Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Maybe I can use this medium to send out some of the things on my mind as we sit here in the fog 700 m above sea level in Lebanon, relatively safe from the aerial and naval bombardment aimed at Beirut, the environs of the Israeli border, and various strategic point all along the coast.

What is going on?

Very simply, a bunch of people are firing heavy weapons at each other, and a lot more people, buildings and other installations are getting hit.

How heavy are the weapons?

The smallest can destroy an armored car, the biggest so far can destroy a 6-storey cinderblock-and-reinforced-concrete building. Which is not to say that regular machine gun fire is not also being utilized in some places. Why are they doing it?Being in a position to hear what both sides are broadcasting, I say it boils down to both sides feeling a threat to their very existence if they do not put up the hardest fight they can. To be specific, the Israeli side contend that they are up against an enemy that wants the end of Jewish majority in Israel, which they describe with the emotional code words "the destruction of Israel". Hezballah leadership tell their supporters that standing down means the beginning of "an Israeli era" in the region, which is their code word for a state of affairs in which no one will be able to resist any demands from Israel for land, raw materials, water resources, military access, or population transfer.

Does anyone really believe any of these outcomes are actually

They sure act as if they do, but this could be due to a combination of posturing by the leadership and naiveté by listeners. I'll go into why later. Let me just leave you with this thought: It is
certainly telling that no person who takes one of the stated perils at face value simultaneously believes in any possibility of the other peril.

So what do they actually want?

  • Most of us here, being members of neither camp, want the shooting to stop regardless of what happens next.
  • The Hezballah side have consistently broadcast that they are willing to stop if the Israeli side stops shooting at them. Proviso: they want to either keep the two Israeli soldiers they abducted, or to exchange them for their own abductees from wars past. They are
    not clear on who exactly they count among their own, but the list could include any of: Lebanese and/or Palestinian people serving sentences after having been convicted by Israeli courts, or under administrative detention, or seized without any indication of status
    during the the recent events in Gaza.
  • The Israeli side has not been consistent in their message. From demanding unconditional release of their abducted soldiers, they have upped the demand to unconditional surrender, and then sporadically alternated between interpreting this as one-sided
    disarmament of Hezballah, withdrawal of Hezballah arms to 20 kilometers (12 miles) from their border, and unspecified guarantees from Lebanon.

What will they do if they do not get their demands?

  • The Lebanese can do nothing but pray, and maybe hope that someone will dare dissent from the American administration's dictat that the Israeli point of view is the only one.

  • Hezballah hope that the firing of missiles progressively deeper into Israeli territory, and aiming as accurately as they can at military, industrial and transport installations, will convince the Israeli that is is cheaper to negotiate. The unspoken message is
    that Hezballah, unlike Hamas or any other non-sovereign enemies that Israel may have had to deal with in the past, they are in full control of their arsenal, and can deliver a 100% cessation in violence from their side at a moment's notice.

  • Israel has the power to destroy Lebanon, and they are proceeding also at a methodical measured pace. With their higher reach and accuracy, they have destroyed airports, ports, bridges and radars. Nearer their border, they are stomping out the civilian population village by village. They are leveling city blocks in Beirut where they suspect some of the Hezballah leadership may be. They are dropping leaflets on Lebanon asking people to stop trusting Hezballah on some metaphysical level... Realistically, they are
    hoping that Hezballah will run out of ammo and then starve, along with the rest of Lebanon, into submission.

Is there any good side to this whole situation?

Israel want to maintain some moral high ground, which is why they are not targeting civilians except in small numbers and in areas where they can claim some connection to attacks against them. They are also escalating slowly, which is why they have not yet bombed out all the power stations and petrol storage facilities. But as long as their stated demand is unconditional surrender, none of these further actions can be ruled out.

Hezballah only have enough firepower to deter further escalation, not to actually threaten Israel, so as long as they maintain discipline, and there is not past evidence that individual personnel losses will lead to a loss of discipline, they will not launch vengeance attacks against Israel.

So what is the end game?

Negotiation must take place. It will be a long time before Hezballah runs out of missiles, and by that time we could have clouds of natural gas over Israel and widespread disease and pestilence among the population of Lebanon. Barring even more terrible surprises.

What's to negotiate?

Hezballah want their prisoners back, and Israel has the power to release them and to add one demand: the removal of Hezballah's ability to declare war unilaterally. Hezballah must be willing to fulfil this demand in exchange for a further demand of their own: Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territories that had passed into Israel`s possession from the Syrians who had occupied them before, and not only (as they had in 2000) from Lebanese territories that
they had occupied first-hand. The mechanics of removing the unilateral decision over war from Hezballah must include an integration of Hezballah as a parallel defensive institution
independent from the Lebanese armed forces but equally accountable to civilian democratic oversight.

