The Lebanon conflict – Precursor to War or Peace ?
Prof Paul E M Reynolds
The recent escalation of the ‘Middle East conflict’ in Lebanon, Gaza and Israel may or may not provide an opportunity for a final settlement and peace. It depends on your interpretation of events. At the very least in order to save lives in the short term, it is worth considering how to make the ‘peace opportunity’ more likely to be pursued - and subsequently successful.
At one point on the compass you have the official Israel-USA version; a terrorist organization having usurped territory in Southern Lebanon, attacks an Israeli border post and captures two Israeli soldiers, and then fires hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into Israel. Israel, using its right to defend itself, attacks Hizbullah assets, fighters and Lebanese-Hizbullah ‘re-supply’ infrastructure. To all intents & purposes, Israel defeats the terrorists and agrees a Lebanon-UN military force for Southern Lebanon to ensure the terrorists cannot operate in the same way again. Israeli attacks against Gaza and armed Hamas fighters, are similarly intended to prevent rocket attacks and defeat Hamas militarily.
Under this version of events, a negotiated peace is more likely if such terrorists are defeated and Israel feels more secure – and indeed if other security measures such as the wall between Israel and the Occupied Territories (OT), and continued partial Israeli withdrawal from the OT, are completed. An Israeli-supervised peace in the OT will enable implementation of the Two State Solution, whilst keeping Israel secure, and marginalize terrorist groups and their Syrian & Iranian backers, politically and militarily. In the background in this version is the implicit military threat from both Israel and the USA against Syria and especially Iran. Also implicit is that some political regimes in the region are implacably adversarial & undemocratic and reliant on the Palestinian conflict for their ‘popular legitimacy’, thus unwilling to be genuine partners in a peace process.
A second point on the compass has Israel and the USA as partners in a long military war against the Islamic world, with the USA funding aggression against Palestine and now Lebanon, as a way of keeping the Middle East cowed. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of this process, as is the role of the USA against the Islamic Courts militias in Somalia, and US pressure on Iran over nuclear enrichment. The US ‘approved’ the Israeli attacks on Lebanon because any (planned) military attacks on Iran by the USA and Israel, would bring retaliatory action from Iranian-controlled Hizbullah against Israel. The Israeli attacks on Gaza - and both the Wall and lack of contiguous Palestinian territory in the West Bank – are part of a plan to encourage Palestinians to leave the OT altogether, prior to the expulsion of non-Jews from Israel. The only response for Moslem nations is a military one, and peace will come from a probable military stalemate arising from an asymmetric war, where, as with Hizbullah recently, the Israelis are in reality defeated.
At a further point on the compass is the version of events that describes Hizbullah as a local uprising formed only a year after the earlier Israeli invasion to resist and expel the Israeli military from Lebanon – which was eventually successful in 2000. Former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, a military man, having experienced the previous defeat in Lebanon, had been wary of a full-blown conflict with Hizbullah since 2000, and small-scale skirmishes and border raids were thus ‘tolerated’ and prisoners sometimes exchanged. However, in July 2006 Prime Minister Olmert, not being a military man, was unable to resist Israeli military demands for a ‘re-match’ against Hizbullah, triggered by the next border skirmish. Olmert’s position was weakened by the Israeli military being headed by an Air Force man, who proposed an air war which would avoid the pre-2000 problems on the ground, experienced by the Israeli army. When the latest border skirmish happened the Israeli Air Force’s plan was put into effect. However, in the intervening 6 years since 2000, Hizbullah’s political and military strength (and local popularity) increased, based on their success in defeating Israel. Seeing a ‘re-match’ as an inevitability, and able to collect funds and technical support from many countries, Hizbullah were well prepared against the ground invasion, that would inevitably follow a failure to defeat Hizbullah with air power alone. They were also able to add a key negotiating factor to parallel the might of the Israeli Air Force - a large stockpile of medium-range rockets fired into Israel, as well as at Israeli tanks.
In this version of events, two defeats for Israel has fatally dented their military credibility, and given the panic re-supply of munitions from the USA to Israel (via the UK) dented the credibility of the USA too – to add to the defeat of the USA in Iraq. Thus peace will come from a humbled Israel - more willing to negotiate over Palestine and to help create a viable Palestinian state, ending the current ‘strangulation’ approach to the Two State Solution. This version also describes a strengthened Iran and Mid East Shia community, following events in Iraq, since Hizbullah is largely Shia.
