During my short flight from Amman to Beirut on July 3, the flight attendant was distributing copies of Jordan’s state-owned newspapers. They are all worthless, I told him. He replied: “Sir, the only page that contains truth is the obituary page.” The steward’s remark succinctly captures the Arab public’s distrust of the pronouncements of their leaders. On July 3, the Arab public was infuriated by Israel’s bombardment and lockdown of the Gaza Strip, following Palestinian militants’ seizure of an Israeli soldier. The US spoke only of Israel’s “right to self-defense”; Arab leaders sat idly by.

My visit to Beirut had personal and professional objectives: visiting inlaws, attending a wedding and embarking on a research project about memories of war. Before long, I had a fresh store of memories. When Hizballah crossed the UN-demarcated Blue Line on July 12 and took two more Israeli soldiers as prisoners, Israel unleashed a two-pronged war of revenge on Lebanon. The war sought to punish a nation to destroy not only Hizballah, but also the idea of resistance to Israeli and US dictates.

When the US embassy finally organized an evacuation of American citizens, my family and I refused. I simply could not stomach the idea of being whisked out of Lebanon by the power that had given Israel the green light to destroy Lebanon. Instead, we drove via Tarshish to the Syrian border. En route, near Zahle, we stopped to photograph trucks bombed by the Israeli air force. The trucks had borne a load of baking flour — I touched it. Had we passed along that road two days earlier, we, too, might have been hit.

What explains Hizballah’s operation and the scale of Israel’s retaliation? Why did the US reject an early ceasefire, instead egging on Israel as it pummeled Lebanon? Why did President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expect the Lebanese and the Arabs to welcome the “birth pangs” of a “new Middle East” designed by the US and Israel? And where will it all lead? It is too early to offer judicious answers to most of these questions, but provisional insights are possible.

The timing of the Hizballah operation will come under scrutiny after the guns fall silent. No matter what the final outcome, however, Hizballah has demonstrated to the Arabs an alternative to Arab governments’ docility leading to the frittering away of national rights. Their capable and well-organized military response to Israeli power may lead many to rethink bilateral negotiations and peace treaties. Such treaties, after all, marginalized Egypt and opened the door for Israel’s war on Lebanon and the Palestinians in 1982. Hizballah’s actions serve as a reminder that the Arab-Israeli conflict requires a comprehensive political solution.

Liberal and leftist Lebanese writers concluded in the war’s early stages that a comprehensive Middle East peace requires a unified Arab diplomatic offensive. Liberal Ghassan Tuwayni, writing in the July 17 al-Nahar, urged the Arab League to invoke the power of oil and petro-dollars (as in 1973) to modify Israeli and US behavior. Writing in al-Safir two days later, Fawwaz Trabulsi, a seasoned veteran of the Lebanese left, made a similar call. He added that the Arabs should declare that there is no Israeli partner for peace; hence, Egypt and Jordan should be pressured to abandon their bilateral peace treaties with Israel. The only remaining option is to return to collective Arab bargaining to reach a just peace for all concerned — Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians.

Rice’s “new Middle East” is predicated upon the elimination of the idea of resistance to foreign occupation through collective punishment. But Hizballah, win or lose on the battlefield, has shown that while Israel’s military might causes massive destruction, it is incapable of imposing a political settlement. The question is simple: Are the US and Israel ready for a just peace?

Will Hizballah reap a political victory? After July 12, Hizballah garnered rising support from various sectors of Lebanese society, against a backdrop of violence and the forced homelessness of a quarter of the population. The support, though widespread, was not unanimous. On July 17, I took two taxi rides downtown. One driver, tired and unshaven, told me: “Sir, my home [in the southern suburb of Harat Hreik] was destroyed yesterday. If I had the means, I would leave Lebanon today.” A few hours later, another driver said his home in south Lebanon was also destroyed. Nonetheless: “We are all with Sayyid Nasrallah.” Shopowners lamented the loss of their business. A young waitress told me she makes $14 a day. “How am I going to live now?” Lives were disrupted, but more often than not, anger was directed at Israel, the US and the servile Arab leaders.

Hizballah alone made the decision to take Israeli prisoners. Can the party continue to be a resistance movement ungoverned by the Lebanese state? This is one of many questions Lebanon will confront after the war, as a modern, non-sectarian state is built or the confessional order becomes further entrenched. Elias Khoury and Ziad Majed raised these issues in their open letter to the Democratic Left (see p. 11). Hizballah is not the problem, but part of the solution. But the solution for Lebanon is intricately connected to the wider issues of the Middle East, namely the right of the Palestinians to independence, a quest thwarted by Israel’s offer to the Middle East of either collaborating or submitting in the crushing of the Palestinians.

We flew back to the US from Amman. Before leaving, I went to visit a friend in the Shmeisani district. I found the entire district cordoned off by the security services to prevent an announced demonstration of solidarity with the people of Lebanon and Palestine after the Friday prayers. The regimes fear their people; hence, they silence them.

How to cite this article:

Nubar Hovsepian "Bilateralism on Trial," Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2006).

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