Commentary Magazine


Lebanon's Enemy Within

Israel is floating the idea of a non-aggression pact with Lebanon. It isn’t at all likely to work. The odds are minuscule that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah will go along. But Lebanon will hold an election in a couple of months, and the offer of a non-aggression pact should play well with Lebanese voters who are uncomfortable with or hostile toward Hezbollah’s vision of perpetual war with the “Zionist entity.”

Negotiating with implacable and inflexible enemies is foolish. No sensible person suggests that the United States negotiate with Al Qaeda, for instance. Peace talks with Damascus won’t get Israelis anywhere either. Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad needs a state of cold war with Israel to justify the oppressive policies against his country’s own citizens, and bad-faith negotiations yield him some measure of international legitimacy he doesn’t deserve.

Hezbollah is “moderate” compared with the worst jihadist groups out there, but it simply cannot survive in its current form if it isn’t engaged in at least a low level of conflict. Almost every militia in Lebanon relinquished most, if not all, of its weapons at the end of the civil war in 1990. Hezbollah’s rationale for refusing is that its fighters are the only ones in the country willing and able to prevent another Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Without the perceived threat of another Israeli invasion, the justification for Hezbollah’s very existence collapses.

Israelis would therefore be naïve in the extreme if they tried to establish a pact with Hezbollah itself, or a pact with Beirut that required Hezbollah’s cooperation. Hezbollah doesn’t stick to agreements and is less trustworthy than even Yasser Arafat turned out to be, when the Oslo peace process fell apart with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Hezbollah doesn’t even pretend to want peace and will almost certainly gin up another shooting war on the border. “See?” Hezbollah will say to fellow Lebanese after violently provoking the Israelis to cross the border again. “We told you. You need us.”

The successful negotiation of a genuine non-aggression pact that every party in Lebanon would adhere to is not going to happen any time soon. Just listen to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora: “Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel.” He may be right, but not for the reason some people might think.Eli Khoury, Lebanese political consultant and founder of the excellent online magazine NOW Lebanon, explained it to me this way last year: “The last Arab country,” he said. “This is the statement of those who want to make peace but know that they can’t. They don’t want to get ganged up on by the Arabs. We are the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world.”

Lebanon probably really is the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world. It is certainly the most liberal, democratic, and cosmopolitan of the Arabic countries – at least the non-Hezbollah parts of Lebanon are. It is by far the most demographically diverse; roughly a third of its people are Christians, another third are Sunnis, and most of the rest are Shias. Iraq is the only Arab-majority country that can compete with Lebanon when it comes to ideological breadth. There are more opinions there than people, and more political movements and parties than even most Lebanese themselves can keep track of.

If you look at Lebanon’s population outside the Hezbollah bloc – the majority of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze – you will mostly find people who are nowhere near hostile enough to Israel to be a serious threat. The Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces have had an unofficial non-aggression pact in place for decades. The Lebanese government does not and will not pick fights with Israel. Most Lebanese have negative opinions of Israel, but that doesn’t mean they’re interested in going to war. As a whole, they are much more hostile than, say, Europeans, but they’re a lot less hostile as a whole than Palestinians.

Most were furious at Hezbollah for starting the last war in July, 2006, and they didn’t get around to (grudgingly and temporarily) supporting Hezbollah until they felt Israel over-reacted by bombing Lebanese targets outside Hezbollah’s strongholds. Some even supported Israel’s initial counterattack–at least before the air force bombed Beirut’s international airport. A huge number of Lebanese Christians were Israel’s allies during the civil war, and even a large number of Shias from South Lebanon volunteered to fight Hezbollah and joined the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army until the year 2000. Last time I visited Lebanon with my colleague Noah Pollak, I found, for the first time, billboards and signs with messages like “Wage Peace” and “No War” throughout the country in regions Hezbollah doesn’t control. As soon as the 2006 war ended, the Lebanese government pushed back hard against Hezbollah and refused to back down until Hezbollah mounted an armed offensive against the capital in May 2008.