The series of steps above will end the current conflict, but there is no reason to stop the reciprocal piling-on of counter-conditions until a wider regional agreement is reached. The key is that each side gets guarantees agains the fear that they express to the outside world and to their own people, without coming off as a true source of the other side's fear.

Sounds almost too easy. What's the catch?

This is where we go into the existential fears, real or imagined, of both sides. It is clear to me, as a scientific researcher who uses Game Theory to explain business and political decisions, that there is a rational negotiating purpose for the dissemination of existential fears, real or imagined. It is also clear to me, as an observer of Mideast politics, that sometimes the naive believers in these rationally constructed but substantively irrational fears sometimes ascend to leadership positions in which they are unable to properly execute the negotiating strategies designed by their predecessors to exploit the fears they sowed. This is what scares me the most: that Ehud Olmert will actually want a fight to the finish because he and his cabinet truly see no alternative except death or victory.

Why do I believe this instead of buying into the more fashionable points of view? Here is how I see this having developed. When Israel was founded, and really for several decades before, Jewish immigrants started evicting Arab tenants of the lands they bought. With no way of knowing how technological progress was going to change the economic productive capacity of the land, they thought that the few few families they displaces were best off somewhere
else. The immediate reaction to that was that the Arabs who wanted to go back gave rise to the idea that Jewish expansion was going to know no end -- the Arab version of the existential concern. This led to death and mayhem, but this is not the story I am telling. I am telling the story of the existential fear. The Jewish side felt that the Arab drive to get them out in order to make room for Arabs to come back were a threat to their very lives, and they fought accordingly and won repeatedly. In winning, they needed continued sympathy from the and the world at large and succeeded over 60 years in framing every demand by Arabs to assuage Arab existential fears as an attack on Jewish existence.

The most recent successes in this regard can be illustrated by the fable of Fatah and Hamas. Fatah essentially said "OK, we swear before the world that we do not want Israel to cease to exist, and in fact, to prove our good intentions, we are willing to concede 78% of the land we used to own in exchange for the remaining 22%." What happened? Israel said "If they are willing to settle for 22%, then why not 20% or 15% or 10%?" Every Fatah protest against these
tactics was passed off to the world as a retreat to the previous status quo of threatening the existence of Israel. Meanwhile, the Hamas side, trying the opposite tack, said "We swear that our Sunni Moslem religion prevents us from accepting permanent Jewish supremacy
of the land of Palestine, but we are willing to negotiate a long-term truce under mutually acceptable conditions." What happened to them? They are treated as murderous maniacs by the rest of the world, which wants them to change to the Fatah track where they (Hamas) know and fear they will meet the same negotiating end.

So what is Hezballah trying to do a a smarter actor? They are refusing to state a preference one way or the other. They say "We want our prisoners back in exchange for your prisoners" and "We will stop fighting when we get our land back" without specifying how far this land goes. In order to avoid being either pinned down to a specific finite demand, which opens them up to
whittling down, or being associated with an overall existential threat to Israel, which would de-legitimate them, they simply repeat that their fear of Israeli expansion is what keeps them attached to armed resistance.

The Israeli response to that so far has been to portray this as a different way of parsing the same position as Hamas. They do this by trying to confuse in the mind of the world Hezballah, their direct enemy, with Iran. Iran is already tarred with holding the Hamas position because their president Ahmadi Najad was caught on tape quoting from a 25-year-old speech by Khomeini, who in that era was expressing an existential threat against Israel for purposes having to do with the exigencies of that era.

Not that I claim any particular insight into the though processes of a theocracy like Iran or a fascist dictatorship in leftist clothing like Syria. But I know that both Hezballah and the Israeli
government are both beholden to the people who rationally choose to elect them to power, and as such, if they truly have the wisdom to play their cards in the rational fashion consistent with the strategies drawn up by the smartest among their predecessors, negotiation can be successful and must be successful to avert our doom. And if the Lebanese including Hezballah can negotiate successfully with Israel, negotiating with Syria and Iran (assumoing they want something form us) will be a piece of cake.

What will peace look like?

Israel must get ironclad guarantees that they can continue to
hold a Jewish majority within some agreed borders, in exchange for
acknowledgement of Israel`s duties towards the all neighboring
Arab states including Palestine, towards all people of Palestinian
descent worldwide, and towards their own Arab minority.

Hezballah must be recognized as a unique institution, perhaps
the only historical institution worldwide to fulfil the role of a
"well organized militia" like the one stated in the US constitution
to be necessary for the defense of the nation. The word "militia" has
been coopted by warlords, thugs, mercenaries and genocidal swarms,
and it is high time the good name of this concept be cleared.
(Explaining why I feel this way will take another essay later.)
There must be a mechanism for putting this organization under the
control of a civilian democratically elected body, but this does not
have to be part of the Western model for organizing armed forces
and governments that was promulgated throughout the globe in the
colonial eras of the past two centuries.