In order to achieve peace in the region however, somehow these different versions of events, and other versions like them, must be reconciled. There is a small time window over the coming months to remake the path to peace.
Following the recent conflict, reconciling these different versions of the truth is difficult but not impossible. The obstacles are deep-rooted and enormously complex – but understanding them is uncomfortably necessary.
First there is the ‘victory mentality’ which has evolved over years of attrition. Any ‘peace settlement’ must now be seen in Israel as a ‘victory’. The current US Presidency has fuelled this with its amorphous political device ‘the War on Terror’. This mentality in effect ‘created’ the recent disastrous Lebanon debacle. Syria, Iran and popular street culture in Iran and many Arab states, yearn for a ‘victory’ against Israel, reflected in the absurd ‘celebrations’ of a perceived Hizbullah military victory in Southern Lebanon. Overcoming the ‘victory mentality’ requires enormous political courage amongst world and regional leaders, the US, Iran and Syria included.
Second, there is the way in which long conflicts create a life of their own. Kosovo, Southern Sudan, Chechnya, and DRC are all examples. Israel receives billions of dollars in fund flows from the USA for civilian projects, many of them unhelpful to peace efforts. In addition, the sheer size of US military support and hardware shipments has a major effect on Israeli politics and real political power in Israeli civilian life. This can be seen in the legal position of the Israeli military with respect to Arab house demolitions in the Naqav Desert. Similarly, many conduits for munitions and social projects in and around the Occupied Palestinian Territories create a major ‘industry’ which make many Arab nationals particularly affluent. Those that benefit from peace in the Mid East – the mass of the population – have weak voices relative to the politically influential and economically power conflict-fed elites that have emerged. Political Arab nationalism is a useful tool for creating ‘legitimacy’, especially in Syria and Iran. Regimes from Iraq to the Western Maghreb play the Palestine card when they need to extract themselves from political hot water.
Third, a major obstacle to the achievement of peace is the dependence on fallible ‘world leaders’ in roles both as intermediaries between competing domestic political factions and in their role as ‘communicators’ to their populations and the world at large. World leaders involved in the conflict have not toured South Lebanon, Israel and the Occupied Territories or understood local realities. They are dependent on competing military and foreign policy experts for information, most of which do not know the realities on the ground either. This gives opportunities for kleptocratic elites in the region to promote their self-serving versions of events and history. Achieving peace however requires acceptance by political leaders on all sides of some very uncomfortable truths.
The role of the USA in achieving peace has undoubtedly been weakened by their unquestioning support for Israel over the last 6 weeks. From the absence of a call for ceasefire or even restraint, to the branding of Hizbullsah as terrorists, and the statement that Hizbullah has been ‘defeated’, the US has given the impression that the USA’s current regime is now following Israeli policy rather than using its clout to ensure peace. Its role as a potential ‘honest broker’ has potentially been fatally wounded. The question hangs in the air – who will ‘achieve’ peace ? It is now likely to be the EU and the new group of countries that will comprise the UN force in Lebanon.
But still there are uncomfortable realities, which require recognition as part of the equation if a new path to peace is to be established.
One is that it is likely that a key driver of the recent conflict in Lebanon and Israel was the rapid emergence of the prospects of a new path to peace during May and June this year. The conciliatory Hamas ‘Prisoner Statement’, finally accepted by the Hamas government only days before the attack on Lebanon, implied Hamas’ acceptance of the right of Israel to exist, highly worrisome for Syria and to an extent the Syrian wing of Hamas. This was also alarming for the Iranian regime who had gained a measure of mass support in the Arab world for their call for the dissolution of a ‘Jewish State’, inter alia. It would have been peace without a ‘victory’.
In parallel, parts of the Israeli military were horrified and somewhat wrong-footed by the Prisoner Statement. Worse for them were the discussions in Beirut in April, May & June this year for the implementation of UN resolutions in Lebanon, by the integration of Hizbullah into the regular armed forces, following the exit of most of the Syrian military earlier this year. A strong Lebanese army with Hizbullah included, but Syria excluded, was a perceived political and military threat for Israel, and indeed very discomforting for Syria too.
