The Lebanese parliament will revisit the issue of the civil right of Palestinian refugees later this month. I’m not optimistic—at the moment, in an effort to get some support from the various Christian parties, the proposed legislation is being watered down to address only work permits and social security, and not to address the issue of professional employment (from which most Palestinians are effectively barred by a combination of Lebanese law, decrees, and syndical protectionism) or the key issue of real estate ownership. Of course, it could be argued that some reform is better than none. In this case, however, I fear that the relatively minor initiatives that will be endorsed by Parliament will come at the expense of bigger change later on. “We’ve done our reforms for this decade,” some parliamentarians will argue, “now lets move on and forget about it.”
In a recent article, Franklin Lamb argues that the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department, together with Israel, have been pouring long and hard over the proposed legislation in an attempt to block any reform for fear that “Hizbullah would get credit internationally if Lebanon’s Parliament fulfills its international obligations towards her refugees.”
I have no idea what Israel might be thinking on the issue, but I suspect they’re thinking nothing at all—I doubt that it even figures much beyond a footnote in any official Israeli government analysis at the moment. As I’ve argued before, while the refugee issue might well seem very important to those of us who work on it (and even more to the refugees themselves), it really ranks extraordinary low on Israel’s foreign policy agenda. Regarding Hizbullah, I doubt very much if the Israelis really think that reform on the refugee issue would have the slightest effect on its regional international standing. Nor would it.
As for INR at the State Department—well, in this case, I would be willing to bet my bottom dollar that they also don’t see the alleged connection between the refugee issue and Hizbullah’s status. I’m equally confident that Department of State in general has actually been quite supportive of efforts to improve the conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, whatever one might think of the many failings of US policy on the Palestinian issue writ large.
Franklin, I understand, wants to cast poor Hizbullah as the foiled reformists who would advance the issue of Palestinian civil rights were it not for the nefarious Israeli-American plot against them. However, the reality is that Hizbullah, while supporting reform, isn’t going to go out on a limb on this issue and compromise its relationship with its often virulently anti-Palestinian Christian allies in General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Therefore they’ll likely end up lining up behind whatever compromises March 14 puts together, while complaining they don’t go far enough.. and yet not actually doing much to push the legislative envelope themselves. Hizbullah is worried about other things—indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the potential for a war with Israel, and the deterrent trap that it has been enmeshed in since the 2006 war. Compromising on the Palestinian rights issue is simply realpolitik.
Indeed the only actor that come out of this looking good is, ironically, is the ever-maneuvering Walid Jumblat who on this occasion seems to have acted largely on his moral inclinations (yes, even I am a bit shocked at that sentence). On the other hand, the way in which the PSP brought this issue forward for parliamentary consideration didn’t help much, largely serving to alienate centrist Christian MPs who might have been better won over with a more low-key approach.