International Papers

Refugees to Expediency

Lebanon’s president plays politics, plus Israel’s PR problem.

Even as the violence continues in Iraq—five explosions rocked Baghdad Tuesday evening—Lebanese authorities and newspapers cast an uneasy parochial eye on the proposal of an American congresswoman who would like to see Palestinian refugees permanently settled in Lebanon and other Arab countries.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., recently called on the United Nations to prepare studies for a resettlement plan, the aim of which would be to ensure that Palestinian refugees remain in Arab countries where they currently reside and not return to Israel after a prospective peace agreement. The refugee issue is highly sensitive for the Lebanese, who fear that resettlement of the mostly Muslim Palestinians (it is unofficially estimated that some 180,000-200,000 live in Lebanon) would destabilize relations among the country’s sectarian groups.

On Tuesday, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud publicly condemned the proposal. The Beirut daily Al-Diyar led with the story, reporting that Lahoud had described the proposal as “an effort to push the United States toward further irresponsibility and oppression when dealing with the rights of the peoples of the region.” The French-language Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le Jour quoted Lahoud saying that such a plan, if implemented, would “liquidate the Palestinian cause.” He also warned, “It is time for the US administration to realize the danger of Israeli and Zionist influence.” This was partly posturing, however, since Lahoud knows that Ros-Lehtinen’s plan has little chance of being taken seriously by the United Nations. However, he has been maneuvering for weeks to build up momentum for an unconstitutional extension of his mandate next year, which parliament must approve. By raising the unpopular refugee issue, Lahoud sought to increase his chances of staying in office and also improve his bona fides with Syria, which always delights in criticism of America.

Nailing the Americans was also apparently on the mind of the anonymous “security sources of a [Lebanese] political party,” who told the Beirut-based New Television station that agents of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon had set up surveillance cameras on the roof of the American University of Beirut’s medical center to monitor areas of the capital. In a front-page story, the English-language Daily Star ridiculed the accusation and published a photograph of the roof with no cameras visible. The paper recalled that the “so-called sources … said that the ‘spying operation’ was justified on the basis that the Americans were trying to reinforce the security of ‘American interests, firms and public agencies.’ ”

When American-Lebanese relations are tense, Syria is usually in the picture. The Syrians are having trouble defining their rapport with the United States, given the situation in Iraq and the Bush administration’s close ties with Israel. Last month, Israeli aircraft bombed an alleged Palestinian base near Damascus, a move President George W. Bush virtually endorsed. In an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Bushra Kanafani, who heads the information office at the Syrian foreign ministry, stated that while Syria “did not at all want to enter wars,” it would, “if aggression were repeated, … retain the right to engage in self-defense through all means available.” She added, “It’s true that Israel has military superiority … however we also have cards, and we will use them all.” For all its defiance, the statement was a step back from what Kanafani’s boss, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, recently said when he threatened that Syria might respond to more attacks by bombing the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

Israel’s military might easily roll over Syria, but it is having a far more difficult time with European public opinion. The release on Monday of a poll commissioned by the European Union shocked Israelis. It revealed that 59 percent of Europeans regarded Israel as the greatest threat to world peace. In an editorial, Israel’s daily Ha’aretz saw the poll as flawed since it failed to consider “that Israel has been through grave crises and bitter wars without being a real danger to world peace. … From the moment the current round of violent hostilities broke out with the Palestinians … Israel’s government and military have made sure to contain the fighting and prevent a regional conflagration.” In his weekly column, Daily Star editor Rami Khouri was more critical, describing the poll as a “sobering wake-up call.” He wrote that while “the world generally admires Israel’s feats in nation-building, human ingenuity, and economic productivity and prosperity, [it] strongly rejects Israel’s colonial, often racist, policies towards the Palestinians.”