US Urged Not to Rush Toward Settling Lebanon Crisis

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Former officials at MEPC conference warn against a compromise that could increase polarization and potentially spark violence. 

The United States must not rush to push Lebanon toward a resolution of its political impasse, a panel of experts warned on Thursday, and instead must make a deliberate, long-term effort to help parliament agree on a president who can serve effectively and, in the meantime, try to protect citizens from the effects of the twin governance and economic crises. 

The presidential “vacancy is bad, but getting the wrong person into the office could be even worse,” argued David Hale, a former US ambassador to Lebanon and now a global fellow at the Wilson Center. Patience and commitment are necessary because the armed, militant group Hezbollah will raise the stakes if there is a desperation for compromise. This could spark violence, Hale said. 

Hale and two other former US officials spoke at the 113th Capitol Hill Conference presented by the Middle East Policy Council, held in the Cannon Office Building in Washington. The event was moderated by the council’s executive director, Bassima Alghussein, with opening remarks by Anne Patterson, a member of the council’s Board of Directors and former assistant secretary for Near Eastern and North African Affairs at the US State Department. 

While focusing on the potential American role in rescuing Lebanon, the panelists also analyzed the country’s entrenched corruption, an economic crisis that has seen the currency lose 95 percent of its value over four years, and the importance of and obstacles to solving border disputes with Israel. 

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy agreed with Hale that because the “crux of the problem in Lebanon is corruption, economic and political,” the United States and other interested outside groups must not move hastily toward a settlement over the leadership.  

“Hezbollah is the de facto militant enforcer of the corrupt political system from which it and other sectarian political parties benefit,” Levitt asserted, and changing this requires a broader and deeper set of interventions. 

But there is an immediate role for the United States, asserted Edward M. Gabriel, president and CEO of the American Task Force on Lebanon. While “we’re going to have to have a little bit of patience,” he hailed Congress for pressing the parliamentary speaker to keep the process running and allow these officials to build support for their preferred candidate for president. In addition, he praised the American government for “waking up” and working with “the Quint”—an informal partnership with France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt—which this month threatened to sanction groups blocking the process of selecting a president

For those doubting the importance of Lebanon to the United States, Hale noted that the country’s geography compels attention. “Lebanon is nestled between Israel, our closest friend and ally in the Middle East, and Syria—historically one of our most challenging foes, allied with Iran,” he said. 

But Levitt cautioned that, given today’s domestic political climate, officials and advocates must do a better job of explaining to “the vast number of Americans in Middle America who aren’t focused on these issues” why the United States should devote time and treasure to resolving these issues. 

Earlier this summer, Lebanon’s parliament failed for the 12th time to select a president to replace Michel Aoun, who left office in the fall when his six-year term expired. The government is hamstrung after a 2022 election that saw the militant Shiite group Hezbollah and its allied parties lose their majority.  

The resulting polarization has prevented any candidate from reaching the 65 of 128 votes required for the presidency. Jihad Azour, a former IMF official, is backed by Christian parties and garnered 59 votes in June voting. Hale commended the selection of Azour as driven “organically” from inside the country and not foisted on it from outside. However, the parties aligned with Hezbollah blame Azour for a brief civil war that broke out in 2008. 

Despite the current woes, however, Hale urged the attendees to distinguish between the symptoms of today and what he believes to be the “underlying disease” of a political system that emphasizes power sharing among Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians at the expense of majority rule, as well as an “absence of sovereignty” due to the outsized importance of Hezbollah, which controls ports of entry, sparks confrontations with Israel, and has refused to disarm. 

This structural impediment and the narrowly divided parliament make it nearly impossible in the short term to force the longtime speaker, Nabih Berri, into meaningful negotiations on a president who not only is acceptable but also empowered to impose anti-corruption reforms. This would be necessary to unlock billions in aid from the International Monetary Fund and garner support from regional and international states and organizations. 

Gabriel noted that while the United States had been able to press for a presidential vote, Berri and his Hezbollah allies were able to walk out so the legislative body could not reach a quorum to hold successive ballots. 

This political crisis is directly tied to an economy wracked with corruption, Levitt observed. “Political mafia bosses across the Lebanese political and sectarian spectrum continue to prioritize their own power and patronage systems over the needs of the Lebanese people,” he said. 

The chief problem here, Levitt argued, is that “Hezbollah benefits from being apart from but also a part of the political system at the same time.” It gains from the formal economy but has also created an underground, “gray” economy that fills its coffers while damaging the country.  

Hale saw the potential for carrots and sticks: combining sanctions that could prod Lebanese parties toward fixing the political system with economic rewards. Chief among the promised benefits would be the “juicy carrot” of helping the country take advantage of gas exploration now that it has resolved a maritime dispute with Israel. 

Because these measures are not quick fixes, the panelists lamented that the fractured and ineffective economic and political systems force the public to lean on their communities for protection and welfare. To address this, Gabriel advocated intermediate measures to help citizens by funding infrastructure and social projects that could be implemented on the ground and outside the control of the state. These would include initiatives to build and provide solar power, water treatment, and education since public schools are not functioning. 

The panel also dealt with the regional issues surrounding Lebanon’s disputes with Israel and Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran in the Syrian civil war. 

Levitt focused in on the geopolitical conflicts exacerbated by Lebanon’s domestic disorder. He described the Hezbollah as a malign force, threatening the families of bankers if operatives’ accounts are frozen, threatened its gas extraction, and placed rockets aimed at Israel in residential areas, essentially using residents as “human shields.” 

Asked about whether Lebanon could make progress on border disputes with Israel given its political chaos, the experts were skeptical. Hale argued that Israel fears Hezbollah will simply increase its demands if it gives an inch of territory around the Shebaa Farms, which Israel captured in 1967 and has been disputed for decades.  

Levitt concurred that Hezbollah often moves the goalposts in order to keep its arms, and he sees a high potential for military confrontation between Israel and Lebanon. Indeed, on Thursday, there were clashes between Israeli forces and the militant group in that area.  

Still, Hale noted that Lebanon was able to conclude a maritime agreement with Israel last year despite the political dysfunction, so “we don’t need to wait for perfection, thank God, in the Lebanese governance structure before these kinds of deals are possible.”  

(The panelists generally supported the maritime deal. An article by Daniel Sobelman in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy argues that Hezbollah was able to coerce Israel to agree to its preferences.) 

Convening talks with Israel regarding the land border is a way to build “trust and confidence,” Gabriel said, adding: “I would make it a priority.” 

Hale contended that it is necessary to make Hezbollah less relevant with persistent, steady engagement. He urged the audience of congressional staffers, lobbyists, and activists, “Don’t let it fall to the bottom of the agenda.” 

You can watch the video of the Middle East Policy Council’s 113th Capitol Hill Conference, “Economic & Security Conditions in Lebanon,” on the MEPC YouTube channel:

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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