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Op-Ed: Lebanon Back on the Front Burner

Israel is harvesting the "fruits of folly" that its policy makers planted by misreading Lebanon's political arena for years. Recognition of policy errors during Lebanon's decline to vassaldom is essential to dealing better with what lies ahead.
Published: Thursday, October 29, 2009 7:11 AM


Uncertainty and consternation have begun to fill the political air regarding the volatile subject of Israel and Lebanon, put on the back burner for a while due to the Gazan Cast Lead War fallout.  The fact is that since the 2006 Second Lebanese War ceased with the passing of UN Resolution 1701, Hizballah has been flouting its provisions, arming for another round with Israel, terrorizing Lebanon, and cavorting with the evil regimes in Syria and Iran.

Accidental explosions of arms caches in southern Lebanon, at Khirbet Silim on July 14
Tens of thousands of Hizbullah’s rockets and missiles are ready for targeting Israel at this very moment.
and Tayr Filsay on October 12, exposed Hizballah's triple crime: amassing weapons south of the Litani River, endangering civilian population areas, and overriding central Lebanese government authority.  A katyusha missile fired on northern Israel on October 27 and the subsequent discovery of four additional rockets aimed at Israel, are further signs that the cycle of military hostilities on the Israeli-Lebanese front, going back to the late 1960s, are far from over.

Elucidating the “March of  Folly” in Israel’s relations with Lebanon, to use historian Barbara Tuchman’s expression for the egregious, self destructive policies of governments throughout history, may pave the road to better policy formulation in future dealings with our northern neighbor.

Lebanon exported Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s, was the base for incessant Shiite warfare in the 1980s and for Hizbullah’s attacks from pre 2000 through 2006. Tens of thousands of Hizbullah’s rockets and missiles are ready for targeting Israel at this very moment.

The Lebanese morass is not Israel’s fault alone. Native Lebanese forces wasted vast resources of talent and brotherhood to fractionalize the Christian community; collaboration with foreign states sowed a pattern of treason; the absence of a strong national army exposed the country to instability and insurgency from within and intervention from without.

Yet Israel’s policy failure toward Lebanon also has a long and consistent history. The present political parameters of Lebanon – Hizbullah’s domination, Syria’s hegemony, and Iran’s supremacy – highlight Israel’s loss of influence and power there. The summer war of 2006 did not defeat the Hizbullah, let alone disarm the Shiite militia. Once Israel’s most tranquil border, Lebanon has become its most explosive front.

Conventional wisdom explains Israel’s problem in Lebanon as deriving from its excessive Israel made strategic decisions that contributed to sealing the fate of Lebanon at three critical junctures.
and imperious intervention in Lebanese affairs. Actually, Israel did not intervene much, nor did it set goals that exceeded its capabilities. This was not a military failure. The conundrum of Lebanon and the modes of power in the Lebanese arena were simply not understood by those in charge of formulating political policy.

Israel made strategic decisions that contributed to sealing the fate of Lebanon at three critical junctures:

In 1976, when the ‘Red Line’ understanding between Israel and Syria, mediated by the United States, granted legitimacy to the military intervention by Hafiz al-Assad’s regime within Lebanese territory. Areas in northern Lebanon, the Bekka, and the Beirut-Damascus highway became occupied Syrian territory.

In 1985, when after the Israeli Army’s successful surgical thrust in 1982 from Tyre to Beirut against the Palestinian terrorist mini-state, Israel withdrew southward to re-position in the narrow ‘security zone’ across the northern border. Hizballah and Syria, proxies of the expanding Iranian Islamic Revolution, were in the process of assuming sweeping control of the Lebanese patrimony and its political affairs. Israel marginalized her presence and ambition.

In 2000, when Israel carried out a final and complete withdrawal from Lebanon, shattering its loyal South Lebanese Army ally, inviting a sweeping Hizballah take-over, and exposing Israel’s north to the wrath of Shiite jihad against the Jewish state.  Self-delusion prevailed in the corridors of power in Jerusalem where it was naively assumed that UN or Lebanese Army supervision in south Lebanon would effect stability and peace. A period of deceptive quiet ended when well prepared Hizballah kidnapped soldiers from inside Israeli territory, igniting the July-August 2006 Israel-Hizballah War.

 A functioning state requires a coherent political community and effective political institutions. These factors unite the citizenry, earn its loyalty, nurture patriotism, and shape a shared vision of the body politic as a legitimate focus for a common vision of the country. Lebanon failed fatally in this task, and Israel ignored this imperative necessity. When in 1989 Syria assassinated a Lebanese president (René Moawed), and installed a puppet Lebanese president (Elias Hrawi) in his stead, the now Syrian-controlled power levers in Beirut focused on Israel. The withering of Lebanon left a vacuum that allowed warfare against Israel.

Lebanon collapsed and came to grief under the combined weight of brutal forces from within and without. Israel helped facilitate this unfortunate process by limiting its concern to the security of the northern border and the safety of citizens there. However,
when Lebanon fell into the hands of Assad, Khomeini, and Nasrallah, all of Lebanon became a military platform for menacing most of Israel. A Syrianized/Iranized Lebanon led to katyusha missiles in 2006 that struck and killed Israeli civilians on the proximate northern border and further south in Haifa, Maghrar, Kiryat Ata, and other locations.

Lebanon declined due to its own political flaws, its intra-Maronite rivalries, alien ideological currents, and hollow national ethos. Israel’s fatal lack of foresight was in ignoring the necessity to support the Lebanese political struggle for unity and independence, in not paying heed to the primacy of the political domain. Even the assassination of Bashir Gemayel in September 1982, and the abortive May 17, 1983 Agreement, failed to bring about a clearer Israeli assessment of the situation.  Israel tacitly accommodated Syria’s takeover of Lebanon as a formula for stability in the country and therefore good for Israel. It never engaged in a diplomatic campaign to expose and oppose Syrian occupation of Lebanon. It never decried Lebanon’s loss of independence as the nullification of an international legal norm and historic right.

Major-General Giora Island, Director of the National Security Council, believed that Syria’s presence in Lebanon actually served Israeli interests. This clearly was a consensual view in the Israeli political-security establishment for many years. But what is good for Syria is
Only a free Lebanon can be a friend of Israel
bad for Israel.  Syria has no intention of breaking with either Hizballah or Iran, and Hizballah has no intention of disarming (UN Res. 1701 notwithstanding). The present lull in the fighting is only a smokescreen as it was from 2000 to2006.

Only a free Lebanon can be a friend of Israel.  Israel is reaping the fruits of its folly in devaluing things political in Lebanon. As Barbara Tuchman aptly wrote: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history…is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.”