A bombing shows winds of change

The people of Beirut imagined the worst when they heard a sudden loud, ground-shaking blast shatter the daily hum of the charming Ashrafieh neighborhood a couple of weeks ago.

When they found out that a powerful car bomb had killed Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the country’s top intelligence official — despised by Iran, Syria, and their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah — they had a pretty good idea who had carried out the assassination. Syria and its allies have a long track record of killing their Lebanese enemies using car bombs. In fact, Hassan had investigated many of the killings, with clues leading him directly to Assad, Hezbollah and their friends.

The Lebanese people, however, knew whom Iran, Syria and Hezbollah would try to blame for the hit. One Arab observer on Twitter wrote: “Blame Israel in Three, Two, One . . . ” And like clockwork, the accusations started pouring in.

But something happened on the way to blaming Israel for everything that happens in the Middle East: The Lebanese did not buy it.

NOW Lebanon, a liberal, pro-democracy website, wrote, “Only the Syrian Nationalist Party [SNP] had the arrogance (or is stupidity?) to blame Israel.”

It wasn’t just the SNP, of course, that tried pinning the crime of the “Zionist enemy.”

The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon rushed to suggest Israel was guilty, and the Iranian government quickly followed suit.

Hezbollah, too, accused Israel, and its Internet operation went into overdrive, planting all manner of stories, rumors and conspiracy theories, all pointing to a Jewish hand in the killing.

Surely, some people will believe Israel did it, just as some will always blame it for everything that goes on — that goes wrong, rather — in the region.

And yet, neither the Lebanese nor the people of Arab countries are prepared to accept that explanation, that excuse, any longer. The vast majority of Arabs have absolutely no warm feelings for Israel. But they know, and they are finally willing to admit, that the many serious problems affecting the region are not Israel’s doing.

They may abhor Israel, but there is a new wind blowing in the Arab world and in it comes a new openness to recognizing many old realities.

A few weeks ago, a former Saudi naval officer shook things up a bit with an article in the English language Arab News, called the “Arab Spring and the Israeli Enemy.” The writer, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, said the Arabs have wasted precious time blaming everything on Israel. “The real enemies of the Arab world,” he said, “are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom, lack of respect for the human lives and finally, the Arab world had many dictators who used the Arab-Israeli conflict to suppress their own people.”

And he put the Palestinian issue in what not long ago would have been seen as shocking perspective. “Many Arabs,” he said, “don’t know that the life expectancy of the Palestinians living in Israel is far longer than many Arab states and they enjoy far better political and social freedom than many of their Arab brothers.”

The article made waves. The BBC World Service had a call-in program about it. I, along with several others, was invited to participate. The producer told me the vast majority of callers, including those from the Middle East, agreed with al-Mulhim’s views.

The columnist told me later that he has been writing similar articles in Arabic language newspapers, arguing that Israel is not to blame for the problems besetting Arabs across the region.

After Gen. al-Hassan’s murder in Beirut, the people could no longer be fooled. Al-Hassan was the man who led the investigation into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a fierce foe of Syria’s interference with Lebanon’s independence.

Al-Hassan’s work helped U.N. investigators point to involvement by top officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and led to the indictment of four members of Hezbollah, the group that claims it exists for the purpose of fighting Israel. So, when all the usual suspects suddenly turned and pointed at Israel, most people in Lebanon didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Scapegoating, blaming Israel for all that goes wrong is a way to keep real problems from being solved. It also raises the level of animosity that makes the Arab-Israeli conflict even more difficult to solve. The assassination was another terrible tragedy, but we should recognize that the region has taken an important step forward.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.

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