The rest of the Arab and Persian world must decide between the
Chinese model where despotic government actually takes care of its
people with economic development, or the Western model where the
people take care of their government and economic growth naturally
ensues. Or they can starve when the oil runs out.

Me, I will have to eventually move to America where I can make
the most difference by having my kids help vote out Bush in Ohio or

I think this is full of shit

If you do, leave a comment.


  • At 16/7/06 10:28 PM, Anonymous StevenC said…

    An interesting and insightful interpretation of the current state of affairs, Walid.

    Recipe: take equal parts existential and territorial concerns, mix well with generic idealogical rhetoric, sprinkle with a generous seasoning of unsettled old sectarian scores, and bake in the hot Mid-Eastern oven for a few decades. When ready to serve, garnish with high-explosives.

    If only game theory were actually used and applicable in these kinds of situations...

    Hope you stay safe. I'd hate to see you in Ohio as opposed to the West Coast, but everyone's gotta do what they gotta do.


  • At 16/7/06 10:49 PM, Anonymous Marina said…

    Walid, the rest of the world considers them "murderous maniacs" not because Israel "frames every demand by Arabs to assuage Arab existential fears as an attack on Jewish existence", but because these demands take the form of blowing up discotheques full of teenagers.

    In any war between people who are willing and eager to kill civilians and people who "maintain some moral high ground, by not targeting civilians except in small numbers" AND "in areas where they can claim some connection to attacks against them" (which makes them no longer civilians) the former have no leg to stand on.

    It is unfortunate that they choose to protect themselves by a living shield of innocent and helpless people, but giving their moral character it is inevitable. There is no solution in negotiation. Murderers do not make trustworthy promises. There is, however, solution in these same civilians realizing that they suffer for no cause of their own and refusing to shield the murderers with themselves. And another solution in an outside power doing it for them, as happened in Germany.

    In the meanwhile any help I can possibly give you in coming here (invitations/financial support documents/general paperwork) is yours for the asking.

  • At 16/7/06 11:49 PM, Anonymous Keith Henson said…

    I would like to go a bit deeper, under the surface, clear back to the Stone Age where most of the selection that gave us our current set of genes happened. It probably won't help to change things in the Mid East, but it might provide some insight.

    Published in Anthropological Quarterly, 73.1 (2000), 20-34.



    Azar Gat

    Part I: Primary Somatic and Reproductive Causes


    And after you read Dr. Gat's excellent paper, try here:


    Which is my take on why people have wars.

    Keith Henson

  • At 17/7/06 12:26 AM, Blogger Walid said…

    The way I see it, you either want war because you think it will make Hezballah go away, or yu want war because you want Israel to go away, or you want peace. If you want peace, either you want it at any price, or you want it as long as you know the other side willnot destroy you while you are not paying attention. If there are enough people on both sides who fall in this last category, then I have faith that the rest of the maniacs canbe dealt with. P.S. "Maniacs" include those who follow sociobiological programming that is no longer a survival trait in the age of the missile.

  • At 17/7/06 12:42 AM, Anonymous Marina said…

    That last comment is impossible to disagree with.

  • At 17/7/06 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    Very informative blog. Great insight into life out in the Middle East. It's easy to fail to understand the full impact whilst sitting in our compfy chairs back here in America.


  • At 18/7/06 3:59 AM, Anonymous Marina said…

    Wow, missed this when reading earlier: "in exchange for
    acknowledgement of Israel`s duties towards the all neighboring
    Arab states including Palestine, towards all people of Palestinian
    descent worldwide, and towards their own Arab minority."

    That kind of invalidates the whole post, unfortunately. Israel does not have any duties towards any Arab states (it also has no duties towards Nigeria, France, or Kazakhstan) beyond the obvious duties of any neighbor, which are limited to "don't start unprovoked war". Nor does Israel have any duties towards anyone of Palestinian descent (whatever that is). As for the Israeli Arabs their rights and the duties Israel has towards them are sufficiently acknowledged in Israel's laws. If they don't like the laws - well, that's what their votes are for.

    People who expect others to acknowledge a non-existent duty towards them are failing in their duty to themselves and their children. People who encourage their children to go to war to claim such a duty (or any duty whatsoever) are the worst kind of criminals - infanticides.

  • At 19/7/06 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 20/7/06 9:01 PM, Blogger Walid said…

    I'm turning on comment moderation to stop the link pollution. Nothing against you, Marina, and I hope we can continue this fascinating discussion over a pitcher of Sangria at Andale's in Palo Alto soon. :).


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