Najib Mikati’s Peace Overture: A Lost Opportunity?

Najib Mikati’s Peace Overture: A Lost Opportunity?

If Israel is not pressured, the Lebanese prime minister’s plan is bound to fail. More importantly, this war may become protracted, risking an escalation that may cause catastrophe for Israelis, the Palestinians, and beyond.

Despite the temporary November ceasefire in 2023, the conflict between Israel and Hamas persists in the Gaza Strip. Numerous countries have offered support for one side or the other, while others have assumed roles as mediators in resolving the conflict. Lebanon has become an unexpected mediator. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia organization that functions as both a political party and militia, has often threatened Israel. Since the start of the war, the group has launched rockets from southern Lebanon, targeting the northern cities of Israel. There has been much media speculation about whether Hezbollah will escalate its attacks and open a second front on the Lebanese-Israeli border, but nothing has come close to that as of yet. 

What was not expected was Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati’s peace overture in late October. However, the proposal should not have come as a surprise as this is not the first time a Lebanese prime minister has offered a peace plan. Sunni Za’im (political boss) from Sidon and former prime minister Fu’ad Sanyurah did so in July 2006 when Israel and Hezbollah fought a one-month war after the latter kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Sanyurah suggested a seven-point peace plan, which fell on deaf ears. Considering its failure, the question today is: why did Mikati do this? 

The Lebanese political structure has long operated upon a clientelist system known as the Zu’ama system. Lebanon is a multi-confessional republic. Each religious group (Sunni, Shia, Christians, Druze, etc.) has its own Zu’ama, or group of noble families. Typically, the oldest member of each family, the za’im, jockeys for their confession’s top position. For the Lebanese Sunni community, this is the premiership of the country. The za’im work with other za’im within their confession and others to advance their political agenda for the country.

Before the end of the fifteen-year civil war, the main Sunni za’im were able to tap into the grievances of the community enough to control the extreme elements within. They maintained influence across all echelons of the community, from the poor to the wealthy, and had deep ties to all the community’s institutions, spanning religious to charitable organizations. Indeed, this is what made the most famous Lebanese Sunni za’im, Rashid Karami, so popular with his Sunni community. Tripolites and other Lebanese Sunnis from other cities admired Karami, a Tripoli native, for his firm stances when other politicians, such as Camille Chamoun and Suleiman Franjiyyah, attempted to infringe on political decisions unfavorable to the community. For example, Karami was quite vocal in supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), now the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian aspiration for statehood. He was critical of the Israelis and constantly berated the Jewish state for its attacks on the Palestinians in southern Lebanon—a stance that resonated with most Lebanese Sunni. 

Why did Lebanese Sunnis agree with Karami? Since its foundation in 1920, the Lebanese Sunnis have not identified with the Lebanese state, feeling that it favored the Maronite Christians. Instead, they wanted to be part of the Arab world with their fellow Sunni Muslims in Syria and elsewhere. Therefore, they expressed a preference for Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism movement in the 1950s and 1960s. They identified with the Palestinian movement as it became a dominant item in Lebanese political affairs in the 1970s and 1980s, notably after the events of the 1967 Arab–Israeli War and Black September in 1970. The Palestinians shared a similar Sunni Islam denomination, and their frustrations and grievances had similar features. Both the Palestinians and the Lebanese Sunnis were living in countries that did not enable their aspirations and self-determination. This identification became even more significant after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which formalized the presence of the PLO in Lebanon. Karami understood the Palestinians’ grievances and attitudes toward issues like self-determination. Positive relations with Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s and Syria in the 1970s and 1980s enabled Karami to resonate with the community’s grievances. 

After Lebanon’s Second Civil War, the complexion of the Lebanese Sunni zu’ama changed. Some might argue that their traditional approach to internal politics died with Karami’s assassination in 1987. Regardless, post-civil war Lebanon saw self-made billionaire families such as the Hariris, Mikatis, Safadis, and other Lebanese Sunni noble families rise to za’im status. While it is true that the latter two families have deep roots in Tripoli (for instance, Rashid Mikati replaced Abdul Hamid Karami, Rashid Karami’s father, as Grand Mufti of Lebanon when the French forcibly removed Karami during the Mandate years), it was their wealth that allowed them to attain dominance within their confession. Lebanon was in shambles after fifteen years of war, necessitating rebuilding. These non-za’im figures quickly leveraged their financial influence to rebuild the country and build their political influence.