Israel is hardly well-liked in Lebanon, but neither is Hezbollah, and neither is Syria. Even though a non-aggression pact is likely to go nowhere right now, suggesting one to Lebanese may help clarify something: most Lebanese don’t actually know that Israelis prefer peace to war. They should, but they don’t. They’ve been soaked with so much disinformation and propaganda for so long, and there’s still a great deal of anger left over from Israel’s invasions in 1982 and 2006. Most of Hezbollah’s less fanatical supporters are drawn from the ranks of those who sincerely believe Israel is a threat to them and that Hezbollah is their only defense. This is nonsense on stilts – Israel wouldn’t have invaded Lebanon at all in 2006 if Hezbollah had not first attacked. But this perception persists nevertheless.

Israelis are surrounded by enemies. Lebanese, likewise, feel surrounded by enemies, but unlike Israelis, they don’t have an army strong enough to protect them. Some aren’t sure which country threatens them more: Israel or Syria. Syria is surely the greater threat; Israelis are only a “threat” insofar they are sometimes attacked from inside Lebanon and feel the need to respond. Syria isn’t even remotely threatened by Lebanon, yet its government really does want to conquer the country again, or at least rule it from a distance through proxies.

This should be obvious to most Lebanese, but I know from conversations with people across the political spectrum that it isn’t. Many don’t know whether they should support the Hezbollah-led “March 8” bloc in next year’s election, or whether they should support the “March 14” bloc led by those who kicked out the Syrians in 2005. The Syrian regime is currently pretending to be more benign that it really is by offering, for the first time ever, to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon. Israelis are smart to signal, at the same time, that they sincerely do not mean Lebanese harm. No one in the Lebanese government or media will explain that to them. The “March 14” bloc is already sensitive to the near-constant accusation that it’s a “Zionist hand.” Israelis need to get that message out by themselves.

Public opinion on the idea of a peace treaty with Israel is mixed. Some want a peace treaty now. Some even want an alliance with Israel, although they tend to keep quiet about that and are far more likely to share that opinion off-the-record with me than they are with their fellow Lebanese. Others don’t want a peace treaty until outstanding issues–the supposed occupation of the Shebaa Farms, and the hundreds of thousands of unwanted and dangerous Palestinian refugees–are resolved. Even some otherwise sensible Lebanese I know wallow in conspiracy theories and believe Israelis want to conquer South Lebanon and steal water from the Litani River. Hezbollah’s hard-core supporters don’t ever want a peace treaty with Israel. But a non-aggression pact? An agreement that we’ll leave you alone if you leave us alone? Put that on a ballot in a popular referendum and it would pass overwhelmingly.

Of course, the Lebanese government wouldn’t be strong enough to enforce it. Lebanon is tiny, weak, and under the gun from Syria, Iran, and their joint Hezbollah proxy. Too many Lebanese willingly submit to Syrian and Iranian vassalage, and they have by far the most well-armed private army in the country. Not even a non-aggression pact, let alone a peace treaty, is workable now.

Someday, though, all this will change. Sooner or later, Israelis will need to convince the people of Lebanon that they aren’t a threat, that they don’t want to invade, that they’d really rather open the border and have normal relations. Lebanon isn’t Gaza. Most of its citizens really do want peace and quiet. Someday that will be possible, and they need to know that Israel won’t be the obstacle.

There is a case to be made that Lebanese public opinion is irrelevant, since Hezbollah is strong enough to override the will of the state and the will of the majority anyway. Hezbollah, though, will not always be as strong as it is, and everything that weakens it – especially before an election – will help. Most Lebanese just want Israel and Syria to leave them alone. Damascus has no intention of leaving Beirut alone, but the overwhelming majority of Israelis have no interest whatsoever in more war with Lebanon. Lebanese need to know who their real enemy is before they go to the polls early next year and decide which kind of “resistance” makes the most sense.

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