Lebanon’s representative to the United Nations has to find humor where he can these days—even if it is of the blackest kind.
Nouhad Mahmoud, a doleful, middle-aged diplomat with a semi-permanent slouch, allowed himself a rare smile when he was asked about recent interactions with his U.S. counterpart, John Bolton.
“No comment,” he said, before finally breaking into a rueful laugh.
Mostly, though, it’s been a grim diet of outrage, indignation and despair.
There was no hint of amusement, rueful or otherwise, when Mr. Mahmoud was asked during an interview in his office on Monday to respond to Mr. Bolton’s recent statement that he didn’t “quite know what the argument about proportionate force means here.”
“I am amazed at anyone not understanding the disproportionate response of Israel,” said Mr. Mahmoud. “Under international law, there is collective punishment, which the Israelis are practicing on a very large scale.”
He acknowledged the more than 40 Israeli casualties so far—nearly half from rockets fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon into civilian population centers—but suggested that his own country’s misery was on a different scale. “What about the 400 Lebanese who have been killed?” he asked.
(As of press time, the Associated Press reported 422 deaths on the Lebanese side, including 13 foreign nationals.)
A square-jawed, lightly tanned man who stands about 5-foot-10, Mr. Mahmoud was dressed in the generic style of the diplomat—dark suit, light shirt and tie, carefully polished leather shoes. Whether sitting or standing, his shoulders sloped slightly and sometimes, when trying to formulate an answer to a particularly delicate question, he would fiddle with the spectacles in his lap and tilt his chin upward, as if trying to peer over a wall.
With the eruption of open war in the Middle East, this unassuming figure has been suddenly and unexpectedly thrust to the center of the world stage.
Until the crisis broke out, he was safely and quietly ensconced as his nation’s ambassador to Mexico, rarely making headlines, and instead attracting soft-focus coverage for events including a recent cocktail party in honor of the Miss International Lebanon beauty pageant.
He was quickly sent for and pressed into action at the United Nations two weeks ago. (Lebanon has not had a fully fledged U.N. ambassador since the departure of the now-deceased Sami Kronfol almost two years ago.)
Since his arrival, Mr. Mahmoud has had a run-in with Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman in the U.N. Security Council chamber, used the same forum to accuse Israeli leaders of “scheming to top the previous atrocities they perpetrated in Lebanon,” and spent his days and much of his nights shuttling between feverish diplomatic meetings and a series of media interviews.
Having arranged to meet with The Observer at the Lebanese Mission to the United Nations, word filtered through that Mr. Mahmoud had been delayed by yet another TV interview. The atmosphere in the mission, housed in a nondescript office adjacent to the world body’s headquarters, was straitened and tense.
Press releases detailing an appeal for a ceasefire and humanitarian assistance by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora sat piled up on one cabinet. One-sided snatches of telephone conversations—“Yes, but we are a small country, and the army is also small”—could be overheard. One aide, frustrated by the press coverage of the conflict to date, showed a reporter a succession of gruesome photos, each one featuring small children killed or injured, apparently by the Israelis.
The photos had been color-copied and bitter captions added. One picture showed the remains of a child—maybe 3 or 4 years old—lying in the dirt next to the debris of a destroyed vehicle. The caption read, “Israel exercising its right of self-defense against a child in the southern village of Marwaheen, Lebanon.”
To say that the United States and most of the Arab world see the current conflict in different ways does not even begin to do justice to the gulf in perceptions. While many Americans have instinctive sympathy for Israel, seeing it as a doughty democracy in a sea of repression and violence, many Arabs regard it as self-evident that Israel is the aggressor in the region.
Asked how he thinks about the current situation in private moments, away from the hurly-burly of diplomatic efforts, the 59-year-old Mr. Mahmoud glanced out on the East River from his corner office. “There is a lot of injustice in the world,” he mused.
“Unfortunately, whatever about terror and terrorism and all these phantoms we are pursuing now, the core of the problem is [the need] to address the Palestinian cause, which is the reason for all this,” he continued.
The ambassador also contended that the American public was poorly served by media coverage of the Middle East.
“It is not only one-sided,” he complained of the media. “We see them celebrating the shelling of Lebanon and the bombardment of Lebanon as if they are watching fireworks. They cover it with some euphoria about hitting Lebanon, and that is a very insensitive way of covering things. But it is a way of also rallying people around some cause that is not very well understood here.”
Mr. Mahmoud’s most high-profile moment to date at the United Nations was his testy Security Council encounter with the Israeli ambassador. Mr. Gillerman, thrusting his finger towards Mr. Mahmoud, suggested that the Lebanese government was secretly hoping that Israel would succeed in its efforts to crush Hezbollah:
“You know deep in your heart that if you could, you would be sitting here right next to me right now, because you know we are doing the right thing and that if we succeed, Lebanon would be the beneficiary,” Mr. Gillerman insisted.
Mr. Mahmoud adamantly denies that Lebanon has any such wish.
“How can we be sympathetic to Israel’s goals?” he asked. “They use the media to imply something that is not true. O.K., we want to stabilize the situation, but not the Israeli way. It cannot come by force.”
Was he surprised by Mr. Gillerman’s comments?
“Well, I was in the United Nations a long time ago, at the time Binyamin Netanyahu was the representative here, and he is much more dramatic than Mr. Gillerman,” he said. “These things are just show. We need more substance.”
Mr. Gillerman was not available to comment on the exchange.
Somewhat irrationally—or, rather, rational only within the formal strictures of Turtle Bay’s diplomatic community—Mr. Mahmoud will happily talk about Israel’s representatives, but he cannot actually talk to them directly. Lebanon has never recognized Israel’s right to exist. From an official standpoint, therefore, the two countries have always been in a state of war, and no diplomatic contact is permitted.
To some, the refusal to recognize Israel is, in itself, obvious cause for politicians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to doubt the bona fides of governments in neighboring states. But Mr. Mahmoud, echoing his government’s line, answered by citing Israel’s overwhelming military strength and asking, “What have they to be nervous about?”
Talking more about Israel’s firepower, however, Mr. Mahmoud conveyed an odd mixture of defiance and despair.
“They are pretending they will finish it all by military means,” he said. “Let them try! They will exacerbate the situation, and they won’t achieve anything. They will give more legitimacy to Hezbollah, because people see them as the only ones standing up to brutal aggression.”
In a subsequent telephone conversation, Mr. Mahmoud reacted with wariness to the most recent attempt by the international community to bring a halt to the violence: plans for a multinational force in southern Lebanon.
“It should not be perceived as a hostile force—that’s elementary,” he said.
Asked if he meant that such a force would serve Israel’s interests, he responded: “That’s how it looks at the moment. And that is not feasible.”
And while Mr. Mahmoud added that it was “possible” that such a force could win consent from both sides, he sounded desperate—like a man watching his country go up in smoke.
“They need an exit; we need an exit,” he said on Monday. “Otherwise, the misery will continue.”