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The Assassination of Minister Pierre Gemayel Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
November 26, 2006


JERUSALEM -- The assassination of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel is being blamed by his fellow-Christian nationalists on Syria, its alleged motive being to bring down the incumbent pro-American government and thereby prevent a UN-sponsored tribunal from putting the 14 suspects in the slaying of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February, 2005, on trial.

"It is the same chain of political killings that has afflicted our country for the past two years," said Etienne Sakr, an outspoken foe of Syrian hegemony in his native land.

Speaking from his domicile in exile, Sakr, whose 'nom de guerre' is Abu-Arz [Father of the Cedars], charged that President Bashir Assad was "personally responsible" for Gemayel's daytime murder in downtown Beirut.

The Lebanese Christians' anger at the Damascus regime -- many of them call it a political mafia -- was evident at Gemayel's funeral in the family's ancestral village of Bikfaya.

Shaul Menashe, an Israeli political scientist who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, pointed out that unlike the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, no one in Lebanon contended that Israel's Mossad (equivalent of the CIA) was responsible.

The current Lebanese grudge against Israel, as expressed by Rami Khoury, editor-at-large of the Beirut Star, stems from its heavy bombing of Beirut during last summer's war with the Shi'ite Hizbollah guerrillas.  Khoury assailed the U.S. for condoning Israel's military operations and failing to condemn the consequences.

All this recalls the ill-fated liaisons between the Israelis and Lebanese that date back to the early 1970's and had their origins in the affinity between the Levant's two biggest non-Muslim communities during the 1940's.  In his seminal work, "From Cairo to Damascus," John Roy Carlson, an intrepid American journalist and author, described the good will harbored by Lebanese Maronite clerics for the Zionists of Palestine at that time.

After the 1948-49 war between Israel and the neighboring Arab states, in which Lebanon's role was trivial to nil, analysts on both sides said Lebanon would not be the first Middle Eastern state to make peace with Israel, but would be the second.

This opportunity arose in 1979, when Egypt, the biggest and most influential Arab country, signed a watershed peace treaty with Israel.  At that time, there was an unwritten agreement between the Lebanese and Israelis to prevent the Palestine Liberation Organization from disturbing the de facto peace along their common border.  But the negative pressure from the Arab world, in which Lebanon had extensive economic ties, was to powerful to allow a peace treaty -- something Gemayel's late uncle, Bashir, who was idolized by his fellow Maronites tried to achieve until he too was slain by Syrian agents in 1982.

When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in June, 1982, the Lebanese Forces, under the command of Pierre Gemayel's late uncle, Bashir, were their staunch allies.  Afterward, the authorities in Beirut secretly authorized a Lebanese army general, Antoine Lah'd, to take over the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army which played an important part in keeping the international border open between northern Israel and southern Lebanon.

Actually, Israel's political strategy toward Lebanon is fraught with tactical errors. Its troops overstayed their initial welcome from 1978 to 2000, incurring the animosity of the south's Shi'ite population and planting the seeds of the Hizbollah militia's insurgency.

Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin toyed with the idea of making peace with Syria even if this would have required condoning Syria's virtual occupation of Lebanon.  The deal fell through because Damascus demanded the relinquishment of the entire Golan Heights including a tiny strip along the Sea of Galilee's northeastern shoreline.

The stillborn Lebanese-Israeli peace process suffered yet another blow because of the way the five-week war was conducted.  Pro-American Prime Minister Fuad Siniora vented his rage over the destruction inflicted on Beirut by Israel's air force by rephrasing the timeworn maxim, saying, "Lebanon will be the last Middle Eastern state to make peace with Israel."

In any case, politics has strange bedfellows and the Israelis and Lebanese may find themselves on the same boat again.  Syria is their common enemy despite unofficial American efforts to lure Damascus into the Western orbit.  And the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, whose grandfather after whom he was named, played a cautious, but decisive part in nurturing the clandestine relationship between Beirut and Jerusalem, may bring the two capitals closer again.

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