Middle Israel: Yair Netanyahu and the Lebanese disease

Lebanon’s political malaise is further exacerbated by its unique system of hereditary office.

YAIR NETANYAHU at a recent court hearing. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
YAIR NETANYAHU at a recent court hearing.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
"Throw open your gates, O Lebanon,” said Zachariah (11:1), “and let fire consume your cedars.”
The Lebanese have been heeding this call for decades, over which they let foreign terrorists nest in their mountains, rival neighbors spar in their valleys, and distant superpowers meddle in their affairs.
Now, with thousands of demonstrators appalled by uncollected garbage and draconian taxes while a million Syrian refugees clog the labor markets, many are flooded with mercy. Poor Lebanon, they say, if only its neighbors had left it alone.
The pity grows when the pitying recall the heady 1960s, when 100 banks thrived in a Beirut lined with glitzy hotels that overlooked five-star restaurants; a sinners’ metropolis checkered with casinos, nightclubs and promiscuous beaches the likes of which existed nowhere else in the Arab world.
How, people now ask, did that prosperous Lebanon become a basket case whose debt level is twice its GDP? If not for Syria’s intrusion last century and its implosion this century, the Switzerland of the Middle East – as Lebanon was celebrated until 1975 – would never have died, goes the conventional wisdom.
Well, that impression is as far-fetched as the assumption that Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation Tuesday will cure Lebanon’s political disease.
LEBANON’S CRISIS has two roots: sectarianism and dynasticism.
Crafted by French colonialists and modified by Saudi royals, the sectarian system assigned the presidency to a Christian, the premiership to a Sunni, and speakership of Parliament to a Shi’ite.
Similarly, legislative seats are distributed by a pre-set formula among Lebanon’s religious groups, as agreed in the Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement of 1989. That deal apportioned the Lebanese Parliament’s 128 seats according to religious affiliations: 43 to Maronite Christians; a combined 54 to the Muslims, split evenly between Sunnis and Shi’ites; 20 to Orthodox Christians; 8 to the Druze, and so on.
Never mind the bizarreness of a country that never held elections writing another country’s electoral formula; the problem is that such sectarian engineering doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Yugoslavia, it’s not working in Iraq, and it will never work in Lebanon. And the reason it can’t work is that multiethnic states are meant not to enshrine what divides them, but to overcome it.
That means Lebanon must adopt a “one man, one vote” system that will sever sect from state, and let everyone elect anyone, a format that Lebanon’s incumbent politicians must resist, because such a system might leave many of them unelected.
Speaker Nabih Berri, for instance, has been in his position since 1992, when he was a 54-year-old youngster. No other head of Parliament has held that office nearly as long, just as few, if any, have been as ineffective; but in Lebanon that kind of political longevity is mistaken for blessed stability.
It isn’t stability; it’s ossification, part of a system that imposes tribe and sect above nation and state, a political deformity that ultimately results in festering garbage, unpaid taxes and the rise of a state within a state, like Hezbollah’s in south Lebanon.
Lebanon’s political malaise is further exacerbated by its unique system of hereditary office.
SAAD HARIRI would have been anonymous had he not been the son of his father, the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
The father was a self-made millionaire who worked hard to rebuild his war-ravaged country. The son, alas, lacks his father’s charisma and resourcefulness. Even so, he succeeded his father as leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis because in tribal Lebanon that’s how things work.
Kamal Junblatt, leader of the Lebanese Druze until his assassination in 1977, was succeeded by his son, Walid, who served as a minister and lawmaker until passing the baton two years ago to his son Taymour.
Similarly, the Christians’ leader in the 1960s, Pierre Gemayel, was succeeded by his son Bachir, who was succeeded after his assassination by his brother Amine, whose own son Pierre became minister of industry in 2005, the year before his own assassination. Former presidents Camille Chamoun and Suleiman Frangieh also passed power on to their sons Danny and Tony, respectively, who were also both assassinated, in 1990 and 1978, respectively.
Such politics cannot work. As Thomas Paine observed in Rights of Man (1791), “we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government than hereditary succession.” When power is transferred to the wellborn, the talents of the gifted are squandered, and their wrath is in due course provoked.
Saad Hariri’s case proves this. He rose to power because of his princely lineage, and he fell from it because of his princely non-leadership.
In Israel no one in his right mind – except hassidic courts – thinks leadership should be a matter of birth. This doesn’t mean that Israeli prime ministers are not prone to do stupid things with their children.
Ariel Sharon inserted his son Omri into the Knesset, where he emerged as the prime minister’s closest confidant. It was wrong all along, and ended ingloriously with the burly but soft-spoken son’s indictment, conviction and imprisonment for campaign finance violations.
Yair Netanyahu is not on his way to jail, but his insertion into his father’s media operation is equally misguided. A conceited big mouth with no profession, accomplishment, or even just a university degree, he would never have spoken and written for the prime minister had he not been his son.
Had Netanyahu-the-son reached his position thanks to merit rather than biology, he would not tell police investigators – as quoted Tuesday by Channel 12 – that his father’s former interior minister raped a woman, that his father’s former press secretary is “scum,” or that the cops questioning him are “Gestapo.” He would certainly not have told the cops “you don’t behave like mafia because the mafia doesn’t involve its women and children.” Talk about irony.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is a revisionist reading of the Jewish people’s political history.