State Department on the Lebanon debacle

On Thursday afternoon, I had the opportunity, as a member of the National Policy Council of the Arab American Institute (AAI), to take part in a conference call with Alberto Fernandez, Director of Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. Fernandez is obviously no freshman, he speaks Arabic fluently and has a great deal of experience in the region. He is also quite a "straight-shooter". Though some of his remarks were met with an understandable sense of frustration on the part of the call's participants, I am sure I speak for my colleagues when I express my thanks to Mr. Fernandez for taking the time to consider the group's opinions.

Since he was kind enough to make his remarks "on the record", here are some of Fernandez's quotes from the call. To me, the 2 biggest revelations were, first, that despite horribly strained relations, the US has still been using Syrian intermediaries to negotiate an end to the Hamas crisis in Gaza.

The second was Fernandez rebuking Israel's position toward the Lebanese government. He specifically said:
"If it gets me in trouble, it gets me in trouble. I don't care. The Israeli Government has said 'we hold the Lebanese government responsible.' The US Government has not said that, and we don't believe that."
His quote with respect to Syrian mediation on Hamas was:
"This is the result of a cynical ploy by Hamas, by a wing of Hamas or a part of Hamas to provoke a reaction on the regional stage. Hamas has been intransigent - we do not talk to Hamas ourselves, but we are in contact with a wide range of partners from the Syrians to the Turks, the Qataris."
Clearly Mr. Fernandez was also mirroring President Bush's attempts to continue to express verbal support for the Lebanese government under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He added:
"We have been cognizant of the efforts of the Lebanese Cabinet to be responsible and to act in a mature and serious way. This is one of the best governments Lebanon ever had, it's a serious government, and the result of a democratic process. They have made it clear that they do not endorse the actions Hezbollah took...They recalled their ambassador, who publicly took the Hezbollah position vs. The official Lebanese Government position."
Contrarily, Fernandez reserved the blame for the recent flare-ups almost exclusively for Hezbollah, saying:
"Nasrallah (note: political leader of Hezbollah) practices an incredibly cynical reality. He provoked this reaction by the Israelis at the beginning of tourist season which was expected to bring $4.4 Billion into the Lebanese economy, and [many thousands] employed in the tourism sector. Hezbollah should have realized what would happen...killing Israeli soldiers in Israel and shelling Israeli towns meets the definition of escalation...innocent people in Lebanon are paying the price for Hezbollah's adventurism."
Fernandez described the reaction of Hezbollah supporters using the Arabic word shamata,(شماتة) meaning: deriving pleasure or comfort at the discomfort of enemies. He then got a bit annoyed when pushed further discuss Hezbollah, saying:
"Oh come on, the 'Lebanese Resistance', if I may use that term sarcastically, didn't know the Shebaa Farms was occupied until the Syrians told them so. That is just ridiculous."
Other than his very clear critique of their anti-Lebanon policy, Fernandez gave almost a blanket endorsement to Israel's current actions, describing them as "a response to a coldly planned provocation by Hezbollah." With respect to the harm caused to civilian targets in Lebanon, Fernandez agreed that the best Israeli response would be to directly target Nasrallah only - "ideally, that is what would happen."

Many of the participants took umbrage with Fernandez's attitude toward the civilian casualties. He explained his disagreement with their critique that Israel's response was disproportionate by saying:
"I find it surprising, kind of illogical, that if someone provokes me, I'm supposed to respond as they want me to respond. Maybe that is a moral issue or a Christian issue."
Fernandez also drew a parallel between the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in response to the soldier captures and the American invasion of Afghanistan in response to September 11. He said:
"When you have innocent people, there is a visceral, natural reaction, and people don't look at the root causes...Some of the rhetoric here reminds me of overthrowing the Taliban - 'you are killing innocent Afghans' as if we were not responding to a terrorist attack on our county."
Jim Zogby, head of the AAI, closed out the call by expressing his view that "at the end of the day, collective punishment is being used against an entire civilian population." He also suggested a cessation of American support for the current Israeli operation as matter of US law, specifically the US Arms Export Control Act, which forbids the export of US weapons for use against civilians. Zogby cited the precedent of Ronald Reagan's suspension of weapons shipments to Israel in 1982.