Voices from the Arab Press: Has normalization reached Lebanon?

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

Tel Aviv Municipality lit up with the Lebanese flag, August 5, 2020. (photo credit: SASSONI AVSHALOM)
Tel Aviv Municipality lit up with the Lebanese flag, August 5, 2020.
(photo credit: SASSONI AVSHALOM)
 HAS THE TREND OF NORMALIZATION REACHED LEBANON?

Enab Baladi, Syria, October 4

It seems as if the trend of normalization of ties with Israel has reached Lebanon as well.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese government began changing its approach toward Israel in a subtle yet significant way. Instead of the usual rhetoric of the “Zionist entity” or the “Zionist enemy,” the Lebanese speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, referred to his country’s neighbor in the south simply as “Israel” when he announced the government’s plan to launch direct negotiations with Israel that would demarcate the land and maritime borders between the two countries. In his press conference, Berri indicated that the negotiations would take place under the auspices of the United Nations, indicating that the Lebanese army would lead the negotiations, and that the US of America would work to create a positive atmosphere for the success of the talks.

On the Israeli side, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz affirmed that the talks with Lebanon would be mediated by the US, “to end the long dispute over the maritime borders between the two countries.”

This announcement can only be interpreted in a single manner: a clear concession by Beirut on its stance toward Tel Aviv. Lebanese writer and journalist Munir Rabee claims that what is happening is the result of Israeli and American pressure on Lebanon, amid the deteriorating economic crisis it is experiencing, to normalize its ties with Israel. He stressed that there is great pressure on the political forces in Lebanon to curb Iran’s influence over the country while opening up to the US and Israel.

Similarly, Nawar Shaaban, the notable military expert, argues that the French efforts led by President Macron to push for these talks will serve as a major blow to Hezbollah and will severely tarnish the movement’s reputation among the Lebanese public. Perhaps the most important impact of these talks is the promotion of the message that calm and stability in the region can be reached through negotiations rather than fighting. The demarcation of borders will inevitably lead to other agreements and security arrangements between the two countries, which means that Lebanon will de facto recognize Israel, its sovereignty, and its borders.

This view aligns with predictions of other experts that Syria, too, will consider normalizing its relations with Israel in an effort to gain international support and legitimacy. – Luay Rahibani

HOW THE DEMOCRATS PREVENTED THE NORMALIZATION BETWEEN SUDAN AND ISRAEL

Al-Qabas, Kuwait, October 4

Surprisingly, it was the Democratic Party that managed to derail the effort to normalize ties between Sudan and Israel by refusing to remove Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, which was a precondition to such an agreement.

Two prominent Democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, rejected the agreement with Sudan and objected to granting Sudan immunity from lawsuits filed by families of victims of the September 11 attacks. According to experts, the Democratic Party’s move aims to postpone the US agreement with Sudan, and thus also a possible peace agreement between Sudan and Israel – at least until after November 3, so that President Trump does not achieve any further foreign policy success before the elections.

In October 1997, the US imposed widespread sanctions on Sudan because it believed that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was residing at that time in the country. Washington accused Khartoum of providing shelter and training camps for terrorist groups such as the Abu Nidal Organization, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. On August 7, 1998, the terrorist organization al-Qaida, headed by bin Laden at the time, carried out attacks on the US embassies in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands. In response, US President Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of targets in Sudan that were believed to have housed the perpetrators.

In a piece published in Foreign Policy magazine, Cameron Hudson, an expert on Sudanese affairs who served in the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, wrote that Sudan could help US and Israeli intelligence and may become the most important partner in the two countries’ fight against terrorism, but in the event that Washington turns its back to the Sudanese government, the latter will be tempted to partner with extremist groups. The goal, therefore, is to prevent Sudan from becoming a failed state that would be plagued by terrorist groups and foreign mercenaries.

Ironically, it is the Democrats who are currently preventing the US from aiding Sudan. – Ismail Selim

WHAT TRUMP’S DIAGNOSIS REVEALS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF OUR REGION

Al-Etihad, UAE, October 4

The news of President Donald Trump and the first lady being tested positive for coronavirus astonished us all on the morning of October 2. Fortunately, remarkable progress has been made in the development of a cure for the virus, and Trump seems to have reacted well to the treatment he is currently receiving.

Still, the news affected the global community almost immediately. One impact was a drop in the price of US stocks and a concurrent decline in oil prices. But the biggest concern was about the upcoming presidential election and the impact of Trump’s illness on his ability to complete his campaign.

Reactions to Trump’s diagnosis revealed a lot about current political tensions and polarization in the US. There were those who expressed their sympathy and wished the president a speedy recovery, while a large portion of Americans celebrated and wished him dead. Many expressed their anger at this hatred, including notable American political pundits from the conservative side of the political map. Although Trump’s political rival Joe Biden wished Trump a speedy recovery in a public tweet, many other notable politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush, did not comment right away, leading to widespread resentment among Trump’s supporters.

This deep polarization was manifested not only in America but also abroad – including in our region. In the Middle East, everyone is monitoring the elections very closely, fearful of the outcome. Radical groups, supported by Iran, are hoping that Biden wins the election, with the hope that he would restore Obama’s pacificatory foreign policy. As for those who stand against this trend, they hope to see Trump get reelected. It is for this reason that the reactions to Trump’s illness differed so dramatically.

The source of this polarization lies in the fundamental difference between the two camps on matters pertaining to national security, such as how to deal with extremist regimes and political Islamist groups. Some actually believe that polarization in the US has gotten so bad that American society is on the verge of disintegration. Therefore, we must be prepared and ready to deal with any election outcome, no matter which candidate wins. We will have to solve our own problems – on our own, instead of relying on the US to do it for us. – Najat Al-Saeed A SHORT WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY FOR BASHAR ASSAD?

Asharq Al-Awsat, London, October 3

When relations were normalized between UAE, Bahrain, and the State of Israel, all eyes turned immediately to Damascus: How will the axis of resistance respond? But Damascus did not respond to the Gulf-Israeli move. It seemed to tacitly accept what happened. Even the common trope of “we will react when in the right time and place,” which Arab officials typically provide in response to Israeli attacks, was never made.

The Syrian presidency, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and all state television and radio channels, were silent. The only responses came from non-officials speaking on their own accord. A spokesperson for the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, for example, denounced the agreement in a short statement, describing it as a “blatant aggression against the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people.” Several writers and commentators who pointed out the oddity of this Syrian silence went further and suggested that Bashar Assad might consider a deal with Israel himself.

“When will the Syrian-Israeli negotiations begin with American auspices?” they questioned.

While this hasn’t happened yet, it would be foolish to rule it out. Let’s not forget that there are greater political changes unfolding in the region today. On May 7, the day Mustafa al-Kadhimi was tasked with forming a new Iraqi government, a page seems to have turned in Iraq: the Iranians and their militias in the country agreed to give al-Kadhimi, whom they had considered a traitor just weeks earlier, an opportunity to rule the country. One of their factions, Kata’ib Hezbollah, did not hesitate to accuse him of complicity in the killing of Qasem Soleimani. This revealed just how bankrupt the mullah regime had become.

Tehran is economically depleted and isolated regionally and internationally. Its ally, Bashar Assad, has been weakened. And Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shi’ite militias have grown less and less popular in their respective countries, as the Beirut Port disaster already revealed. This does not mean that the axis of resistance has surrendered or that it will do so in the future. It is more likely that Iran is setting its eyes on Washington, awaiting the US presidential elections.

Although the window of opportunity that opened is short, it may be unprecedented. The political conditions around us are such that Assad might just be ready to make concessions to the US and Israel. – Hazem Saghieh

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.