October 22, 2019

Is Lebanon Israel’s Iraq?

How is Israel’s security served by the creation of a failed state on its northern border? This is the question that has fallen like a dark shadow across the landscape of stunningly unanimous Israeli, Jewish, and American support for Israel’s ongoing attack on Lebanon. Has Israel truly attacked Lebanon, or has it merely attacked Hezbollah as a terrorist organization operating from within Lebanon? On July 23, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed to answer that question for the benefit of his cabinet: “We have no war with the Lebanese people, and we have no intention to harm their quality of life.”

On the same day, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that the Israel’s activity would be limited and was intended to complement “broad international activity to complete the process” of subduing Hezbollah and restoring security along Israel’s northern border.

Ten days earlier, however, as Olmert was launching Israel’s invasion, he had spoken very differently.

“I want to make it clear,” he said. “This morning’s events were not a terrorist attack, but the action of a sovereign state that attacked Israel for no reason and without provocation. The Lebanese government, of which Hezbullah is a member, is trying to undermine regional stability. Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.”

His targeting Lebanon as a whole rather than only Hezbollah was echoed by Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who said on the same day: “Everything is simple: there are no longer any safe places in Lebanon.”

Whatever the intent of Israel’s attack, its effect has been catastrophic for Lebanon as a whole. Entire neighborhoods of the capital have been reduced to rubble. (Imagine the Upper West Side of New York demolished as a “Zionist stronghold.”) The national airport has been put out of service. Three of every four bridges — more than 50 in all — have been destroyed. Power plants have been blown up. Key roads have been rendered impassable. The beaches have been fouled. Telephone and media transmission centers have been put out of service. More than one out of every six Lebanese has been rendered homeless.

As Prime Minister Fouad Siniora summarized it, “Israel in a matter of five days took Beirut and the whole country 50 years backward.”

Could Lebanon have spared itself this Israeli onslaught by “cracking down” on Hezbollah activity in its southern region? It could have tried, but the price of the attempt would have been a civil war in which Hezbollah might well have been the victor. As the most powerful political and military voice of Lebanon’s Shiite population –at 45 percent, its largest minority — Hezbollah commands not just two seats in the Lebanese cabinet and 14 in the legislature but also outside logistical support from Syria and Iran. The regular Lebanese army enjoys no such support and, to complicate things, includes many Shiites in its ranks.
Hezbollah, a virtually insuperable opponent even for the massively armed Israel Defense Forces, might have made short work of the ill-equipped Lebanese army.

And even supposing no outright Hezbollah victory, the return of civil war in Lebanon — Sunnis and Christians in a tense alliance on one side, Shiites on the other, with endlessly shifting tribal coalitions in between — would have been the return of the very conditions that enabled the Palestine Liberation Organization to operate with impunity from Lebanese soil and prompted the first Israeli invasion a generation ago. In mid-2006, just a year past the “Cedar Revolution” by which Syria was unexpectedly expelled, Lebanon under Siniora has been called the second most democratic state in the region, but it is a weak democracy. Olmert’s invasion may now be turning it into a failed democracy, Israel’s Iraq.

A failed democracy in Lebanon will serve the interests of Syria much as the failed democracy in Iraq is serving the interests of Iran. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki maintains the diplomatic niceties when dealing with Washington, but Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, speaker of the Iraqi parliament, may be a better clue to the mood of his country.

“The U.S. occupation is butcher’s work under the slogan of democracy and human rights and justice,” al-Mashhadani said on July 22 as Israel was escalating its assault on Lebanon. “Leave us to solve our problems. We don’t need an agenda from outside.”

Similarly, though Siniora expressed more sorrow than anger as he diplomatically declined the peace proposal of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, spoke for much and perhaps most of devastated Lebanon when he served blunt and bitter notice to Rice that her mediation was unwelcome.

Lebanon is on the verge of becoming Israel’s Iraq in another regard as well. Like the Bush Administration, the Olmert Administration has taken major unilateral military action without exhausting lesser and/or nonmilitary alternatives, confident that in the aftermath it will have created if not an overwhelming success, then at least a problem that the international community will have no alternative but to help solve. As Michael Oren, the head of a center-right research institute in Israel put it to the New York Times: