006 that "there is no reason to undo the results of a free and democratic election", noting that the US " would like to see that [Siniora] government stay together", as opposed to becoming part of a reconstituted, more representative, unity government.

As France has become actively engaged in reconciling the feuding sides, so the US continues to try to torpedo the possibility of any compromise. Washington's ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, has even issued directives on the preconditions for the formation of a national-unity government, with the more-or-less explicit aim of complicating and hampering its emergence. US officials reinforce this stance by effectively criminalising neutrality in the political standoff; the assistant-secretary for near-eastern affairs, David Welch equated neutrality over the "parallel government" scenario threatened by the opposition with "support for terrorism". This can be taken also as an indirect warning to the Lebanese army commander and the head of Lebanon's central bank, who have refused to take sides in the event of this prospect taking shape.

But the US's strategy of fostering and maintaining national disunity should be no surprise; for all its talk about "disarming militias", it has openly embarked on a policy of funding state militias loyal to Mahmoud Abbas and Fouad Siniora. As part of its campaign to oust the Hamas government in 2006-07, the US designated (under the auspices of the plan devised by its security coordinator in the region, Lietenant-General Keith Dayton) $86.4 million for Abbas's Force 17 presidential-guard units and the preventive security services (PSS), led by Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan.

A US government document revealed that the purpose of the aid was "to assist the Palestinian Authority presidency......to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza" (a euphemism for fighting Hamas). In light of the PSS's defeat in Gaza at the hands of Hamas, the US has now pledged a further $80 million in security assistance to Fatah.

A similar strategy has been adopted in Lebanon, where Washington has earmarked $60 million for the internal-security force (ISF), an agency which has been recently injected with thousands of new Sunni recruits, and which is under the direct control of the Saad Hariri-controlled interior ministry, earning it the sobriquet, "the Hariri militia". In conjunction with the Bush administration's authorisation of a covert CIA plan to fund anti-Hizbollah activities (reported in the Daily Telegraph), it is evident that the ultimate aim of this aid is to militarise Lebanon's Sunnis and create a Sunni counterweight to Hizbollah.

The Lebanese army is another state institution the Bush administration hopes to use against Hizbollah. In the aftermath of Israel's defeat in the 2006 war, the Bush administration sought to "strengthen" the army by increasing its funding from an annual average of $2-3 million to $220 million in training, light weapons, ammunition and Humvees. The declared purpose of such funding is not to enable the army to defend Lebanon from Israeli incursions and attacks, but to transform the army into a force capable of "extending state sovereignty" across the country by "enforcing [UN] Resolution 1701" - in other words, into a force capable of confronting the resistance.

Washington's double logic

The United States is ready both to revamp security and military apparatuses into factional instruments, and to make all other politically autonomous state institutions (the presuppositions of democracy) into factional instruments. By the same token, its allies can violate state constitutions without losing their democratic credentials.

In this regard, the tactic of the "palace coup" (or "self-coup") has become de rigueur among "moderate" Arab political elites - in a trend wholeheartedly encouraged by the Bush administration, which confers legitimacy on such transgressions while delegitimising popularly elected movements and criminalising their protest actions as "coups" against "legitimacy".

Mahmoud Abbas, even apart from his personal appropriation of the constitutionally delegated powers of the Ismail Haniya government, has since committed numerous constitutional breaches. According to the framers of the Palestinian basic law, Abbas's establishment of an emergency government (led by Salam Fayad) without the required parliamentary approval within a thirty-day time frame, was a clear violation of the constitution. Moreover, the architects of the basic law have argued that in the absence of such a vote, the constitution stipulates that the Haniya government remain the caretaker government until parliament approves the formation of a new government.

Abbas's attempt to circumvent these laws by treating the expired emergency government as a caretaker cabinet is illegal, since Haniya's government is supposed to fulfil that role. When Fatah boycotted the session called for by Hamas's parliament speaker to vote on the new interim cabinet, Abbas invoked the "parliamentary paralysis" pretext to bypass parliament altogether and call by decree for early parliamentary and presidential elections, though the framers of the constitution contend that "ruling by decree doesn't mean [the president] can suspend or change the law."

The Siniora government has been no less intrepid in its indifference to the constitution. Lebanese constitutional experts have cited the preamble to the constitution (which dictates that "there is no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts ‘the pact of communal coexistence'") to charge that the resignation in November 2006 of all five Shi'a ministers from the Siniora cabinet deemed it illegitimate, given that the government henceforth lacked representation of an entire sect. In a half-hearted attempt to find a legal loophole to give itself a veneer of constitutional legitimacy, the Siniora cabinet argued that since it did not accept the resignations, it was still a legitimate body. With the resignation of a sixth (Christian) minister, the cabinet came to represent the March 14 faction alone; this facilitating a decision-making process that enabled it to vote on numerous strategic issues, such as the international tribunal examining the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, while skirting the constitutional prerogatives of the opposition-allied president.

In further invoking the argument that parliamentary paralysis requires them to act, government forces have repeatedly threatened to bypass the speaker of the house and convene parliament on their own to ratify the international tribunal and to vote for a new president, even without the required two-thirds quorum.

In the absence of functional constitutional councils in both countries, the US- led international community has become the arbiter of the Palestinian and Lebanese constitutions. Despite all Mahmoud Abbas's violations of the basic law, the US has endorsed the cabinets he has appointed as "legitimate"; it reserving the same terminology for Siniora's government, which it routinely affirms was "democratically elected" - as if that fact alone can mitigate or justify breaches of the constitution.

But Washington is far from applying the same logic to the Ismail Haniya-led government, which was also democratically elected (which the US conveniently chooses to forget) and which felt compelled to defend itself against annihilation by Mohammed Dahlan's militia. In Washington's understanding, Hamas's self-defence against the Fatah-staged coup constitutes (as Palestinian scholar Joseph Massad observes) a "coup against democracy". In a unique interpretation of democratic freedoms, the Hizbollah-led protest campaign which consists of massive popular demonstrations, a nationwide strike and an ongoing sit-in, is also branded an "extra-legal" coup.

The "Arab democratic regime"

In a further bid to delegitimise Hamas and Hizbollah and their actions, the United States has sought to detract from their nationalist identities and agendas by reducing them to proxies of Iran and Syria, out to destabilise their countries on behalf of their foreign "sponsors". In the case of Hizbollah, this campaign has been taken a step further with the US's attempts to depict the party as an organisation with American blood on its hands. In the absence of any compelling evidence, Hizbollah has been accused of posing "a persistent and evolving threat to the United States over the next three years" in the same breath as al-Qaida, and is allegedly training Shi'a militias in Iraq to fight US troops there.

Behind the US's criminalisation of the protest actions of these democratically elected popular movements, and their demonisation as security threats to the US and their own nations alike, is a refusal to recognise the election results which bought them into government. But overturning the will of the people is not a practice that George W Bush even bothers to conceal when he maintains that "what's right is not necessarily what appears to be immediately popular." With such mentors in democracy, it is no wonder that Siniora boasted that he "didn't bat an eyelid" at the sight of the largest opposition demonstration ever staged in Lebanon's history.

In the absence of constitutional and popular legitimacy, the Abbas-appointed and Siniora governments have turned to the US-led international community as a substitute for national legitimation, prompting both Hamas and Hizbollah to warn that "legitimacy cannot come from the outside". Such governments appear to be the latest breed of democracy that Washington is cultivating: the democratic regime. This is democratic, insofar as the political systems of which it is part is a democracy; but it is a regime, in that it represents a new form of government which is challenged by the people, its constitutionality is widely disputed, and it derives its legitimacy from external powers. In short, this is the closest the US can get to an authoritarian regime without admitting the reality.

The Arab democratic regime, as a US protégé, has internalised the fundamental tenets of the Bush doctrine and adopted a lexicon which features its main catchphrases. A stark illustration of the political acculturation these regimes have undergone is their appropriation of Bush's "war against terror" and its attendant discourse. Mimicking the US's Iran-complex, both the Abbas and Siniora regimes have laid much of their internal problems at its doorstep, blaming Iran rather than themselves and their US sponsor for the Hamas takeover of Gaza and Hizbollah's protest campaign.

Abbas, further inspired by Bush's post-9/11 jargon, has vilified Hamas as "murderous terrorists" and "the forces of darkness" with alleged ties to al-Qaida. In a similar vein, the March 14 bloc has borrowed its "I love life" campaign against Hizbollah's alleged "culture of death" from Bush's vocabulary. More recently, the Siniora government has launched Lebanon's own "war against terror" in the northern Lebanese camp of Nahr al-Bared, where the army has been fighting the Salafi-jihadist group, Fatah al-Islam. Siniora has virtually plagiarised from Bush's many anti-terror scripts by referring to this conflict as a campaign to "root out and strike at terrorism."

Another leitmotif borrowed from US discourse is an unprecedented narrative of "the state", which the Abbas and Siniora factions (in the eyes of the Bush administration) epitomise. Although neither group has displayed respect for their respective constitutions, they remain intent on labelling Hamas and Hizbollah as "putschists" and "coup-seekers" who have revolted against the "legitimacy" of "the state". Yet these same forces (who have been widely accused of financial and political corruption, collaboration with occupying powers and the formation of extra-legal militias) are the same ones preaching the sanctity of the "state project" in Palestine and the "state of [sovereign] institutions" (as it is called in Lebanon). Since these factions do not in fact embody the state but merely control its apparatuses, the state they are adamant about protecting is not the state in the abstract sense, but rather their state.

In this connection, the ultimate aim of "strengthening" the state is eradicating resistance groups as conveyed by US officials' favourite mantras: "there can only be one authority in a democracy", "the state's monopoly on arms", "disarming all militias", and "extending the sovereignty of state across its territory". In a slight variation on the same "state monopoly" theme, Abbas has dutifully pledged to preserve "the unity of Palestinian arms", while Siniora seeks to ensure that there are "no weapons or authority other than that of the Lebanese state". In even clearer examples of the regurgitation of Bush administration slogans, Abbas has vowed to "delegitimise all militias over all parts of Palestinian territory", while Siniora has expressed his commitment to the "extension of the Lebanese government's authority over its territory through its legitimate armed forces."

States within non-states

In the final analysis, the United States-driven "state-building" mission is nothing more than a stratagem informed by the need to counter and replace Hamas's and Hizbollah's "states within states" with pliable, US-friendly states. The Bush administration and its local allies have decried Hamas's and Hizbollah's mini-states as obstacles to Palestinian and Lebanese statehood, an approach which presupposes there is a larger state to compete with.

The glaring reality is that in neither the Palestinian territories nor Lebanon case has there been a state to speak of, considering that the basic functions of the state, in the tradition of western liberal political thought - providing for people's basic needs and protecting their lives and property - has been historically amiss. The provision of social services and defence of national territory has been assumed by non-state actors like Hamas and Hizb0llah, whose performance of these functions in lieu of the absent central state has more accurately rendered them states within non-states, as opposed to states within states. "Hamastan" and "Hizbollahstan" are therefore the consequences, not the causes, of weak or non-existent states.

Since there is such a fine line separating such non-states from failed states, the US's virtually identical strategy in Palestine and Lebanon is doomed. It , threatens both to turn these states into failed states and to transform the world's sole superpower into an abysmally failed power in the middle east.

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