This new influence tactic was particularly evident in the case of the late Beiruti za’im and Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who had Lebanese and Saudi citizenship. However, he was not the only oligarch who used his money to gain political influence. One such politician was Najib Mikati. Along with his older brother, Taha, Najib owns several companies, mainly in the construction, gas, oil, telecommunication, and finance industries. His political career began in 1998 when he was appointed as the Minister of Public Works and Transport. Two years later, he was elected to the Lebanese parliament, representing his hometown of Tripoli after defeating Omar Karami (Rashid Karami’s brother) and thus effectively challenging the old zu’ama system.

Mikati has close ties to both the United States and Syria, with some accusing him of having close ties to Hezbollah, although he denies this. His wealth, diverse international affiliations, and rich history in Tripoli have given him considerable advantage over other za’im, both in Tripoli and nationally, making him seen as the compromise candidate for prime minister. He is currently serving his third term, facing Lebanon’s worst economic crisis, which he has done little help to solve. In late October 2023, he also pitched a three-phase peace plan to Qatar, aiming to end the current war between Israel and Hamas and, more broadly, a proposal to resolve the seventy-five-year Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The first phase proposes a five-day humanitarian pause in the Gaza Strip. Fire would cease on the Israeli side, and Hamas would free some of its hostages. The second phase, contingent on the success of the first phase, would see Israel and Hamas negotiating through mediators a prisoners-for-hostages swap (this probably includes the trendy Fatah member Marwan Barghouti, seen as a potential successor to Mahmoud Abbas). The third phase would have Western and regional leaders organizing a peace conference for a two-state settlement. 

Whether the November ceasefire brokered by the Qataris, as well as the ongoing negotiations for future ones, originates from Mikati’s plan is unclear. However, while it is a noble and clearly outlined plan, history raises doubts about its chance for success, especially as the two-state solution seems to have long been abandoned by Israel. Additionally, one might also speculate when Israel’s partners in the region and the international community will realize that Israel’s objectives might pose a threat to their own national security. 

We thus go back to the question asked at the beginning of this article: why did Najib Mikati offer this three-phase peace plan, especially at a time when the chances of a two-state solution are bleak, and Hezbollah is launching rockets from the southern Lebanon border? The answer is threefold. First, the Sunni citizens of Tripoli have a deep affinity for the Palestinian cause, both religiously and historically. Therefore, Mikati must ensure he remains relevant to the Tripoli voters. The armed wing of the Lebanese Sunni Salafist party Jama’a Islamiyya, based in Tripoli, is calling for military action in support of Hamas. More broadly, the idea of a Palestinian state crosses confessional lines, and the majority of Lebanese feel that a state for the Palestinian people is long overdue. Second, Mikati needs international support for such a lofty idea. 

While Western and regional leaders are the right people to organize a peace conference for a two-state settlement, he will still need the support of Russia and China. The question remains whether he can mediate between the United States, Russia, and China to accomplish this goal at a time when relations between the United States and the latter are severely strained. Mikati is also sending a message that Lebanon is not interested in engaging in a war with Israel, especially at a time when the country is badly bleeding economically. Despite Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah leaving the door open for future wars with Israel out of defense of the Palestinians, his recent speeches seem to confirm Mikati’s message. Third, despite being part of the new Lebanese Sunni zu’ama, Mikati is employing the old tactic of using all the tools available to him, such as the Palestinian issue, to ensure his supremacy over both his Sunni zu’ama and community. 

Some semblance of Najib Mikati’s three-phase peace plan has been on display. For instance, both the prisoner-for-hostage swap and the Qatari shuttle diplomacy took place in late November. On January 7, in a televised interview with al-Hurra, Mikati said that Lebanon is working on a diplomatic solution to end the current conflict. Despite Hezbollah launching rockets into northern Israeli cities, Nasrallah’s suggestion in his January 5 speech that Hezbollah is open to negotiations aligns with Mikati’s rhetoric. We have not yet seen Mikati’s plan playing out on the international stage. Almost every country, except for the United States, has called for an immediate ceasefire. Mikati was brought in as the compromise prime minister for his good relations with all the leading actors in Lebanon, the region, and on the international stage. Mikati’s agenda has been to guide Lebanon out of its worst economic and governance crisis since the end of Lebanon’s second civil war in 1991 (and possibly since gaining independence from the French in 1943).