On November 9, 2009, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with H.E. Mohamad Chatah, the Lebanese minister of finance, H.E. Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Government Media Center, and H.E. Ayad Al Samarrai, speaker of the Iraqi Parliament on the project of inclusive national dialogue and state-building in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. The speakers examined past and current nationally-driven conflict resolution efforts, which encompass national unity governments, national dialogue processes, their record in state-building/state-effectiveness, and the role of external interference in the state-building projects of the countries under consideration. After opening remarks from Brookings Doha Center director, Hady Amr, the center’s non resident fellow, Salman Shaikh, moderated the discussion, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic and academic communities.
The discussion was undertaken in a question and answer format with the moderator directing questions to the speakers.
The first was on the status of inclusive national dialogue in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. In response, H.E. Finance Minister Chatah mentioned that while all factions in a specific context should be represented in government, the distribution of power typically takes a long time to occur. Given that fact, dialogue should be aimed at mechanisms for decision-making. H.E. Chatah underscored the importance of a governing system that effectively serves the citizens of Lebanon while the more gradual process of inclusive national dialogue is at work. The finance minister said that inclusive dialogue is a constitutional imperative and has been attempted at every point in Lebanese history. Although this is the case, he believes that Lebanese national dialogue should strive to be more effective, specifically with regard to decision-making, than it has been in the past.
As for the Palestinian territories, H.E. Khatib maintained that in spite of President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to resign—which points to the perilous state of the peace process—and the breakdown of the Cairo-brokered negotiations between Fatah and Hamas, there are reasons to be optimistic about Palestinian national dialogue. H.E. Khatib stressed that the dialogue has progressed over time and that the Palestinians are actively working on bridging the gaps between them. He also pointed out that inclusivity in national dialogue is ensured by elections since the people are the ultimate arbiters. However, H.E. Khatib argued that threat of a failed peace process is a constant reality because of what he called unchecked U.S. support for Israel and the internal divisions in the Palestinian camp.
When speaking about Iraq’s experience with national dialogue, Samarrai articulated that after the state’s collapse, Iraqis had many different visions for the future of their country. While some took up arms in opposition to the political process, many over time came to join the cause of national reconciliation. Furthermore, H.E. Samarrai strongly emphasized that national dialogue is a serious process without which a state based on democratic principles and institutions cannot be built.
The moderator also questioned the speakers on how Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq are faring with regard to the objective of state-building. H.E. Mohamad Chatah, the Lebanese minister of finance, expressed that dialogue is necessary, but that it is not a substitute for policy-making and taking action. He expressed his concern that since the June 2009 general election in Lebanon, too much time has been spent in dialogue. H.E. Chatah explained that the political landscape in Lebanon has produced a situation conducive to stalemates and inaction. This is because, according to the Lebanese constitution, in order to pass any law, a two thirds majority is needed, so if the opposition is in the government, deadlocks are likely to occur. In this case, unity governments like the current one run the risk of being unproductive. He offered a solution, which is for unity governments to focus on transitional issues around which all parties can unite.
In approaching the matter of state-building, H.E. Khatib referred to Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority Salam Fayyad’s recently announced Two Year Path to Palestinian Statehood. H.E. Khatib discussed the premise of Prime Minister Fayyad’s program which places a 2 year ceiling on the realization of an independent Palestinian state. This plan endeavors to convince the international community that Palestine has a right to statehood, Palestinians are capable of self-rule, and that the Palestinian people are ready to develop state institutions.
Subsequently, the moderator asked H.E. Ayad Samarrai about the role the international community has played with respect to Iraqi state-building. H.E. Samarrai informed the audience of the expertise that the international community provided during the drafting of the Iraqi constitution. He then mentioned that some countries chose to ignore Iraq throughout the reconstruction stage, and others only interfered when they stood to benefit from the situation.
H.E. Chatah was also requested to comment on Lebanon’s position vis-à-vis the complex political landscape of competition and cooperation in the Middle East. He responded by saying that “Lebanon is indeed not an island” and that the regional dynamics and competing interests of various Arab states, Iran, different Islamist factions and the United States all have a bearing on Lebanon’s political landscape. He added that, on the whole, international interference has had both negative and positive effects on Lebanese politics and society. He cited UN Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war in Lebanon as an example of the latter.
On the topic of international interference in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, H.E. Ghassan Khatib called the Palestinian struggle for a homeland the “first pan Arab nationalist cause.” He said that with respect to regional dynamics in the Middle East, the Palestinian leadership has historically sought a balance between enjoying Arab support and political realities such as rivalries on the ground H.E. Khatib also indicated that in recent times, inter-Arab disputes are fueling Palestinian factionalism.
The panel fielded questions on the challenges of national reconciliation in Iraq, the size of the Lebanese national deficit, and whether the processes of state-building and inclusivity in national dialogue are inherently incompatible. H.E. Samarrai said that Iraq is overcoming infighting and that the national stance is being consolidated; he reiterated that former opposition members continue to embrace the political process.
With respect to an inquiry on the seemingly substantial Lebanese national deficit of $50 billion, H.E. Chatah advised the audience to consider that in the past year the deficit decreased from 180 percent to 150 percent. Also, he asked the audience to bear in mind the size of the country’s deficit relative to the national economy. The Lebanese finance minister also replied to the question of whether the priority of an inclusive national dialogue agenda and state-building are in disagreement. He stressed that a state, particularly a fractured one, must have strong institutions to protect its sovereignty; the state apparatus should be at work and on a separate track from matters that require national reconciliation.
Concluding remarks included a summation of the main take-away points of the discussion. Notably, H.E. Khatib urged Arab nations to utilize their strategic weight in the service of the Palestinian cause.