What's It Like in Beirut?

Michael Young
PostGlobal Panelist/Opinion Editor, Lebanon's The Daily Star
Thursday, July 13, 2006; 12:00 PM

Michael Young , PostGlobal panelist and opinion editor of Lebanon's The Daily Star, was online Thursday, July 13, at noon ET to answer questions on the unfolding situation in Lebanon as Israel bombards the southern part of the country.

The transcript follows.


Michael Young: Beirut is certainly tense now, although it's been quiet the last 48 hours, and the capital has not yet been a target, other than the airport and the southern suburbs. There is still electricity, the Israelis have not yet hit the grid distributing electricity to the capital. However, there is a mood of gloom, quite an ominous sense, since the Israeli's are bombing all over the country. I was out buying and it was crowded, lots of people, there's a feeling that people need to stock up.


Michael Young: Let me comment for a minute on the coverage of the situation. On most stations, there are lots of political interviews intermingled with news bulletins of what's going on. What is the latest attack, what the Israelis are doing. Hezbollah's television station, which was the target of the Israelis this morning, but wasn't damaged and has not stopped broadcasting. They are showing a lot of stock footage of training, inspirational material, interspersed with quotes from Israeli sources about what Hezbollah has managed to hit on the Israeli side and what the situation is like in Israel.


New York, NY: What is the local Lebanese reaction to Hezbollah's escalation. Is there a real risk that Hezbollah's actions will re-open the old sectarian wounds in Lebanon, and could this result in a new wave of internal fighting between the various ethnic and religious groups.

Michael Young: The short answer is yes. I don't think this is an imminent threat, but when one political party takes an action that plunges the whole into a destructive conflictive, there's bound to be a reaction and, in part, a sectarian reaction. My big fear is that many people will arrive at the stage in the future where they say, "We can't beat Hezbollah, they're too strong, so let's do the next best thing, which is to split off from Hezbollah, which has essentially created a state within a state." This would be a gut reaction in the public. Now, it's not easy to partition the country, but that's the gut reaction many may start to have.


Washington, D.C.: Can you please explain some of the diplomatic complexities the Bush administration faces concerning its support for the Lebanese government and the fighting Israel and Lebanon/Hezbollah are engaged in?

Michael Young: Obviously, it's very complex. But to make it very simple, the position of the administration as expressed by Bush is that Israel has a right to defend itself, but it's not in anyone's interest to weaken the Lebanese government. It's a tough balancing act, but it's a correct one. Israel gains nothing by demolishing Lebanon and, in its majority, is on America's side and reluctant to support Hezbollah's adventurism.


Washington, DC: I understand the anger of Lebanese at Israel, but do people there understand that if Hezbollah just left Israel alone, then Israel would do the same for Lebanon? Israel is out of Lebanon and wants nothing more to do with it. Hezbollah was clearly the instigator here, and the world seems to acknowledge that. At what point will the Lebanese people direct some of the blame at Hezbollah instead of reflexively at Israel?

Michael Young: I agree with most of that. I would add to that most Lebanese today are directing their anger at Hezbollah, because obviously the economic costs to Lebanon are immense. People's livelihoods are in danger. The only thing is, that Hezbollah has the weapons. There doesn't seem to be a very clear cut way that they can prevent the party from pursuing its objectives.


Bala Cynwyd, PA: How likely is it that Hezbollah is really trying to move the 2 captured Israeli soldiers to Iran?

Michael Young: I don't know. Very simply. I would actually doubt it. I don't think they need to move them to Iran. I don't think the Iranians really want the soldiers in Iran. There are plenty of places they can hide them. For reasons of their own self worth, I think they want to keep them in Lebanon. That's a guess, though.


Gaithersburg, MD: Is there any chance that the sufferings of the Lebanese people could affect their support of Hezbollah? What is said in the Christian/Maronite/Druze circles about the current situation?

Michael Young: Certainly at the popular level, there is a great deal of anger with Hezbollah, but it's not clear how that can be expressed against the party. Hezbollah has the weapons, and no one else has weapons. So, while there is popular displeasure, I'm not sure it can be transformed into an effective instrument against the party.


Ontario, Canada: Israel imposes its control over the Occupied Territories, Lebanon cannot control acts of aggression originating on its territories, Syria said to fund Hezbollah and just recently having left Lebanon itself, Iran accused of promoting Shi'ite radicalism in a deeply divided Iraq...

Does this not all suggest that the modern (very Western) concept of a stable nation-state, secure in its borders, run by some kind of representative leadership, is as failed a concept in the Middle East as the failed states we see in this region?

Michael Young: I've long argued yes. I've long argued that the problem in the Middle East is the problem of the failed nation state. The Arab nationalist state -- states that claim to be Arab nationalist states, such as Iraq or Syria or even Egypt -- has always had to survive by suffocating any kind of religious or ethnic difference. They tend to be autocratic as a result. The problem, though is that if permit the centrifugal forces of the state to operate -- minorities, ethnic groups -- then you can have a descent into chaos as you in Iraq. You're either caught between an autocratic state or a state that has descended into chaos.


