Friday, May 9, 2014


[Originally posted at NOW]

Despite an initial media backlash, the Maronite patriarch’s upcoming trip to Jerusalem has the backing of all parties, including Hezbollah.

In the immediate aftermath of the news that the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Beshara al-Rai, would make history by being the first head of Lebanon’s largest Christian community to visit Jerusalem since the creation of Israel, it looked as though he would face stiff opposition from a key segment of the political class.

“The historic sin: Al-Rai to Israel!” ran the headline of one leading newspaper on Saturday, saying the trip – scheduled from May 24-26 – was tantamount to “normalization with the occupier.” An open letter, written by the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon, published in another prominent daily, urged the patriarch against visiting the “Zionist entity,” noting that many Palestinian and other Arab Christian clergy, including Rai’s own predecessor, advocate against travel to Israeli-occupied territory. One Christian politician in the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition even warned the trip could be a first step toward a full peace treaty with Israel.

And yet, away from the media, no tangible or consequential political opposition has in fact emerged. Aside from Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, no major politician has publicly voiced or even hinted at disapproval of the patriarch’s plan. Most conspicuously, there has been silence from the one group that might have been expected to put up the strongest objection – Hezbollah, the militant Islamist movement whose fighters attacked Israeli soldiers as recently as March this year.

Indeed, a Maronite church spokesman explicitly said Thursday there was “no dispute with Hezbollah” over the visit. Elaborating on this, senior church official Father Abdo Abu Kassem portrayed the visit to NOW as a strictly religious affair, saying the patriarch was not going “to do politics or collaborate with Israel […] and Hezbollah knows that.”

To be sure, the patriarch is not actually breaking any law, according to lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr. While for almost all citizens “it is a criminal offence under Lebanese law to visit Israel,” Sakr told NOW there is legal exemption “for Maronite clergymen.” Sakr cited the example of the Lebanese Bishop Boulos Sayyah, who for a while actually lived full-time in Jerusalem, and who is among a number of Maronite clergymen who routinely travel from Lebanon to historic Palestine.

Yet Hezbollah’s tacit acceptance of the patriarch’s visit likely has a political, rather than legal basis, according to several analysts with whom NOW spoke. The prevailing view is that Hezbollah, like all Lebanese parties, has a strong interest in avoiding conflict with the patriarch at the present time, given the ongoing negotiations over the country’s next president, in which the Maronite church wields considerable influence (up to and including the shortlisting and vetoing of candidates, according to some reports). For Hezbollah, the argument goes, remaining on favorable terms with the patriarch is of much greater importance than an ultimately symbolic trip to Jerusalem.

“What counts for [Hezbollah] is the relationship with Rai,” said Dr. Charles Chartouni, professor of politics at Beirut’s Université Saint Joseph and the Lebanese University. “The other issues can be discounted.”

Some even argue the trip could be of political benefit to Hezbollah, helping it to re-brand itself as a moderate, pragmatic player with whom the West can build partnership, in line with the broader American-Iranian rapprochement across the region driven, in large part, by common enmity to militant Sunni Islamist groups proliferating in Syria and Iraq.

“It’s a new era,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “[Hezbollah’s] real enemy is emerging as the Sunni extremists, so the question of Israel being an enemy is not as [prominent] as it used to be.”

Moreover, believes Salamey, in signaling its comparative leniency vis-à-vis the patriarch’s visit, Hezbollah is “trying to gain US support for the perspective” that the region’s Christians, Shiites, and Jews comprise a “minority coalition” against the common Sunni enemy – a tactic designed to draw the US closer to the Shiite side of a regional Sunni-Shiite divide.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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