At Lebanon multi-religious conference, calls to repeal ban on contacts with Israelis

Speakers at confab hosted by Maronite Christian sect’s chief cleric push for Lebanese neutrality rather than close alliance with Iran

A panel at the International Committee of the United Nations Resolutions for Lebanon Conference in Harissa, Lebanon, April 23, 2022. (Courtesy)
A panel at the International Committee of the United Nations Resolutions for Lebanon Conference in Harissa, Lebanon, April 23, 2022. (Courtesy)

At a multi-religious conference in Lebanon last week backed by the Christian Maronite patriarch, speakers pushed for the country to adopt a neutral foreign policy — and even broached the taboo subject of normalization with Israel.

The conference, titled “On Reclaiming Neutrality in Lebanon,” was held on Saturday in the central Lebanese town of Harissa under the auspices of Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Ra’i. The top cleric’s representative, like other participants, urged the country to leave the Iran-dominated regional axis and assume a more neutral foreign policy stance, which they insisted was essential to Lebanese identity.

“What is required now is not to introduce the idea of neutrality into the Lebanese system, but to restore the neutrality that the Lebanese have lost due to their increasing foreign affiliations,” said Samir Mazloum, the patriarch’s representative at the gathering.

Although Lebanon has large Sunni Muslim and Christian communities, the country’s politics have largely drifted under the influence of Shiite-majority Iran. Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim terror group, dominates Lebanese politics; the group is avowedly committed to Israel’s destruction.

“We are now a party to other peoples’ wars, though we want to wage peace. We are now a home to preachers of hate, though we want to spread love,” said Toni Nissi, a Christian speaker who opened the conference.

Maronite Christian politicians, such as President Michel Aoun, have maintained alliances with Hezbollah. But Maronite Patriarch Al-Ra’i has pursued a different vision in recent years, criticizing the terror group for its involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai, arrives for the East Patriarchs Council dinner at the Latin Church, in Amman, Jordan, Friday, May 23, 2014. (photo credit: AP / Mohammad Hannon)

After Hezbollah launched missiles at Israel from southern Lebanon last year, after which Israel responded with airstrikes, Al-Ra’i demanded that the Lebanese Armed Forces take over the army’s south to prevent further missiles being launched.

“Not for Israel’s sake — but for Lebanon’s,” Al-Ra’i emphasized in a sermon at the time, according to Lebanon state media.

The most taboo subject broached at the conference was the strict laws that sanction almost any contact with Israelis as “normalization” punishable by jail time and hard labor. The definition of what constitutes normalization is extremely loose. Lebanese are banned from any type of contact with Israelis, including Arab Israelis.

Journalist Kinda al-Khatib, a critic of Hezbollah, was sentenced to three years’ hard labor in 2020 for alleged contact with Israelis on Twitter, although she was later released on appeal.

“Has the ban on human contact with our neighbors, whatever their faith and creed, enabled us to truly support the Palestinian people in their legitimate aspiration to statehood, or helped us contribute to a culture of peacemaking on any land?” asked Sirouj Apikian, a Lebanese attorney and activist.

Yousef Salameh, a former Lebanese government minister, noted that the recent peace deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors had woven the Jewish state into the region’s security architecture. Salameh said that Israel is “effectively part of a broader alliance of Arab states.”

Apikian emphasized that he was not advocating for normalization “in the sense of government-to-government relations” — likely an unpopular proposal in Lebanon, which has a painful, complex history with Israel.

During the First Lebanon War Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to root out terrorists operating from inside its northern neighbor. Between 1985 and 2000, Israel occupied a swath of Lebanon’s south as a “security belt” between Israeli civilians and Lebanon-based armed groups.

Illustrative: An Iron Dome air defense system is seen near the Israeli border with Lebanon, on February 18, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Several current and former American officials praised the conference’s attempt to try for a more neutral foreign policy, in pre-recorded remarks played at the event. They also vowed further support for the conference participants.

“I want you to know for sure that you can call on me as you set out on this endeavor and set out on this initiative to truly get Lebanon to a place where it serves its people and those future generations,” said Congressman Mike Waltz, a Republican lawmaker from Florida. “Thank you so much and please call on me anytime.”

John Kuri, a prominent screenwriter and member of the Lebanese diaspora, also praised the event in a video statement to the audience.

“Those of you who gathered today… are leading the way. You led the way by standing up to the tyranny of terror, corruption, and chaos. You inspire by charting a new course of peace, development, and human engagement,” Kuri said.

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