McLean, VA: I haven't heard anything about the Lebanese Army. Is it responding to Israel in any way?

Michael Young: It is, but obviously not very effectively. It's not very well equipped for anti-aircraft, anti-ship defense. It's been hit, but it hasn't been effective.


Baltimore, MD: Could you please outline how you think recent events will impact domestic politics in Lebanon?

Also, how are recent events influencing how Lebanese view US regional policy? How would you recommended the US react?

-Waleed Hazbun

Michael Young: Very simply, the problem, as far as I'm concerned, is beyond Hezbollah. I think the U.S. should focus on neutralizing Syria here, and it should do so with other European countries and its Arab allies. Unless you address the Syrian problem, the Hezbollah problem will come back repeatedly to haunt us.


Boston, MA: If the Lebanese government suddenly became serious about distancing itself from Hezbollah, does it have any real power to accomplish this politically? What actions could the government actually take at this point to convince the Isrealis that it is not responsible for Hezbollah activities? Or is it too late?

Michael Young: I think there is a fear, and a legitimate fear by the government, that if it takes a strong position critical of Hezbollah, this could lead to domestic contention. The Shia community would take this very badly. So, in a sense, the government is caught in a dilemma. If it does what the Israelis want, it could create domestic tension, but if it is not critical of Hezbollah, then the Israelis will continue what it's doing. What's the solution, I do think the government should be more critical of Hezbollah, but at the same time, it should bolster it's efforts by leaning on an international and Arab initiative to end the conflict.


Crystal City, VA: Will the conflict expand into Syria? They are arguably more responsible than the Lebanese government for these attacks.

Michael Young: I agree that they are more responsible. But I don't think the Israelis today want to provoke a regional conflict. We should understand that the Israelis are comfortable with the Assad regime, because Assad is weak, containable. And, in some ways, the fact that Hamas leaders in Damascus are undermining the Palestinian authority allows Israel to pursue a plan for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank without having to negotiate with President Mahmoud Abbas.


Scituate, MA: Would there be any chance of Israel attacking Iran, if the kidnapped soldiers are sent there? How likely?

Michael Young: Very unlikely. I think that would be a regional war. Israel has already negotiated in the past for the release of its soldiers and I think that will happen again.


Arlington, VA: Do you know why Israel has targeted the Beirut Airport? Hezbollah suburbs nearby I understand but why the airport, a facility more heavily used by Lebanon's more moderate middle and upper classes, particularly Christians, who would be more sympathetic to the Israeli cause?

Michael Young: I disagree with several of the points: It's not used more by Christians. It's used by everyone. And it's not used by just the upper classes. The simple answer is Israel has imposed and air and sea blockade of Lebanon. They have threatened the Beirut/Damascus highway, so even that road may be closed. They have imposed a blockade on Lebanon.


Tampa, Florida: Sayyed Nasarallah stated clearly that Hezbollah would capture Israeli soldiers if the last remaining Lebanese prisoners were not released. Why did the Israeli not take Nasarallah at his word and release them? Even the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz pointed this out in an editorial.

Michael Young: I think Israel usually takes Nasarallah at his word. But the real question is why few precautions were taken on the border to avoid the kind of abductions that we saw yesterday.


Washington DC: What will be the position of Michel Aoun? Will the pact his party signed off on with Hezbollah remain in your opinion?

Michael Young: A lot will depend on how Hezbollah comes out of the current crisis. If they come out victorious, Aoun will hold the agreement up as a sign of great foresight. But the bottom line is that many Christians who support Aoun are uneasy with Hezbollah.


Los Angeles, CA: What do the Isrealis hope to achieve in Lebanon by widening their attacks beyond just Hezbollah targets in the south? It seems that destabilizing the country would be manifestly worse for them than the current situation (which would seem to be capable of being addressed by a more narrow reaction). What is their broader aim, and what consequences must they think their actions will have within Lebanon?

Michael Young: To be honest, that's not clear yet. I think there is a domestic rationale for what is taking place. I think the Olmert government has to show it can be tough in order to prove that disengagement in the future from the West Bank can be an effective policy. Now, in the more short term perspective, the Israelis apparently are seeking to establish a no entry zone along the Lebanese border from which Hezbollah would be banned -- a sort of free fire zone. And while that is new as an Israeli concept, it's not clear that it will work. The reason for that is that potentially, the whole of the Lebanese border may become an area for conflict, whereas since 2000, when the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon, the conflict has been limited to a small area in southeast Lebanon, known as the Shebaa Farms.


Michael Young: I'll close by saying that I'm very worried about the situation. In a way, I feel that a great deal of the Israeli reaction is simply revenge. I can't imagine that all this destruction has a political objective. I can see some Israeli objectives. But if Lebanon is, ultimately, destroyed, then that will only benefit Hezbollah and Syria. And I think it will severely weaken those forces in Lebanon who, a year ago, called on Syria to withdraw, who would like to see Hezbollah disarmed and who, frankly, have a vision of Lebanon as a more open, peaceful society.

I do thank everyone for their questions and interest.


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