The Middle East / February 1999
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Until very recently, Lebanon -- for many Americans -- was more closely linked to hostage-taking, car bombing and Middle East terrorism than any other country. Yet for much of the last two decades, Lebanon has also been pitied as an innocent victim of religious intolerance and the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict.
Lebanon's ambassador to the United States, Mohamad B. Chatah, has seen it all. An economist by profession, the 47-year-old diplomat was only eight years old in 1943, when his country declared independence from France, and a 24-year-old graduate student in 1975, when fighting erupted between Muslims who supported the Palestine Liberation Organization's growing presence in Lebanon, and Christians who opposed it. The following year, Syrian troops arrived to stop the fighting, and they still occupy parts of Lebanon.
The Israelis launched an invasion of their own in June 1982 to drive out the PLO. They withdrew most of their forces in 1985, and by the time Lebanon's civil war ended in October 1989, over 150,000 people were dead, and Beirut was in shambles.
In recent years, however, a massive reconstruction effort has brought Lebanon out of the abyss, Chatah told The Middle East in a lengthy interview. High-rise hotel and office buildings are going up everywhere, and car-bombs no longer shatter the morning calm of Beirut. One year ago, the State Department declared that Lebanon was safe enough for Americans to resume traveling there. And in July, all ticketing and baggage restrictions were abolished.
Chatah explains: "Even after the travel ban was lifted, you could not buy a ticket in the United States with Beirut as a destination, and therefore you could also not send your luggage to Beirut, even if you were connecting in Europe. Now, people can not only travel to Lebanon using their U.S. passports, but can also buy their ticket through a travel agent."
Still, Lebanon isn't exactly on the Middle East package tour. Last year, says Chatah, only 20,000 to 30,000 Americans visited the country -- a tiny fraction of the number of American tourists who visited Israel.
"Images linger on, because the period of chaos continued for a long time, and it's always difficult to have as much news coverage when you're in a recovery phase," said the ambassador. "That's the irony of it, especially in places like the United States, where there's fierce media competition for people's attention."
We asked Chatah if his nation of 3.7 million inhabitants is still a dangerous place.
"Many still associate Lebanon with danger, violence and anarchy, but at the same time many people have an underlying goodwill toward Lebanon, partly because of their interaction with Lebanese-Americans," he answered. "So Lebanon never had a totally negative image, even when it was a place of violence and people lost their lives. It was seen more as a victim. And there is a recognition here of a country that has something to offer, through its people, its culture and its resilience."
When the civil war broke out in 1975, Chatah was forced to interrupt his graduate studies at the American University of Beirut. He fled to the United States, eventually getting a doctorate in economics at the University of Texas in Austin. After serving eight years with the IMF, he was named executive director of the Arab Monetary Fund. He finally returned to Lebanon in 1993 as Vice Governor of the Banque du Liban -- Lebanon's Central Bank -- before taking up his current post in Washington early last year. Chatah is married to Nadera Mikati; they have two sons, Ronnie, 16, and Omar, 12.
"This is certainly the most interesting job I've had so far, in all senses of the word. It's a very demanding post, but also very exciting," said the diplomat, who speaks a very polished English in addition to his native Arabic. "There's no doubt that the main issue for us now is to regain our sovereignty and our credibility in general, and have Israel withdraw from the south."
Since 1985, about 1,000 Israeli troops have occupied a 400-square-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon. The Israeli government, which has kept its forces there to prevent Hizbollah and other terrorists from attacking settlements in northern Israel, recently offered to withdraw from southern Lebanon under Resolution 425 of the UN Security Council. But Chatah says the conditions the Netanyahu government attaches to the pullout make him skeptical of Israel's true intentions.
"Israel's occupation and the absence of peace is not helping Lebanon regain its overall ability to run its affairs without the need for external support," he explained. "I think all Lebanese would want their police and armed forces be all over the country without the need for anybody, including the Syrians. That's a common denominator among the Lebanese. But very few look at the Syrian relationship the same way they look at the Israeli occupation."
Chatah says Lebanon cannot sign a peace agreement with Israel without the approval of Syria, since the two Arab countries have "adopted a joint approach to peace," and have agreed not to sign separate peace accords. But that can't happen, he says, until Israel returns another chunk of real-estate -- the Golan Heights -- captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967.
"The notion that you need to reach middle ground on withdrawal is totally illogical," says the diplomat. "You can't have peace with Syria while maintaining the Golan Heights under occupation. It simply cannot happen."
Chatah has nothing but praise for Syrian President Hafez el-Assad, saying "there is a great deal of respect in our country for Assad vis-a-vis the current Israeli government. That respect has increased tremendously with the very unreasonable position the current Israeli government has taken. Under the previous government [of Yitzhak Rabin], Lebanon and Israel did engage in negotiations for awhile, but clearly to reach the endpoint of a peace agreement requires that the Syrians advance their negotiations with the Israelis."
Despite the current Arab-Israeli deadlock in the West Bank and Gaza, Chatah doesn't think the peace process is dead. On the contrary, "there's no choice. The Lebanese people want peace and normalcy -- full peace and full withdrawal."
Meanwhile, Chatah tirelessly pleads Lebanon's case before the White House, the State Department, members of Congress, universities and nearly a dozen Middle East think tanks. He says he's also talked with influential senators and representatives who happen to be Jewish, and that Lebanon has "many friends" in Congress.
"Jewish-Americans to us are Americans, like Christian-Americans, Catholic-Americans or Muslim-Americans. We have no problem whatsoever. On the contrary, we have many connections with Jewish-American groups," said Chatah, a Muslim. "They have diverse views, as do other Americans. We don't look at them as a monolithic group."
Chatah delicately sidestepped a question on the nature of those connections with Jewish groups. When asked if he's ever addressed the B'nai B'rith or the American Jewish Congress, he said "no, but that's not because of any decision not to."
Regarding contact with Israeli diplomats, Chatah was far less ambiguous.
"This is a very clear, explicit decision in the absence of peace, and for a good reason," he said. "Any appearance of normalcy at a time when the Israeli government is not willing to engage us in a serious way will make peace even harder to achieve. We see what has happened all around us. Unfortunately, to some in Israel, the issue of being accepted in the Middle East has become almost irrelevant. I remember 20 years ago that was the big issue, to be accepted as a nation. That has happened, by and large. Now it's taken for granted. This recognition is not of value anymore."
While politicians argue over how to advance the stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks, investors are pouring back into Lebanon -- once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East for its economic and political stability. Chatah says at least $25 billion entered his nation between 1991 and 1997 in the form of direct investments, cash remittances and other capital flows. The nation's per-capita GDP is around $3,000, or triple what it was in 1991.
Even though Lebanon's trade with the United States is still relatively small ($500 million in U.S. imports, and less than $50 million in Lebanese exports to the U.S. market last year), the country has received enormous investment from the large Lebanese-American community, estimated at nearly 1.5 million people.
In addition, U.S. and foreign multinationals have renewed their interest in Lebanon. Inter-Continental Hotels has three properties in Beirut, while Marriott is also reopening luxury hotels and Pizza Hut franchises are popping up everywhere. In December, McDonald's will open two restaurants in Beirut, with plans to have as many as 10 outlets throughout Lebanon within a year.