The Washington Diplomat / July 2008
By Larry Luxner
After six months without a president, Lebanon finally got one: Michel Suleiman. And after a year without a credentialed ambassador in Washington, Lebanon finally has one of those too: Antoine Chedid.
It’s no coincidence that Chedid — who’s effectively headed the Lebanese Embassy here for one year — presented his credentials to President Bush on June 6, not even two weeks after Suleiman was sworn into office. In essence, both men owe their new jobs to the resolution of a political impasse that briefly plunged this Connecticut-size nation of 4 million into its bloodiest ethnic fighting since the country’s devastating 1975-90 civil war.
“We had a severe political crisis. For six months, the country was without a president. But now, it’s much better than before,” Chedid told The Washington Diplomat on June 13, in his first media interview since formally becoming ambassador. “Thanks to the Doha agreement, things are back on track. All institutions are functioning normally, and we are now in the process of forming a national unity government. People are off the street, and we are talking to each other. The dialogue started in Doha and it is continuing in Lebanon.”
The crisis Chedid is referring to began on Nov. 23, 2007, when Emile Lahoud’s term as Lebanon’s 11th president came to an end. The country, deeply polarized among various religious and ethnic factions, could not agree on who would replace Lahoud. On one side was the Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druze governing coalition, while on the other was the pro-Syrian opposition led by Hezbollah, which enjoys widespread support among Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims but which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
The Parliament attempted and failed 19 times to elect a president. In early May, things took a turn for the worse when Hezbollah militants — angered by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s decision to sack the head of airport security and declare Hezbollah’s private telephone network illegal — temporarily took over West Beirut.
Hezbollah, interpreting Siniora’s actions as a “declaration of war,” tried to force a solution with its weapons, sparking clashes that killed 65 people and embarrassed the U.S.-supported Siniora coalition. The situation was defused following five days of talks in Doha, Qatar, paving the way for Parliament to elect army commander Suleiman — the only candidate acceptable to all sides — as the country’s new president. The new arrangement breaks another political stalemate by giving the Syrian-backed opposition veto power in a new cabinet, something the parliamentary majority has repeatedly rejected over the past 18 months.
“Let us unite and work toward a solid reconciliation,” Suleiman said at his May 25 swearing-in ceremony. “We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand in hand.”
Chedid echoed similar sentiments, telling the Diplomat that “no Lebanese faction or party has any interest in another civil war. Now, the name of the game is dialogue. We are not on the streets. The new president has invited all parties to come to the presidential palace and start under his auspices to speak to each other. That will ensure we don’t go back to a severe crisis.”
Yet Chedid sidestepped a question on whether Hezbollah, which refuses to disarm itself, is actually a “state within a state” as many critics have charged.
“Hezbollah is a political party and it’s part of the political apparatus. They were members of the previous government and I’m sure they will be members of this new government,” he says, adding that “Lebanon has a very delicate equilibrium, and we cannot play with it.”
It’s no surprise that Chedid chooses his words carefully, considering what happened to his predecessor, Farid Abboud. Immediately following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in July 2006, Abboud was fired for publicly saying that if Israel wanted its two kidnapped soldiers back, it would have to negotiate directly with Hezbollah.
After Abboud’s reassignment to Tunisia, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Carla Jazzar, was put in charge until Chedid’s arrival last year.
A 56-year-old veteran diplomat from the town of Zahle, Chedid spent part of Lebanon’s horrific civil war in Washington, Los Angeles and New York, and part of it in Beirut. He prefers not to discuss the war, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people, commenting only that “those were really bad days we don’t even want to think about.”
After various U.S. postings in the 1980s and 1990s, Chedid was named Lebanon’s ambassador to Greece, where he served for two years. In 2001, he became director of the Bureau of International Organizations, Conferences and Cultural Relations at Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a post he kept until 2007, when he was reassigned to Washington for his current job. Chedid is married to Nicole Saba (also from Zahle) and they have three children: Georges, Rhea and Anthony.
“This is the most important diplomatic post for any country, obviously for Lebanon and for me personally,” he says. “This embassy represents all Lebanese people, regardless of their political affiliation.”
He adds: “Since I have known the U.S. for a long time and have served in many diplomatic posts here, it means a lot for me. We have excellent relations with a lot of countries, and over and above, with the United States.”
Those warm feelings certainly don’t extend to Washington’s closest Middle East ally, Israel, which fought a bruising 33-day war with Hezbollah two years ago.
The fighting was sparked by Hezbollah’s July 12, 2006, ambush and subsequent kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the border between the two countries. Israel responded with massive air strikes and artillery fire, and the ensuing fighting and bombardment led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, and severely damaged Lebanon’s infrastructure, including its main international airport. Approximately 1 million Lebanese and some 300,000 to 500,000 Israelis were displaced by the fighting, though most eventually were able to return to their homes.
