Lebanon’s boycott of Bahrain meeting is another wasted opportunity

By continuing to make irrational choices, such as boycotting the Bahrain conference, Lebanon is only causing itself further trouble that cannot be easily undone.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Wrong decision? Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.  (AFP)
Wrong decision? Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. (AFP)

The Lebanese government’s decision to boycott the US economic workshop in Bahrain reminds me of a slogan often repeated by a distinguished Lebanese columnist: “The Lebanese never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

While many may argue that Lebanon’s boycott of the conference is warranted, especially after the Palestinian Authority declined an invitation to attend, it is ultimately a failed opportunity to play a role in a key international event that could have lasting implications on the region’s future.

The Palestinians certainly have their reasons to justify the boycott, not least because they view the only road to economic prosperity as through an end to the Israeli occupation. However, it is somewhat juvenile for Lebanon to boycott the conference simply because its Palestinian counterparts have done so.

In fact, the Palestinians’ absence may be more of a reason for the Lebanese to be present, if only to provide needed support for their allies.

The Palestinians’ decision to not take part in the workshop certainly altered expectations. Most important, it led the US administration to downgrade its invitation to the Israeli side, which will be represented by a small delegation of businessmen instead of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as originally planned.

Still, the event is critical for the region’s future, giving a needed look into what US designs are for how to end the intractable conflict.

Strangely, Lebanon’s decision to avoid the meeting was not discussed or voted on in cabinet meetings. It was simply the result of backroom deliberations between Lebanese President Michel Aoun, his son-in-law and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Surely such an important issue should have warranted lengthy consideration and debate, which would have at least given the unwise move some semblance of legitimacy.

Lebanon is averse to participating in such events. It has previously weaselled its way out of conferences of this nature by playing the anti-Israeli card and insisting it stands in solidarity with the rest of its Arab brethren.

This excuse does not work in the case of the Bahrain conference, which it could have chosen to be represented by in any number of fashions, including through either a senior diplomat, a small delegation headed by a minister or even its undiplomatic foreign minister.

Lebanon’s attendance would not have necessarily lent credence to US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which is nothing but a visionless attempt to achieve peace by putting a price tag on justice.

On the contrary, their representatives could have provided needed pushback to what Trump’s son-in-law and chief architect of the plan Jared Kushner is widely expected to explain to his audience: how peace, or at least his conception of it, could be economically beneficial to all.

Indeed, given the many defects in Kushner’s peace plan, it is something of a sacred duty of the Lebanese, who claim to care about the Palestinians’ plight, to champion their cause and remind those present that it is not only Israeli action that has led to their tragedy but the inaction of many others, including Arabs.

Being present at the Bahrain workshop should also be important to Beirut because of the large Palestinian refugee community that calls Lebanon its home. Lebanon could use this chance to remind the international community that the equally tragic plight of Syrian refugees should not overshadow the needs of Palestinian refugees stranded from their homeland. In addition, given how desperately Lebanon needs aid to overhaul its decaying economy, it is counterproductive and imprudent not to show up at an economic meeting of this calibre.

Recently, Lebanon has uncharacteristically shown that it is capable of using Western diplomacy to its advantage by fully cooperating with the US administration in international mediation efforts to resolve a maritime dispute with Israel over gas fields. Building on this recent diplomatic victory and attending the Bahrain conference would show that Lebanon can be a force of moderation and help reverse its image as a crony of Hezbollah and Iran.

Even if Lebanon has low expectations for the event, it could approach it as one of the many time-sharing presentations people go to out of courtesy, where a tacky marketer tries to convince listeners that their product is worth a purchase. One customarily attends these pitches, partakes of the food and beverages on offer, takes a complimentary gift and leaves. Lebanon could have the same such attitude — attending the meeting without endorsing its purpose or outcome.

While few are of the delusion that peace in the Middle East is within reach, Lebanon’s situation can always get worse. By continuing to make irrational choices, such as boycotting the Bahrain conference, Lebanon is only causing itself further trouble that cannot be easily undone.