Lebanon and the prospect of war

My new column in Masri al-Youm is out, about Lebanon and the prospects of war there, and outlines the rather twisted road of the past decade to get to the present situation.

But of course this is Lebanon, it's already superseded by the rather dramatic news of the clash between the Lebanese Army and the Israeli one yesterday, which claimed the lives of three Lebanese soldiers, a journalist from al-Akhbar, and a senior Israeli officer. Lebanon appears to have been in the wrong according to the UN, but of course it's all hotly contested.

I recently finished reading David Hirst's Beware of Small States (more about the book and Hirst later this week), one of whose central points is that Lebanon has been where the Arab-Israeli conflict has perdured since the last time an Arab army (rather than guerrilla) fought Israel: 1973. Well yesterday that (almost) 27 year break had ended, with Lebanese uniformed men confronting Israel's.

This is just one of the many signs of tension, and a possible third Lebanese war (which Hirst says could also very well be a regionalized seventh Arab-Israeli war) now appears ever more likely. Let's hope it can be avoided, as the latest ICG report calls for more effective diplomacy:

The key to unlocking this situation is – without neglecting the central Israeli-Palestinian track – to resume meaningful negotiations between Israel on the one hand and Syria and Lebanon on the other. This is the only realistic way to shift underlying dynamics and, in particular, affect Syria’s calculations. Without that, Damascus will continue to transfer weapons to Hizbollah, the Shiite movement will successfully resist pressure to disarm and Israel will keep on violating Lebanon’s sovereignty.

There is scant reason for optimism on the peace front, however. That means little can be achieved, not that nothing can be done. The most urgent tasks are to restore momentum on 1701 by focusing on the most realistic goals and to establish consultative mechanisms to defuse tensions, clarify red lines and minimise risks of an accidental confrontation. Better channels of communication would help. At present, the U.S. is talking mainly to one side (Israel), keeping another at arm’s length (Syria), ignoring a third (Hizbollah) and confronting the fourth (Iran). 

At the risk of repeating a bromide, it's hard to see a settlement of the wider Arab-Israeli conflict without some kind of solution to the Palestinian-Israeli one. We have had, for decades now, an Israel that simply does not want to return the Golan Heights to Syria or find a solution to the Palestinian question that is likely to ever satisfy the Palestinians. Its entire policies have been aimed at increasing its territory, fragmenting the West Bank and the overall Palestinian polity, and waging war to make its enemies accept peace on its own terms, i.e. surrender. It has also rejected the only serious offer for a comprehensive peace on the table, the 2002 Beirut Initiative.

On the other hand, a group like Hizbullah is not about to cease fighting Israel once the issue of the Shebaa Farms — its pretext for continued hostility since the liberation of South Lebanon (before that the area was not contested) — is resolved. The issue the Islamist camp really cares about, in the end, is Palestine and Jerusalem. An imposed peace will not satisfy it, only one that has full endorsement of a Palestinian majority as well as the Arab states and Iran (all of which agreed to under the Beirut initiative). This is why the crazed ideas of the neoconservatives and their friends in Israel (practically the whole establishment there) of imposing their own peace and creating a new Middle East will not work — what worked on Egypt or Jordan simply won't work with them.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.