At a sumptuous lunch in Beirut, my friends were debating whether Israel would invade Lebanon. One, a member of parliament, believed the United States and Saudi Arabia were giving a green light to Israel to crush the armed forces of Hezbollah once and for all. Another disagreed, arguing that Israel was content to let the Lebanese militant group bleed on the battlefront in Syria. The others weighed in on one side or the other.
I knew the debate. I had heard it over and over in 1972 when I moved to Beirut for the first time. Nothing has changed. Well, almost nothing. Then, Israel's enemy was the Palestine Liberation Organization. Now, it's Hezbollah. Apart from that, it's the same old fear: Israel. And it's the same prospective victim: Lebanon.
The Paris of the Middle East
Since 1972, Lebanon has endured many Israeli invasions, Syrian occupation, government collapse, 15 years of civil war, and the assassination of its better politicians, journalists and activists. Yet it blunders on. The war that began in 1975 ended in 1990, and the country has been rebuilding in fits and starts ever since. The arts are flourishing. New technology companies are blossoming. Women's rights groups are standing up to the rickety male power structure. Students are demanding modern governance. Campaigners are fighting ubiquitous corruption. Cafes hum with talk of politics and potential war, but also of new businesses, the arts, cinema, fashion, pop divas of transcendent vulgarity, phone apps and social media trivia that would embarrass a 13-year-old in the San Fernando Valley. Beirut, whatever its flaws, is never dull.
Forty-five years ago, Beirut fascinated this young Californian graduate student who had never lived outside the Golden State. The Palestinian "revolution" was underway. The city was never, as advertised, the "Paris of the Middle East." Yet it served as a base for journalists covering conflicts elsewhere while enjoying the glamorous bar of the Hotel Saint George on Saint George's Bay. Anyone curious about that era, when the press congregated at the Saint George with spies, princes, oil barons and exiled politicians, must read Said Aburish's The St. George Hotel Bar. Its chapters on the mercurial double agent Kim Philby alone are worth the cover price. That was the golden age of the press, when newspapers still provided generous expense accounts for correspondents and their sources to live. I left academe for the ignoble profession to catch the tail end of it. I moved to London in 1976 and returned to Beirut in 1983 as an ABC News correspondent until 1985, when Hezbollah's kidnapping of Westerners made Beirut a less desirable base of operations.
Lebanon is a country of minorities who for the most part coexist but whose chieftains jockeyed for power and relied on arms to achieve their goals. All of them failed to win the civil war, their only achievement the deaths of around 150,000 people and the devastation of that old Lebanon about which everyone today is nostalgic. The country learned that armed conflict brings not utopia but pandemonium.
Back in the early 1970s, Lebanon was living in the secular era. Islamism was a relic of a time before Marx, women's education and television. Political discussion centered on ways to transform Arab dictatorships into socialist democracies and, above all, to liberate the Palestinian territories from Israeli occupation. Such was the ethos of the time. Women wore bikinis, not burkinis, at the beach.
I miss those long, passionate discussions that lasted all night over Turkish coffee and fragrant tobacco. Beirut then boasted more than 40 newspapers of all political persuasions. Anyone could walk into the U.S. Embassy on Beirut's seaside, which had no suicide bomb barriers or security guards. The same was true of the American cultural center, whose library was open to all without anyone checking bags. By the 1980s, following the Iranian Revolution and the radicalization of Lebanon's Shiites under Israeli occupation, the agenda had become religious and sectarian. And the new U.S. Embassy looked like Hitler's bunker.
A Say in the Future
Lebanon is a country of minorities who for the most part coexist but whose chieftains jockeyed for power and relied on arms to achieve their goals. All of them failed to win the civil war, their only achievement the deaths of around 150,000 people and the devastation of that old Lebanon about which everyone today is nostalgic. The country learned that armed conflict brings not utopia but pandemonium. At war's end, one militia — Hezbollah — was allowed to keep its weapons on the pretext that it alone could resist Israeli aggression. Its monopoly of arms and Iranian backing give it an advantage over all of the country's other parties. A former Lebanese prime minister said to me a few nights ago, "Hezbollah has to learn that one party cannot rule alone. The Christians learned it. We Sunnis learned it. The Christians lost Israel. The Sunnis lost the Palestinians. Where will Hezbollah be without Iran?" When the Iranian people overthrow the mullahs, Hezbollah will become just another Lebanese political party.
Next door, Syria is destroying itself with international encouragement, much as Lebanon did 40 years ago. The Syrian civil war has not spread to its western neighbor, as many feared it would when it began in 2011, but the threat remains. As I write this, I am about to leave for Syria to witness its battle for the soul of the Arab world. There, the sad choice is between secular dictatorship and theocratic dictatorship. The Syrians deserve better: a secular, tolerant democracy accountable to the electorate; an independent judiciary to prosecute leaders for corruption and brutality; a free press; and a state whose citizens can think, speak, read, work and dress as they like without a tyrant in a suit or a turban telling them how. The Arab world is a long way from that. Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, people worry about another Israeli invasion that — for all their discussions, now as 40 years ago — they have no veto over.