Israel's incursion into Lebanon after the kidnapping on Wednesday of two Israeli soldiers by the militant group Hezbollah is far more than another flare-up on a tense border. It must also be seen as a spinoff of a general counterattack against American and Israeli power in the region by Iran and Syria, operating through sub-state actors like Hezbollah and the Palestinian organization Hamas.
If America and its Security Council partners are smart, however, they may be able to use this crisis to further their security goals in the Middle East, and to help Lebanon climb out of its political morass.
This is not to say that the cycle of attack and retaliation between Hezbollah and Israel is merely a proxy war. The two sides have long engaged in a conflict in southern Lebanon — albeit, since Israel’s pullout in 2000, one mostly limited to a disputed territory known as the Shebaa Farms and contained by unwritten rules. This week, however, Hezbollah transgressed three political lines.
The first was its expansion of military operations outside the Shebaa area. While Hezbollah has done this before — even killing some Israeli troops — the latest operation was certain to be intolerable to an Israeli government already dealing with the kidnapping of another soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, by Hamas in Gaza.
A second line that Hezbollah crossed was its evident coordination of strategy with Hamas; this went well beyond its stated aim of simply defending Lebanon and left Israel feeling it was fighting a war on two fronts.
The third line crossed was domestic. By unilaterally taking Lebanon into a conflict with Israel, Hezbollah sought to stage a coup d’état against the anti-Syrian parliamentary and government majority, which opposes the militant group’s adventurism.
Hezbollah holds seats in the 128-member Parliament but has an uneasy relationship with the majority, which has been on the defensive as Syria has tried to reassert control over Lebanon after its military withdrawal last year. Hezbollah hoped to humiliate the anti-Syrian politicians by forcing them to endorse the kidnappings and showing how little control the government has over the party.
Israel wants Lebanon to pay an onerous price for its ambiguity on Hezbollah: it has imposed an air and sea blockade and is launching air attacks well into Lebanon, including several on the Beirut airport. Pointedly, however, Israel has failed to mention the regional facet of the crisis. Israeli officials have left Syria out of their condemnations, in jarring contrast to the Bush administration’s statements that have rightly highlighted Iranian and Syrian responsibility for Hezbollah’s behavior.
Iran, of course, has long bankrolled Hezbollah, and the Israeli government said yesterday it feared the two kidnapped soldiers were being taken to Tehran. But Syria is the nexus of regional instability, giving shelter to several of the most intransigent Palestinian militants, transferring arms to Hezbollah, and undermining Lebanon’s frail sovereignty.
Israel can brutalize Lebanon all it wants, but unless something is done to stop Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, from exporting instability to buttress his despotic regime, little will change.
Once the Israelis end their offensive, Hezbollah will regroup and continue to hold Lebanon hostage through its militia, arguably the most effective force in the country. Hamas leaders in Damascus will continue derailing any negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. And Syria will continue to eat away at Lebanese independence, reversing the gains of last year when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese marched against Syrian hegemony.
It would be far smarter for Israel, and America, to profit from Hezbollah’s having perhaps overplayed its hand. The popular mood here is one of extreme anger that the group has provoked a conflict Lebanon cannot win. The summer tourism season, a rare source of revenue for a country on the financial ropes, has been ruined. Even Hezbollah’s core supporters, the Shiite Muslims in the south, cannot be happy at seeing their towns and villages turned again into a killing field.
What to do? While the United Nations has been ineffective in its efforts toward Middle East peace, it may be the right body to intervene here, if only because it has the cudgel of Security Council Resolution 1559, which was approved in 2004 and, among other things, calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament.
The five permanent Security Council members, perhaps at this weekend’s Group of 8 meeting, should consider a larger initiative based on the resolution that would include: a proposal for the gradual collection of Hezbollah’s weapons; written guarantees by Israel that it will respect Lebanese sovereignty and pull its forces out of the contested Lebanese land in the Shebaa Farms; and the release of prisoners on both sides. Such a deal could find support among Lebanon’s anti-Syrian politicians, would substantially narrow Hezbollah’s ability to justify retaining its arms, and also send a signal to Syria and particularly Iran that the region is not theirs for the taking.
One important thing: No Lebanese government could legitimately help to advance such a plan if Israel were to try to, as its army chief of staff put it this week, “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.” Israel must cease its attacks and let diplomacy take over.