On Saturday September 14th, a large mass was celebrated in the Lebanese town of Bikfaya to honor the memory of Bashir Gemayel. Losing his eighteen-month old daughter in an attack intended for him in 1980, Gemayel was murdered shortly afterwards, in 1982. This leader of the Lebanese Kataeb party fell victim to a bombing 21 days after he had been democratically elected president. While no party has claimed responsibility for the murder, reports indicate the involvement of Palestinian terrorists and Syrian militias. The assassination of President Gemayel dealt a terrible blow to the Christian camp in the Lebanese civil war. Gemayel was more than a simple pawn inside a complex environment; he may well have represented the last hope for a true and lasting peace between Lebanon and Israel. 31 years after his assassination, Bashir Gemayel should be remembered by every person seeking stability in the region as a symbol of how Lebanese interests and national security can and should coincide with Israel’s aspirations and right to a peaceful existence.
During his 21 days in power, President Gemayel enacted a set of policies that in the long run could have resulted in an environment leading to a stable situation between Lebanon and Israel. It is true that Gemayel’s position in regard to a direct peace treaty between both countries was not clear and showed the lack of power the Christians had over foreign policy making. However, his will to effectively disarm militias, to regain full control of the Lebanese territory and to reject all Arab meddling in the crisis were key points from which a positive situation could have unfolded.
Taking into consideration the current security situation in Lebanon, President Gemayel’s policies of disarming militias and expanding the role of the national armed forces appear to be a symbol of clairvoyance and political realism. In the 1980s, Hezbollah was nowhere near as strong as it is today. The turmoil in Lebanon was caused by the persistent breaches made into its national sovereignty by Palestinian terrorist groups. The fact that foreign elements used the Lebanese territory to wage war against Israel is a recurrent factor of instability. President Gemayel understood it and as soon as he was sworn into office, he forced Yasser Arafat to leave Beirut and ordered the Lebanese army to enter Palestinian camps in the capital. The choice of restricting foreign elements’ capabilities to operate in Lebanon should be viewed as one of the main legacies left by Gemayel.
At the same time, the Christian leader understood that only the full monopoly of power held by the state could lead to lasting stability. For this, a second essential policy he enacted was the disarmament of non-state actors and the destruction of de facto terrorist safe havens in Beirut. This policy applied to all parties. Even Christian militias were forced to renounce their independence and join the state apparatus. These decisions are emblematic of a will to limit the possibility, currently given to Hezbollah, of acting as a foreign-backed terrorist organization effectively spoiling any chance of stability in Lebanon and the region.
While Bashir Gemayel’s policies would have not resulted in a direct peace treaty between Lebanon and the Jewish state, it is imperative to understand that he embodied a key moment in the Lebanese history. He gave voice to an almost extinct political movement that bases itself on the national interest of the country and not on regional allegiances. Bashir Gemayel understood well that war with Israel was not in the strategic interest of the country. The Christian Kataeb did not forcefully question Israel’s right to exist as they clearly envisioned that the real threat to the Lebanese people did not come from Israel but from Syrian and Palestinian occupation forces.
For these reasons, it is essential to remember Bashir. As a product of his environment, he was not able to deliver any long-lasting promise to Israel. However, Gemayel’s understanding of national priorities should enlighten current Arab leaders in their fight against radical and foreign elements. Political liberties and economic development of Arab countries in the Near East depends on their ability to free themselves from their persistent submission to foreign powers such as Syria and Iran. Full peace with Israel may remain difficult to obtain in the long-term. Yet, it is in Lebanese interest to develop stable relations with the Jewish State as it would mean that they have successfully freed their country from Syrian and Iranian influence and are able to pursue and enact Bashir Gemayel’s policies of national unity and economic development.