July 14, 2006

Miscellanea, and More on Lebanon

Ross Douthat reminds us that all (geo)politics are local, David Frum engages in (clumsy) historical analogizing (always a perilous endeavour, even for seasoned scriveners), and Glenn Reynolds rues the so early passing of the Cedar Revolution, en passant at least, before elucidating thus: "...what's unfolding now is something that was prepared for, as part of the next stage in the war on terror". Meantime, a 'shorter' Glenn-style analysis, if you will, is showcased by a commenter at Tom Maguire's (a blog pal, though his commenters don't think much of me, alas), who simply opines (with almost poignant innocence): "Israel liberates Lebanon." The residents of Beirut will clap and cheer when they hear these reassuring words, doubtless...

...meantime, back in the real world:

Late Thursday, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets across Lebanon warning residents to stay away from any areas where Hizbullah is active.

"Due to the terrorist activities carried out by Hizbullah, the Israeli Army will continue its work within Lebanese territories for as long as it deems fit to protect Israeli citizens," the leaflets read. "For your own safety and because we do not wish to cause any more civilian deaths, you are advised to avoid all places frequented by Hizbullah.

"You should know that the continuation of terrorist activities against Israel will be considered a double-edged sword for you and Lebanon."

The leaflets were signed "The State of Israel."

Hopefully these IDF leaflet warnings will work, as not even 48 hours into this operation, some 55 Lebanese civilians are already dead (In Israel, two civilians have died so far as well). What is Israel hoping to accomplish by delivering deep psychological blows to the people of Lebanon by imposing a total naval blockade, shutting down Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport, and bombing the key Beirut-Damascus road (for starters)? Zvi Bar'el appears puzzled, somewhat, as am I:

"It seems now that Israel is acting out of a desire for revenge and punishment," a Lebanese analyst told Haaretz via email. "After Hassan Nasrallah said at his press conference that he doesn't want to drag Lebanon into war, Israel wants to show him and Lebanon that Nasrallah is more dangerous than Lebanon imagines. But you must understand that there are huge swathes of Lebanon that understand the extent of the Hezbollah danger, but are helpless. Don't expect citizens to demonstrate outside government buildings tomorrow and demand that the state disarm Hezbollah. Washington, France and the UN tried through Resolution 1559 and failed, and you want a weak government that has not yet really begun to govern to succeed? We can do nothing right now but wait, and maybe you will disarm Hezbollah. That is also the message that slain Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's son Saad sent to Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, both of whom sought to use their good relations with Israel to curb the military attack.

The message that Israel was trying to send to Lebanon's government and citizens seems unclear. On one hand, the Lebanese hear that the Israeli government does not plan to allow Hezbollah to return to its positions in southern Lebanon. That is too tough a mission for the Lebanese government, so people wonder what Israel wants and why it is attacking targets that are not related to the positions in the south, like the Beirut-Damascus highway or the airport.

On the other hand, Israel warned the Lebanese government that it holds it wholly responsible both for the attack and for the fate of the abducted soldiers. Here again, the Lebanese government has no idea what it is supposed to do - go to war against Hezbollah? "Of course, this government can't go to war against Hezbollah, and can't and wouldn't recruit Syria to rein in Hezbollah," said the Lebanese analyst.

This is because there has been an almost complete disconnect between the Lebanese government and Syria ever since the Hariri assassination and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Moreover, Syria is not dissatisfied with the heavy price that Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government is paying, or with the fact that there are no more appeals from Beirut to Damascus to curb Hezbollah. Syria is now free to claim that without it, there is no Lebanese government that can bring order and quiet to Lebanon.

That was also the gist of criticism uttered Thursday by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who said that Syria wants to exploit this war to rehabilitate its power centers in Lebanon. The result is that though Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible, there is really no address in Lebanon that can assume that responsibility.

The only thing that the Lebanese government, and particularly Saad Hariri, can do is hold a series of meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Jacques Chirac to get them to restrain Israel, or at least limit its attacks to ones that will show the Lebanese that the target is Hezbollah, and not all of Lebanon. The only diplomatic development Thursday was the beginning of back-channel talks among Arabs aimed at recruiting international pressure against Israel.

Inside Lebanon, the usual indecision continues. Along with condemning Israel, should they also come out against Hezbollah? No clear voice has yet spoken. [emphasis added]

I think Israel is making a strategic mistake by over-reacting to Hezbollah's provocations (the IDF should have limited the lion's share of its retribution in the south of the country, near the border, or only very specific Hezbollah-related targets elsewhere). If Bush and Rice don't exert pressure to very significantly cool down the offensive by early next week important American interests will increasingly become jeopardized, as ironically increased chaos in Lebanon will likely strengthen Iran and Syria's position there, rather than weaken it. Middle East peace has always been a race between moderates trying to cobble together democratic space and politics (like Hariri's son has been trying since the, so short-lived it appears, Cedar Revolution), and extremists who thrive on chaos (such as Nasrallah and Co). Bombing Lebanon back 20 years serves to assist the latter, not former. Regardless, let's see if cooler heads prevail in the coming days. I think the odds are just above even that happens (the timing of the G-8 meeting might not hurt, as other leaders will pressure Bush to take a more neutral approach), but there is a very significant chance indeed that matters instead escalate, not least because of this Administration's inattentions to date. We'll see soon enough, I guess, whether Washington becomes more seized by the regional implications at play, or is instead happy to see Israel beat back Iranian and Syrian proxies (but let's be careful describing Hamas as merely an Ahmadi-Nejad chess piece, no?) with impunity whatever the consequences to Lebanon's short to mid-term political future, civilians there and in Gaza, not to mention likely more loss of life in northern Israel.

MORE: Michael Young rightly points out that Hezbollah has wantonly violated various rules of the game, but concludes: "One important thing: No Lebanese government could legitimately help to advance such a plan if Israel were to try to, as its army chief of staff put it this week, “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.” Israel must cease its attacks and let diplomacy take over."

Posted by Gregory at July 14, 2006 05:05 AM

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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