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"Reviving Phoenicia"

Lebanon may be subsumed by its Arab neighbors if a more independent identity isn't cultivated.

12:00 AM, Aug 25, 2006 • By LEE SMITH
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ASHER KAUFMAN IS A PROFESSOR of Middle East history who first got interested in Lebanon during Israel's 1982 war when he was a 19-year-old infantryman stationed over the border. He hasn't returned to Lebanon since then, but his academic work has kept him close to the country, and his book, Reviving Phoenicia, has served to reconstruct aspects of the country's history sometimes lost even to the Lebanese themselves. We met briefly before he headed back to the United States, where he teaches at Notre Dame. "Anyone who cares about Lebanon has to be concerned right now for its future," he said.

It's hard to imagine a Lebanese academic displaying similar affection and concern for his Israeli neighbors. There are Lebanese bloggers, for instance, whose principle concerns are about the fate of Samir Kuntar--one of three Lebanese prisoners sought by Hezbollah in exchange for the two Israeli soldiers which the group kidnapped.

On April 29, 1979, Kuntar led a group of four men on a cross-border raid into Israel. Four Israelis were killed by Kuntar and his men--two policemen, a 4-year-old girl whose skull was crushed by Kuntar's rifle, and the girl's father, whom Kuntar shot. The girl's 2-year-old sister was also killed when her mother, hiding in an attic, attempted to muffle the child's screams and accidentally suffocated her.

It is unclear how well-acquainted most Lebanese are with the details of Kuntar's actions. Reliable information about the war in Lebanon is in short supply.

ONE OF THE CLICH S OF LEBANESE intellectual life is that it is impossible to write a history of the country's civil wars--so school textbooks close their accounts decades before the onset of war in 1975. Kaufman's book takes up this pre-civil war period, when the Lebanese were trying to forge a coherent national identity. They settled on Phoenicianism, a conceit that first located their distinct national identity with the ancient sea-faring empire. The subject remains controversial in Lebanon, not least because the historical relationship between the current-day Lebanese and that expansionist Mediterranean tribe is, at best, suspect. However, most of the tension comes from the fact that Phoenicianism means to distinguish the Lebanese from the larger Arab nation surrounding them.

In the mountains of Lebanon, Kaufman was surprised to meet Lebanese who didn't consider themselves Arabs at all. These were the Maronites, French-speaking Christian militiamen who explained that they were descended from the Phoenicians. At the other end of the spectrum, many believe that Lebanon is solely and irrevocably Arab and that those who believe otherwise are traitors. This opinion was once held mainly by the nation's Sunnis, though now it is most forcefully espoused by Hezbollah and their Shiite supporters.

For most of its history, Lebanon has been held captive by these two opposing views of statehood. Should their nation be a free and sovereign Lebanon, or merely part of a larger Arab nation waiting to be born? As we have seen over the last 18 months, part of the country has struggled towards democracy while the other part tries to protect Syrian and Iranian interests.

It was not naive for Israel to hope that the Lebanese government would finally take responsibility for its citizens and its borders. Nor, for that matter, was it wrong for the Bush administration to look to Lebanon as the region's model Arab state--part of it clearly is. But now is probably a good time to start planning for other contingencies. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora may be a well-intentioned man, but he is unlikely to make Lebanon whole when a century's worth of Lebanese political and intellectual leaders have failed to do so.

Lee Smith, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut, is writing a book on Arab culture.