Last weekend, a group of prominent Lebanese figures—under the aegis of the patriarch of the Maronite church—gathered to discuss the benefits of returning to the country’s historic position of diplomatic neutrality. At the heart of the conference’s agenda was an implicit, and sometimes explicit, attack on Hizballah, the Iran-backed group that exercises extensive control over the country’s political system, and has aligned it with Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow. David Daoud comments on the attendees’ approach to Israel:
Similar initiatives have been attempted in the past, foundering on ambiguity and selective application of neutrality. . . . This past weekend’s conference attempted to close that gap by unambiguously extending Lebanese neutrality to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and defining it to mean just that: neither joining the Arab-Israeli normalization process known as the Abraham Accords nor maintaining Lebanon as a perpetual battlefield against Israel. In furtherance of entrenching neutrality, the conference also challenged Lebanon’s anti-normalization laws, which criminalize people-to-people contacts between Lebanese citizens and Israelis as innocuous as sharing a direct message on Twitter.
Participants stressed that their proposal to repeal the laws was not a call for normalization in the sense of a peace treaty between the two governments. It was rather a case to align the legal system with a core tenet of neutrality: the principle of an open society. The same laws, they noted, also drive a wedge between the country and 300,000 Lebanese citizens residing in the UAE; prevent Lebanese from engaging Palestinian efforts to foster civil society in their territories; and prevent Lebanese individuals and businesses from profitably engaging multinational companies that do not abide by any exclusionary laws.
In adopting these positions, the conference and its participants sought to reclaim and redefine the concept of Lebanese patriotism. For much of Lebanon’s history, that became almost synonymous with supporting perpetual war with Israel in the name of the Palestinian cause. That this permanent bellicosity failed to advance Palestinian rights and resulted only in misery and destructive conflict for Lebanon mattered little. It was an ideological mainstay that many Lebanese feared to challenge lest they be labeled traitors.
As with all purported solutions for Lebanon’s woes, skepticism is warranted. Lebanese activists and politicians have a track record of promising change while failing to deliver.