Sending the Lebanese a message

As Israel floats the idea of a non-aggression pact with Lebanon, Commentary magazine’s Michael Totten writes that even if the pact doesn’t work, it would do well to send a message to the Lebanese people that Israel isn’t interested in fighting them. That’s a message surprising number of people in Lebanon – probably the least anti-Israel of all Arab countries – don’t get to hear, Totten writes.

Israel is hardly well-liked in Lebanon, but neither is Hezbollah, and neither is Syria. Even though a non-aggression pact is likely to go nowhere right now, suggesting one to Lebanese may help clarify something: most Lebanese don’t actually know that Israelis prefer peace to war. They should, but they don’t. They’ve been soaked with so much disinformation and propaganda for so long, and there’s still a great deal of anger left over from Israel’s invasions in 1982 and 2006. Most of Hezbollah’s less fanatical supporters are drawn from the ranks of those who sincerely believe Israel is a threat to them and that Hezbollah is their only defense. This is nonsense on stilts – Israel wouldn’t have invaded Lebanon at all in 2006 if Hezbollah had not first attacked. But this perception persists nevertheless…

This should be obvious to most Lebanese, but I know from conversations with people across the political spectrum that it isn’t. Many don’t know whether they should support the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ bloc in next year’s election, or whether they should support the “March 14″ bloc led by those who kicked out the Syrians in 2005. The Syrian regime is currently pretending to be more benign that it really is by offering, for the first time ever, to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon. Israelis are smart to signal, at the same time, that they sincerely do not mean Lebanese harm. No one in the Lebanese government or media will explain that to them. The “March 14″ bloc is already sensitive to the near-constant accusation that it’s a “Zionist hand.” Israelis need to get that message out by themselves.

Public opinion on the idea of a peace treaty with Israel is mixed. Some want a peace treaty now. Some even want an alliance with Israel, although they tend to keep quiet about that and are far more likely to share that opinion off-the-record with me than they are with their fellow Lebanese. Others don’t want a peace treaty until outstanding issues–the supposed occupation of the Shebaa Farms, and the hundreds of thousands of unwanted and dangerous Palestinian refugees–are resolved. Even some otherwise sensible Lebanese I know wallow in conspiracy theories and believe Israelis want to conquer South Lebanon and steal water from the Litani River. Hezbollah’s hard-core supporters don’t ever want a peace treaty with Israel. But a non-aggression pact? An agreement that we’ll leave you alone if you leave us alone? Put that on a ballot in a popular referendum and it would pass overwhelmingly.

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