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Hezbollah’s rise casts doubt on Lebanon’s status as ‘Paris of the Middle East’

Once hailed as the "Paris of the Middle East," Beirut is now looking more like Tehran than Western Europe.

Posters of Hezbollah’s flag and the terrorist group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in Beirut. Credit: Al Aan Arabic Television via Wikimedia Commons.
Posters of Hezbollah’s flag and the terrorist group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in Beirut. Credit: Al Aan Arabic Television via Wikimedia Commons.

Due to its unique geopolitical history, Lebanon has long been viewed as one of the most Westernized countries in the Arab world. But the rising political power of the Hezbollah terror group in the country is leading to radicalization as well as increased Lebanese efforts to thwart normalization between Israel and Arabs.

Lebanese authorities last week reversed a decision to ban Steven Spielberg’s new film “The Post,” which had been over the director’s support for Israel. Further, Lebanese-born filmmaker Ziad Doueiri came under fire for his past film “The Attack,” which was partly filmed in Israel. As a result of Doueiri’s supposed efforts to normalize relations with Israel, his new film, “The Insult,” was “boycotted by half the population” in Lebanon, the filmmaker told the Los Angeles Times.

Earlier this month, Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanese journalist and visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was sentenced to six months in jail in absentia for criticizing the country’s army. Last year, the “Wonder Woman” movie was banned in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia due to Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s leading role.

The developments in Lebanon come at a time when Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have been more reserved than expected in their criticism of Israel and the Trump administration for America’s recent decisions to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize that city as Israel’s capital. Further, the interests of Israel and Arab states are increasingly aligning due to their shared concern about the Iranian threat.

But in Lebanon, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called last week for a boycott of U.S. President Donald Trump until he reverses his Jerusalem moves.

“The famous conceit about Beirut as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ is obsolete. There are a lot of longstanding myths about the country and the ostensible liberalism of its society,” Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS.

There is an enduring view among some Israelis and American Jews that Lebanese Christians are sympathetic to Israel, in part because they are also thought of as supposedly pro-Western. But Badran noted that “for all the talk of liberalism, Lebanon is actually a traditionalist society in many ways, and not just the Muslims, but also the Christians.”

The perception of Lebanese Christians’ liberalism was never really true, explained Badran, pointing out that the ideas such as critical theory and post-colonialism that are in vogue on the country’s college campuses, such as American University in Beirut, lend themselves to anti-Americanism.

What Lebanon is experiencing is top-down enforcement from the government to align the nation’s culture with state policy, said Badran, who grew up in the country. The moves to ban movies produced by Doueiri or by American Jews like Spielberg fall in this category, he said, adding that when the Syrians ran Lebanon following the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, Syria and Hezbollah promoted an anti-Western “resistance” culture that still maintains a dominant position in Lebanese society.

Asked about the anti-normalization attitude towards Israel, Badran said that “it is not only because of the dominance of Hezbollah or the Syrians before it. It’s also due to support from major sectors of society, from all the groups.”

“The [current Lebanese] political class, meanwhile, is either a bunch of pro-Hezbollah sycophants or the more venal politicians and those fear Hezbollah and thus bow to them, just like it was under the Syrian occupation,” stated Badran.

Hanna Varulkar, director of research at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), told JNS that the political power of Hezbollah and its allies inside Lebanon has increased in recent years.

This is reflected, she said, in “domestic Lebanese politics, as well as Lebanon’s foreign-policy positions, which are more often aligned with the axis of ‘resistance’ headed by Iran and less with Saudi Arabia.”

Lebanon’s failure to stand by Saudi Arabia in its struggle with Iran has caused ongoing tensions between the countries and is described in-depth in a MEMRI report that includes details of the fallout from the Saudi suspension of billions of dollars in aid to Lebanon.

Varulkar noted that last November, Saudi Arabia reportedly expressed anger at Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri because the Lebanon’s government was making decisions that were favoring Hezbollah positions and ultimately supporting Iran.

As a result of Hezbollah’s increasing strength, she continued, political forces opposed to the Islamist movement, mainly the pro-Saudi March 14 Forces headed by Hariri’s Future Movement, “have greatly reduced their criticism of Hezbollah compared to previous years.”

Asked about the anti-Israel sentiment in Lebanon, Varulkar observed that “for many years it has been difficult to find elements in Lebanon who would speak in favor of normalization with Israel, and this is also true of Lebanese elements who are considered more moderate. … Anyone who dares speak of normalization is immediately subject to harsh attacks and accusations of betrayal.”

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