Everybody, quite literally everybody is irked by Bibi Netanyahu's refusal to give the peace processors another two months of a ban on construction in the West Bank. As if such a prohibition would produce more than the last ten months when Israel unilaterally precluded construction in the territories and the Palestinians responded with squat.
Well, I suppose I don't really mean everybody. But nearly everybody. And, my guess, dear reader, you too. Frankly, I am also sick and tired of the tiny covered wagon townlets in the middle of Judea and Samaria, and I am disgusted by the "hilltop youth" (they are not gentle hippies, believe me) who harass the Palestinians by arson and by the bearded ex-Brooklynites who cut down olive trees as if they are grizzly Douglas fir evergreens sprouting in Boro Park. Still, they are an asset, these irritating pious ones, and they should not be withdrawn until a proximate Arab polity, such as it is, is willing to live in peace with a Jewish state called Israel. Everybody knows what that state will look like and what real guarantees it is bound to expect. As of now, however, no one has come close to meeting these expectations which are very down-to-earth and deal with the protection of civilian life from rockets, missiles and other sorts of weaponry that can be launched from any place in Palestine to any place in, let's say, Tel Aviv-Jaffa where i happen to be living for several months. And, failing to meet those expectations, the Arab leadership has more than insinuated that it will go back to an intifada strategy which will get them even less. This is not a policy for success.
We have been around this track several times. Anthony Shadid has written an intriguing and wise article, "In the Middle East, No Politics But God's," for the New York Times which argues that compromise is even less likely with religion as the lodestone of mass intrigue than ordinary ideology. So I am not at all optimistic about the tapering off of the long-running dispute in the Holy Land. The quarrel is the quarrel. But it is being overtaken and submerged exactly by holy men.
Even Pope Benedict XVI has gotten into the act by convening a synod on Christian tribulations in the region. Did you see that creepy Reuters photograph of the Middle Eastern prelates assembled in St. Peter's and all dressed up in silk frippery with gold mitre and by now suspicious sanctimony on their faces? According to the Jerusalem Post, the bishops condemned the Israelis for using the Bible to justify "injustice" against the Palestinians, Have these Roman Catholic clerics no shame at all?
As it happens, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the population of Christians is rising. Of course, there are not many Arab lands in which Christian populations ever really flourished, although there are some. Lebanon, first among them. But the exodus of the Cross from Lebanon (and Syria) is now an old story, testimony to the strength of Muslim dogma and its renewed mobilization against heresy and doubt.
Still, the religious drama in Lebanon is not now about declining Christian communities and Christian creeds in retreat. In a way, it was a foregone happening. The Maronites (an autocephalous religion under the discipline of the papacy) and the Greek Orthodox were tied to Europe when what was happening in the country was both Arabization and Islamization. The really sharp divide, then, is between Shi'a and Sunni. And the Shi'a are relishing their triumph.
Barack Obama thought that he might rescue Lebanon from the Iranians by making peace with Tehran and cosseting the Sunnis. Incompatible tactics. But even Saudi Arabia had no relish for this alignment, and it would spend neither capital nor cultural credit on the venture.
In the next weeks, the judgement of the international panel set up to examine the assassination of the Sunni billionaire Rafiq al-Hariri -also, as it happens, the Lebanese prime minister- will be rendered. It is all but certain that the judges will conclude that the killing of Hariri (and 22 others) was committed on September 14, 2005 on the Beirut seafront by men of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah's men, Shi'a thugs.
This poses a blood curdling dilemma for Rafiq's son, Saad-eddine Rafiq Al-Hariri, the current prime minister, because Hezbollah is the dominant force in Lebanese life. (There is a precedent in the behavior of Walid Jumblatt, the Druze pater familias and its "socialist" parliamentary leader, whose own father had been murdered by the Assad clan. After some years of recriminations, Walid apologized to the Assads for telling the truth.) Safic can imitate Walid's move...or he can at least resign from the premiership.
If the tribunal acts as I believe it will Hezbollah will be faced with a terrible fact that most of the population will also accept as true. This is at least an implicit threat to its authority which means to Nasrallah's Shi'a rule. So it will exacerbate the crisis by crushing what's left of the parliamentary alliance between the Sunni middle class and the what's left of Maronite influence. It is true that Hezbollah tried to deflect blame for Hariri's killing onto the Israelis. But some lies are just too preposterous even for one's own. The fact is that no one could grasp why Jerusalem would have wanted Hariri and his men blown up.
Despite the intentions of the big powers to curb Hezbollah through Security Council resolution 1701, the effect of its mandate was to accomplish just the opposite. Iran has now claimed a border with Israel, and it is the frontier which the Shi'a mob patrols. Please don't tell me that the threat to peace lies in the immobilisme of the West Bank. Lebanon is the scene of the next battle.