More recently, on June 14, Lebanon rebuffed a suggestion from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the new government follow Syria’s lead and engage in direct negotiations that could lead to a permanent Israeli-Lebanese peace accord.
“We will be the last Arab country to start direct talks with Israel,” Chedid declared. “Syria can do whatever it wants, but we are ruling out any direct or indirect contact with Israel for now — none whatsoever. When they solve the Palestinian problem and Syria and Israel solve their own problems, then we’ll think about it.”
The ambassador, noting that Lebanon is still home to 450,000 Palestinian refugees, added: “Every single day they continue to make airspace incursions over Lebanon, and we must still deactivate the mines and cluster bombs that Israel put on our lands. And we still have Lebanese detainees in Israel.”
Chedid refused to talk about it, but a German-mediated prisoner swap between his country and Israel appears imminent. According to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar, Hezbollah is on the verge of releasing the two abducted Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, in exchange for jailed Lebanese terrorist Samir Kantar and four Hezbollah guerrillas captured during the 2006 war. The newspaper, in keeping with Hezbollah policy, gave no indication whether the two Israeli soldiers are alive.
Despite Lebanon’s official hostility to the Jewish state, Chedid says, “Obviously, we follow what’s going on in Israel — not only the politicians, but everyone in the street — because we are neighbors and we’re affected by every Israeli decision.”
Asked what might happen if Israeli voters replace the scandal-plagued and deeply unpopular Olmert with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s less likely to push for peace talks with Lebanon, Chedid replies: “I don’t have any comment on that. Whoever [in Israel] wants to implement this is their problem. All we care is that Israel is serious about the peace process and withdraws from all Arab territories.”
And for the Lebanese, one of the most important territories they want back is Shebaa Farms. This mountainous little sliver of land was captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, along with the rest of the Golan Heights. It measures about 8 square miles — meaning it would fit comfortably within the city limits of Gaithersburg, Md.
The depopulated zone is still occupied by Israeli troops, which is why Lebanon disputes Israel’s claim that it has complied with U.N. Resolution 425 ordering it to withdraw all troops from southern Lebanon. Yet the United Nations also agrees with Israel’s argument that Resolution 425 doesn’t apply to Shebaa Farms because the area is part of Syria, not Lebanon. Chedid calls that nonsense.
“Everybody in this city, and in this country, and in Israel and Syria, knows that the Shebaa Farms belong to Lebanon, and we have all kinds of historical documents to prove this,” Chedid insists. “It has nothing to do with size. It’s the principle.”
At the same time, the ambassador wouldn’t comment on another U.N. decree — Resolution 1701 — which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, was approved by both countries, and requires the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah.
After Hezbollah’s show of strength in both the 2006 war and in early May, any disarmament appears unlikely. In fact, the day after Suleiman’s inauguration, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned the new president not to use military force against his group. Addressing tens of thousands of supporters in a Beirut playground, Nasrallah said “the state’s weapons should not be used to settle accounts with an opposition political party, or in favor of outside parties that weaken Lebanon’s strength and immunity in confronting Israel.”
Not only would Chedid not discuss the disarming of Hezbollah, he also wouldn’t talk about Hezbollah’s chief backer, Iran. Nor would he say a word about what effect the U.S. invasion of Iraq has had on the Middle East.
He did, however, dispute the widely held belief that the United States is losing influence in the region, given that Turkey is sponsoring Israel-Syria peace talks, Qatar defused Lebanon’s internal crisis, and now French President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to arrange a meeting between Israel’s Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Chedid says. “The U.S. is cooperating with Lebanon and it’s the world’s only superpower. Everybody would like to talk to the United States.”
In the meantime, Chedid’s number-one challenge is running his embassy here in Washington — which has five diplomats and 20 local staffers — and encouraging foreign investment in his country, which was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East for its peace and relative prosperity.
“We have an image problem, and that’s one of my main concerns. People pretty much identify Lebanon with war. Little by little, we are trying to change this,” he explains. “We are not a rich country, but we do intend to hire some PR firms to project a positive image about tourism and business opportunities in Lebanon.”
Unfortunately for Chedid, foreign investment — which had been pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states — has cooled because of the latest crisis in May. So has U.S. investment in Lebanon, despite what the ambassador called “a reservoir of sympathy and goodwill” toward his country, especially on Capitol Hill.
“Lebanese businessmen love their country and want to invest there because they can make a lot of money, and because it has a lot of sentimental value,” he says, estimating the Lebanese-American community at around 2 million. “But above all, we need stability. We don’t want our people to emigrate from Lebanon. We want them to stay where they are.”