Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sixty-year-old warnings still relevant for today's Palestine

Very few people today still read Michel Chiha to understand the continuing confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. And yet quite a bit of what we are witnessing was predicted by this Lebanese thinker, writing in his newspaper, Le Jour, between 1945 and 1954.

This week, a conference to assess Chiha's legacy was organised in Beirut to commemorate Lebanese Independence Day. A banker, Chiha was best known as a drafter of Lebanon's constitution as well as an ideologue of the country's consociational system. For some, he mainly embodied Lebanon's ruling class - he was connected by marriage to Bishara Al Khoury, independent Lebanon's first president, and to Henri Pharaon, a leading light of the independence generation. For others, he remains a sophisticated and erudite voice from an alluring Lebanon long gone.

Both views are in some ways accurate. But on Palestine, he read events with great lucidity and took a position critical of the West, with whom Lebanon's leaders had otherwise maintained friendly relations. He is best known for his daily commentaries in Le Jour, in which he left a prominent place for Palestine, an issue that preoccupied him and on which he wrote frequently until his death in December 1954.

The essence of Chiha's views on the subject is that the Zionist project, in seeking exclusivity for the Jewish community, was bound to lead to an open-ended struggle with the Palestinian Arabs. As Nabil Khalifeh, Chiha's translator into Arabic, has astutely remarked, this exclusivity jarred strongly with the pluralism defended by the writer in the Lebanese context. Chiha did not oppose a Jewish presence in Palestine; rather, he defended the notion of a binational state, and even saw Lebanon as providing instruction in this respect.

As he wrote in a column on October 22, 1948: "The desire to live together, extreme tolerance, the total respect for liberty of conscience which we have used to illustrate our little country [Lebanon] can and must be proposed to the reflection of the world, if only as a humane solution to the Jewish question in Palestine."

This ambition he saw as threatened by the United Nations' partition plan of 1947, which could bring only tension. How could one divide a small country such as Palestine, he asked. Partition would create a place of discord, "a poor land that is narrow, stunted and disinherited". In this slight place, it was inevitable that one side would seek to seize everything, as that alone would provide security.

And here, Chiha explains, is the real problem with Israeli statehood. Perpetually insecure, the Israelis would seek to expand their hold over their geographical environment, and bolster this with demographic growth to consolidate their gains. While the writer was wrong in assuming that the Israelis would venture to extend their control all the way to the Euphrates, he was on the money in describing their inherent psychological drive for annexation.

To Chiha's credit, he was also acutely sensitive to the power of symbols in the land of the three great religions. He grasped that both Jews and Palestinians had applied idealistic and historical values to their national aspirations, which would be difficult to reverse. This was especially true in Jerusalem, of supreme significance to the three monotheistic religions, which was still a divided city at the time when he was writing, against the yearning of the Jews.

That brings us to two leitmotifs in Chiha's writings. First, the need for the great powers to implement the internationalisation of Jerusalem decided by the UN General Assembly in 1949, but never put into action. He believed this could only be done if backed by a physical presence and military force. And second, Chiha sought international guarantees for Arab-Israeli frontiers. In most of his later articles on the Palestinian question these goals are repeated almost as an obsession.

Chiha was absolutely correct. In June 1967, Israel would prove him so when it occupied all of Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. If peace remains elusive, that's because the Israelis continue to regard much of occupied Arab land as barriers necessary to protect them from their Arab neighbours. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank and the divergences over Jerusalem are prime factors in undermining an overall peace deal.

Most enduring in Mr Chiha's tone on Palestine is something that tells us much about the author himself. Throughout, we are in the presence of a man both rational and liberal. Chiha is deeply troubled by what he knows will endure as a focal point of violence in the Middle East. The partition plan, by making this inevitable, was always an irrational choice, and what ensued was a conflict that would do much to overwhelm liberal impulses in the Arab world.

To a Lebanese political system based on openness and coexistence, Chiha realised, Palestine represented a mortal threat. It unleashed the worst atavisms, which could not do well for Lebanon's mixed Christian-Muslim society, while placing an expansionist Israel at Lebanon's doorstep. And it made recurring wars unavoidable, which would, in time, exacerbate Lebanon's contradictions. Chiha had played a leading role in balancing these, through his always sensible judgments on the functioning of the delicate political system.

Israel still uses its insecurities as justification for occupation. A united Jerusalem is still regarded as the eternal capital of the Jews. And, as the recent war in Gaza showed yet again, death and destruction are the only outlets in a dispute seemingly without end. Meanwhile, Lebanon remains vulnerable to developments southward, its society divided over whether to fight Israel or to remain neutral.

Michel Chiha warned us of all this decades ago. Alas, his fears are our reality.

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