Like all other frustrated scholars out there, I wanted to publish an Op-Ed, thinking I have something interesting to say about what’s going on between Israel and Lebanon. I thought that I might have something to contribute– my dissertation had a looooong chapter on the Israel – Lebanon Monitoring Group, a small organizaton set up after Israel’s 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. There’s not a lot written about the ILMG, so I figured I might have some unique insights.
But, of course, no one picked up the piece, so dear readers, here it is for your consideration:
Ten years ago, Israel launched a military offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon designed to secure Israel’s northern border by destroying Hezbollah’s operational capabilities. The 1996 “Operation Grapes of Wrath” proceeded with tacit US approval and escalated rapidly. Only after Israeli artillery fire hit a UN refugee camp did the US and international communities launch a flurry of shuttle diplomacy and negotiate an understanding that served as an effective cease-fire.
The situation today has many echoes of the past. This is Israel’s fifth major military incursion into Lebanon—1978, 1982, 1993, 1996, and now 2006—to stop a non-state terrorist organization resident in Lebanon from launching attacks against Israel. In each case, the Israeli army pushed northward into Lebanon while Israeli artillery and panes bombed key targets across the country. The broad Israeli strategy also remains the same—to use direct attacks to displace and destroy the PLO (in 1978 and 1982) or Hezbollah (in 1993, 1996, and now) while also using the indirect pressure of wider attacks to press the Lebanese government to reassert control of its territory. None of these operations were isolate incidents; they all had deep connections to wider regional issues and brought fears of regional escalation. Only US-led international intervention prevented that nightmare.
The 1996 April Understanding that ended Grapes of Wrath established a basic set of rules for the Israeli – Hezbollah conflict: Neither side should launch attacks from or target civilians or civilian areas. The agreement also established a little-known but effective monitoring group comprised of US, French, Syrian, Lebanese, and Israeli representatives. This Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group (ILMG), monitored the cease-fire and discussed violations brought by either side. At its height, the ILMG was able to identify and even blame both sides for cease-fire violations. Through the ILMG’s work, civilian causalities on both sides fell significantly. The ILMG managed the Israeli – Hezbollah conflict, limiting it to military on military confrontations in southern Lebanon up until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
Four key differences, however, separate the current situation from the past.
First, the Palestinians occupy a fundamentally different position then they had in the past. The Palestinians played no role in the 1993 and 1996 operation against Hezbollah. Today, its no accident that the Hezbollah action sparking this inferno happened as Israel was in Gaza fighting Hamas. Some reports suggest that the PA is subtly working with Israel to undermine its rival Hamas, while Shi’ite Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas are now coordinating their actions against Israel. Even if this coordination is merely rhetorical, it puts Israel in the position of fighting a two front war.
Second, Iran has moved to center-stage in the contemporary Middle East drama. Iran is Hezbollah’s primary sponsor and it is not shy about using this influence to its advantage. Within the past year, Iran has markedly increased its anti-Israel rhetoric, its position as a leader of Shi’ites throughout the region, and its status as a regional power through its pursuit of a nuclear program. Iran’s influence does create a small opening for diplomacy as part of an overall nuclear deal, but the US and EU-3 seem unlikely to press these linkages. With oil topping $78 per barrel, Iran is in a strong position to act as Hezbollah’s enabler.
Third, the relationship between Syria and Lebanon has shifted dramatically. In 1996, Syria was the puppet-master in Lebanon and very influential with Hezbollah. The 1996 Understanding and subsequent monitoring group worked because Syria could keep Hezbollah in line with major components of the agreement. When Syrian troops quit Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution, Syria lost some of its influence over Hezbollah, and most likely can no longer “deliver” Hezbollah compliance with any cease-fire agreement. Lebanon, free from Syrian control, is now able to speak for itself, but with Hezbollah as one of the political parties within the Lebanese parliament, it has little ability to act, and no one to prop it up if it stumbles.
Finally, the US has a fundamentally different involvement in the region from a decade ago. Then, focus was on diplomacy in the context of a wider Middle East Peace Process. Secretary of State Christopher was a regular visitor to Damascus and the US was pushing a variety of peace agreements, including one between Syria and Israel. Today, focus is anti-terrorism and Iraq. Any wider escalation that involves Syria could easily spill over to involve US troops in Iraq near the Syrian border. Israel’s policy of eliminating state harbors for terrorists echo’s the Bush Administration’s approach in Afghanistan. As a result, the Bush Administration is more inclined to let the conflict play out as Hezbollah is weakened as opposed to press for a diplomatic solution.
Unlike 1996, the situation today does not bode well for quick and manageable cease-fire. As Iraq has demonstrated, large scale military operations against local insurgent terrorist organizations have a difficult time producing tangible results absent a wider political settlement. Hezbollah, like Hamas or the insurgents in Iraq, gains more popular support from fighting than from compromise, and the strong political actors that were able to force a Hezbollah – Israeli compromise in 1996 are less inclined to do so today. Unless the US and Israel exercise extreme caution, they risk inciting a region-wide conflict that will be exceedingly difficult to end.