BEIRUT: If the United States was to make it clear that Lebanon is a leading democracy in the Middle East then the prospects for regional peace would greatly improve, Lord John Alderdice told a gathering of liberal political parties in Beirut over the weekend.
Alderdice’s remarks came as he addressed the 190th Executive Committee meeting of Liberal International, which took place Saturday at the Phoenicia Hotel. “The truth is that the Israeli government and its policies for a long time have been extremely detrimental to this region – and the West has been prepared to connive at that,” Alderdice, a Liberal Democrat member of Britain’s House of Lords and former president of LI, told an audience comprising liberal party members from over 40 countries.
“If for example,” he continued, “the president of the United States [were] to make it quite clear that this country [Lebanon] was every bit as much a democracy as Israel, and [that] taking the interests of this country and engaging with this country was a priority every bit as much as its relationship with Israel, it would ... change the situation.
“Israel would come to, and the leaders of the Israeli government would come to realize, they did not have a veto on who the United States engaged with,” he said, adding that he had been working to persuade both his own and the U.S. government that “there will be ... no peace between Israelis and Palestinians unless they engage with the area.”
Alderdice, who played a central role in the Northern Ireland peace process and served as the first speaker of the North’s power-sharing assembly following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, was addressing the LI conference as part of a panel broaching the question “How should liberals deal with the situation in Syria?”
Speaking alongside former Lebanese Education Minister Hasan Mneimneh and Thailand’s former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, he traced the origins of the present-day risk Syria will be a theater for, in the playing out of great power rivalries, to diplomatic opportunities squandered at the time President Bashar Assad came to power.
“We pushed Syria back into the relationship with Iran, isolating it,” Alderdice said.
“Absolutely and rightly condemn Assad for what he has done to his own people, [but] we need to take some responsibility for not addressing some of these major regional issues properly for a long time. We’ve contributed to the situation getting worse,” he reminded his audience.
Turning to the present Syrian refugee crisis, Alderdice expressed his dissatisfaction with the international community’s response.
“Although it is something that I and other colleagues have raised in our various parliaments, I’m not satisfied that Western European countries and others in the region here have been doing all that they can, and all that they should, to assist the front-line countries that have got to deal with the refugee problem,” he said.
“If we don’t address that seriously there’s a real problem with potential destabilization of surrounding countries,” he added.
More than a million people have fled the fighting in Syria, most to neighboring countries. According to the most recent United Nations figures, Lebanon now hosts 416,000 Syrian refugees – far more than the body’s refugee agency, UNHCR, had anticipated arriving by this date. Some 30 percent more refugees than expected had arrived in Lebanon by March. UNHCR, meanwhile, has received less than one-third of the funds it requested in January to help meet refugees’ needs across the region.
For his part, Piromya, who remains a member of the Thai parliament, announced plans to propose that his government contribute to the relief effort by sending “a lot of rice” to Syrian refugees.
Mneimneh meanwhile touched on the role of Islamists in the Arab revolutions, reminding the audience that this group must be integrated into states’ democratic systems.
While the Syria debate drew the largest and most engaged audience Saturday, the conference – hosted in partnership with LI’s local member group the Future Movement – also featured presentations on the Lebanese economy and panel discussions on liberalism and traditional values, and integrating youth in party organization.
LI President Hans van Baalen closed the conference by commending the Future Movement as an example of a liberal party and the country’s free economy as “a beacon” for the region. The Dutch member of the European Parliament also returned to the Syria question, calling on liberals to take action.
Later, at a dinner in honor of the LI executive committee, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora reminded the liberal leaders present that they hade a role “to empower the liberal moderate Arab voices.”
Emphasizing that “the real divide today is not as much between left and right, East and West, north and south,” the Future Movement leader said, “The real divide is between those who are capable of adapting to change, and those who refuse to adapt.”
He continued: “The divide is between those who are liberal in their thinking, and those who have closed their minds, those who are liberal in their approach, and those who have predefined it.”
Telling those gathered “you need to be more vocal about defending human rights,” Siniora called on liberals to strongly lobby and work toward finding “a fair and lasting solution to the pertinent problems of the region,” particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and economic reform.