The resignation of the Lebanese government following the devastation of Beirut has infused the country with a sense of urgency and possibilities. The promise of foreign investments to rebuild the capital, along with the increased international scrutiny of the country’s political class, has led Lebanese and regional observers to express some optimism for the future. Still, the French president’s remarks indicating that Hezbollah may yet have a role to play has infuriated many who see the organization as responsible for the country’s physical and political deterioration. Israeli observers meanwhile are still unsure what Hezbollah’s current precarious position in Lebanon means for regional security.
Commenting on the mood in the country on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its independence, the National‘s editorial team recognized the importance of both domestic and international actors to make sure the current efforts lead to a more prosperous and peaceful country: “International pressure exerted by allies of Lebanon, such as the US and France, must continue so that the country can come to distance itself from Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia whose grip on Beirut has had ruinous effects on the country. International pressure is also crucial to push the new government to negotiate a deal with the International Monetary Fund.... Local pressure from civil society and protesters advocating better governance from within has also been a pivotal driver of change. Peaceful protesters must be protected from violence and arbitrary detention by security forces. They are Lebanon’s future, and if the international community continues to support them, there is still hope that Lebanon can view the next 100 years with a sense of optimism as the start of a new era.”
Even though Lebanon has gone through similar seemingly transformative experiences in the past, this time around the message and calls for deep and profound reforms seem to resonate deeper and more broadly, as reflected by this recent editorial by Khaleej Times calling for a ‘”makeover”: “Incompetence and corruption of its ruling elites have systematically corroded institutions and paralyzed life. Will the leaders push for reforms this time? Lebanon has long been at the mercy of its powerful neighbors. Currently, Hezbollah is the most powerful military and political force and serves the interests of Iran more than Lebanon. The appointment of Mustapha Adib as the new prime minister should help in coordinating with foreign donors as the country seeks to rebuild itself. But the real struggle would be to implement political and economic reforms which the international donors are calling for. The patronage system has to go if Lebanon wants to make any meaningful change. But it won't be easy. Nothing worth doing is.”
It is against this background and hunger for meaningful and lasting changes that a meeting by French president Emmanuel Macron—who has been otherwise praised by the Lebanese public for his swift and decisive intervention over the last two weeks—with Hezbollah officials has been roundly criticized. Writing for Arab News, Faisal Abbas characterized Mr. Macron’s actions as a “faux pas,” adding that, “while the French president must be praised for his genuine concern and rapid decision to come to Lebanon’s aid in its darkest hour, I fear some of the advice he has been given may be demonstrating the accuracy of a common definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I refer of course to Macron’s remarks during his visit to Lebanon in relation to the Iran-backed Hezbollah group.... There can be no doubt that Macron has made great efforts and has the best of intentions, but his remarks have left many Lebanese, and believers in French diplomacy, with a bitter taste in the mouth.”
Calling attention to a litany of failed promises and initiatives, this Gulf News editorial points out that what Lebanon needs now are radical and transformative changes, rather than pragmatic solutions, as Mr. Macron had hinted in his response to his critics: “These ultimatums didn’t work before. Why would they work this time? The same ruling class that plunged Lebanon into one crisis after another for the past 30 years is the one that Macron counts on to enact the required reforms. Macron defended his position saying he was ‘realistic’ and a ‘pragmatist’. But there is nothing pragmatic about expecting different results by trying the same futile method.... The Lebanese have been shortchanged by the much-anticipated visit of the French leader. They expected substantial results, particularly in the wake of the catastrophic explosion in the port that left 190 people dead and thousands more injured last month.”
It is partly in response to these developments, but with an eye to Lebanon’s long-term sustainability, that Annahar’s Lynn Zovighian calls for a more “patient” rebuilding program, one that is both “long-term and strategic. It needs to listen deeply to the multiple voices, facets, and realities of Beirut, Lebanon, and what it means to be Lebanese today. It needs to be what emergency aid has rarely been: inventive, responsive, and vested.... Our ground zero is a privilege to finally get right. And we cannot stitch this country back together limb by limb in a matter of short days and weeks and expect that a functional national force and future can just get up, take charge, thrive, and be sustainable far beyond the generations of our children and grandchildren.”
Israelis have followed with interest events in Lebanon, especially when it comes to Hezbollah’s support in the country and what the shifting landscape means for the possibility of a military confrontation between the two. For Yedioth Ahronoth’s Uri Heitner the answer is simple: “Israel must keep out of inter-Arab conflicts…. Hezbollah's political and public standing is being challenged and the Shi'ite organization is perceived as culpable in the tragedy – either for its mismanagement of the storage of dangerous chemicals in the port or for hoarding precise missile-production material and other weaponry in the densely populated city. Should Hezbollah lose its standing, its ability to attack Israel would be compromised and Iran's influence in the region would also suffer. However, a threat to the organization's power in Lebanon could prompt desperate measures, including attacking Israel in an effort to regain the Lebanese public's favor.”
Long-time Globes columnist Norman Baily has no doubt that Hezbollah is a much weaker actor now than it was even a month ago, but he warns that it may be difficult to predict what that may mean for the region and in particular for Israel’s security: “With its grip on Lebanon suddenly in doubt, Hezbollah will have to think more than twice before launching an assault on Israel.... Hezbollah, until recently, was riding high. It had honed its military skills in the Syrian civil war, it was well-financed through Iranian transfers and its own smuggling activities, it had amassed a huge arsenal of rockets and missiles, and, most significantly, it had taken over all the civil and security bases of the Lebanese state, including the Lebanese armed forces. More recently, however, Hezbollah has suffered serious setbacks.... The tiger is wounded and cornered, but it may decide that it is still better off than being destroyed, as it certainly would be if it attacked Israel.”