A further uncomfortable truth is the reality of progress toward the Two State Solution in the Occupied Territories, on the ground. A Hamas/Olmert-led peace would have forced this out in the open. Heavily influenced by a politically powerful Israeli military and security sector, the Israeli wall/barrier inside the Occupied Territories has created prison-like enclaves around places like Bethlehem and parts of Jerusalem, and has effectively annexed parts of the West Bank, east of Jerusalem, where local houses have been summarily demolished. The problems have been compounded by an Israeli motorway and road tunnel network in the West Bank, (on which Palestinian access is restricted), which have enclave effects and severely reduce ‘Two State’ viability. It is very unlikely that Western political leaders have sufficient awareness of these uncomfortable outcomes, and undoubtedly progress towards a peaceful ‘Two State’ settlement would create the need to reveal and address these physical viability obstacles for a Palestinian state - obstacles created by Israel with US dollars.
It is also uncomfortable for Iran and for political Islam more generally that Palestinian politics is a three-way fight between Islamisists, secular-socialists mirroring undemocratic regimes in the region (often Moscow-educated ex-Tunis old school Palestinians – the ‘kleptocrats’ as some say), and the more liberal ‘European’ Palestinians. The more ‘European’ liberal Palestinian leaders broadly are those who remained in Palestine over the last 25 years and have much in common with the current Lebanese Government. There is much that is European about Palestinian society, and it is a fact that extreme Islam is not universally popular. The reality is that Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because of their religious fervour. They voted for Hamas because they were focused on direct benefits and communal services for their populations.
They also voted for Hamas because of perceptions that Fatah was a kleptocratic elite interested in using the mechanisms of state for self-enrichment and ‘party enrichment’, more than benefits for the populace - in the old model of Syria, Egypt, Iran and other states in the region.
The 3-way battle in Palestinian politics cuts across religious lines, and as uncomfortable as it is for both the US and for Political Islam, large numbers of Palestinian Christians voted for Hamas too, as the less kleptocratic option.
What’s more the current regime in the USA is influenced by the extreme Christian right – and now by ‘Pro-Zionist’ Christian groups. This has created another absurdity – US Christian groups supporting lawful discrimination in Israel against Christian towns and villages in the ‘Holy Land’. Peace will threaten the religious contortions which underpin the Christian Right’s political stances in the USA towards Israel, and weaken key, carefully cultivated, sources of support for the US Republican Party.
The potential net effect of recent US policy is that the current Washington regime can no longer sit at the head of the negotiating table, flanked by the Europeans. The negotiating dynamics have changed. The US in effect now sits on one side of the table with Israel as a joint party to be negotiated with. Actions of the US administration are now increasingly seen as ratcheting up the strength or their side’s negotiating position, rather than steps towards peace. It may well be true that key parts of the US administration see peace efforts as naïve – the game being all about restricting Iran’s regional ambitions. However current US policy has not been successful in this respect. Uncomfortable for some, a peace agreement over Palestine, and the economic boom in the region that will follow, (and the dramatic drop in oil prices) would clearly narrow the excesses of Iranian and Syrian leaderships.
It will now, therefore, fall to the Europeans and the new ‘Lebanon Group’ to drive a broader settlement forward. The main features are already known. UN resolutions in Lebanon are being implemented by the integration of Hizbullah into the formal Lebanese military. This is already de facto underway. Israel will implement UN resolutions and agree to a phased return to its original borders, a process with wide implications for negotiations with Syria, for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and for the wall or ‘security barrier’. Perhaps more importantly, free trade and labour movement will soften siege mentality and enclave concerns. Palestinians would be given free access to the est Bank motorway an tunnel system, and access would be extended to Palestinian towns in the West Bank.
In practice a peace settlement would consist of an overall regional economic settlement including labour movement, resource access and external/internal transport communications – which would increase economic interdependence, (not unlike the Bosnia process). It would also include several issue-specific agreements covering Golan, Israeli West Bank settlements, an refugees inside and outside the region. Some innovations may emerge such as the conditional offer of Palestinian citizenship to Israeli settlers, and the repeal of Israeli legislation that discriminates against non-Jewish citizens; Christians, Moslems and others.
The current US administration and its successor, has a choice to make too. They could take this window of opportunity to throw their weight behind an overall internal and regional settlement, an end to violence, and several problem-solving processes. This would certainly help with the problem of the sheer extent of groups with an interest in the conflict continuing. It would also save the US from the continuing fallout from the recent Lebanon debacle, which is damaging to US interests. The beneficiaries of a settlement however will be Israeli citizens, more secure and prosperous, a viable and increasingly ‘European’ Palestinan state, and a rapid reduction in regional poverty as the economic boom gains strength.