Israel/Hizbollah/Lebanon: Avoiding Renewed Conflict
Israel/Hizbollah/Lebanon: Avoiding Renewed Conflict
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  1. Executive Summary
Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza
Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza
Report / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Israel/Hizbollah/Lebanon: Avoiding Renewed Conflict

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 halted the month-long fighting between Israel and Hizbollah but did little to resolve the underlying conflict and, if poorly handled, could help reignite it.

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Executive Summary

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 halted the month-long fighting between Israel and Hizbollah but did little to resolve the underlying conflict and, if poorly handled, could help reignite it. The resolution has held remarkably well, with only limited violations. However, the temptation by either party to overreach could trigger renewed fighting. The greatest threats would be attempts by Israel or UN forces (UNIFIL) to use 1701 as a blunt means of disarming Hizbollah in the south or by Hizbollah to test UNIFIL’s resolve. 1701 should be seen as a transitory instrument that can stabilise the border by containing both sides’ military impulses until bolder action is taken to address both domestic Lebanese matters (reforming and democratising the political and electoral systems; building a strong sovereign state and army; resolving the question of Hizbollah’s armaments) and, especially, regional issues (in particular re-launching the Syrian track and engaging Iran). In short the international community must be modest in implementing 1701 for as long as it is not prepared to be ambitious in its regional diplomatic efforts.

Resolution 1701 achieved a surprising degree of consensus. All relevant parties – Israel, Hizbollah and the Lebanese government, as well as key regional and other international actors – accepted the Security Council as the arbiter of the conflict while agreeing to the extensive deployment of Lebanon’s army (LAF) south of the Litani River, the expansion of UNIFIL with a strengthened mandate in the same area and the need to build up Lebanese sovereignty over its own territory. Core stumbling blocks (e.g., releasing the abducted Israeli soldiers; ending Hizbollah’s armed presence in the south) were mentioned in the resolution, but as strong aspirations, not immediate prerequisites. All in all, this is not negligible, nor was it pre-ordained. 1701 came about at a time of high tension, after a fierce diplomatic battle, and was accepted only because all sides needed a face-saving solution. Collective exhaustion produced an ambiguous outcome that nobody whole-heartedly endorsed but all reluctantly accepted.

After more than a month of violent conflict, Israel and Hizbollah were chastened, conscious of the limits of their military power and reluctant to continue hostilities. Israel had insisted both that it would not stop fighting until its soldiers were returned and Hizbollah was disarmed; 1701’s ambiguity notwithstanding, it achieved neither. Israel had limited appetite for continued confrontation and now, in the wake of a war that reawakened and reinforced anxiety about a Lebanese quagmire, has little stomach for resuming it. Rather, Israelis chose to invest cautious hope in the presence of international and Lebanese forces in the south to rein in Hizbollah and in UN mediation to free the abducted soldiers.

Hizbollah’s perceived victory may have emboldened the organisation but it too labours under heavy constraints. With over 1,000 civilian deaths, the destruction of thousands of homes and the damage done to basic economic infrastructure, initiating another round of violence would be deeply unpopular with its own constituency, not to mention the country as a whole. The LAF’s deployment to the south – for the first time in over three decades – and UNIFIL’s strengthening in what heretofore had been a Hizbollah sanctuary was not the movement’s preference. But it was deemed a price worth paying to end the fighting, avoid exacerbating domestic tensions and preserve as much as possible of the status quo, including its presence in the south.

The international community, and the U.S. in particular, were left with little choice. By allowing the war to rage on for weeks, they had lost much of their credibility and faced increasingly hostile Arab and Muslim publics. Washington claimed from the outset that only a solution that dealt with the roots of the conflict – in its view, Hizbollah’s armed presence – was worth pursuing. In the end, it settled for far less, namely a denser UN and Lebanese army presence in the south and reiteration of the longer-term goal of disarming armed groups. Evincing signs of pragmatism, U.S. officials for now are not pressing UNIFIL or the LAF to disarm Hizbollah, hoping instead to strengthen the central government and extend its territorial reach.

Such shared modesty must be preserved lest the fragile stability unravel. 1701 is not the proper framework for the necessary resolution of underlying issues in the Israeli-Lebanese relationship, and it must not be construed as such. It is inherently ambiguous, allowing for different interpretations, offering vague timelines, and covering conflicting long-term goals behind similar wording: strengthening Lebanese sovereignty means neutralising Hizbollah for some and defending against Israel for others. It does not address Lebanon’s domestic political situation. It places disproportionate emphasis on the question of Hizbollah and offers nothing to parties (Syria and Iran) with considerable interest and means of obstruction. Like its predecessor, Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004), it unwisely seeks to internationalise a particular aspect of the problem (Hizbollah’s armament) without regionalising its solution (addressing the broader Arab-Israeli conflict or the growing U.S.-Iranian differences).

In sum, 1701 all at once elevates Hizbollah’s armed status to the rank of core international concern; entrusts its resolution to a process (Lebanon’s internal dialogue) that is structurally incapable of dealing with it; and defers the key political step (progress toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace) that is a precondition for settling it.

In carrying out 1701, therefore, the international community should keep its eye on the risks. With its deterrent power severely damaged by a military draw most interpreted as a defeat, Israel will not tolerate brazen attempts by Hizbollah to resupply. Conversely, Hizbollah will not accept efforts by Israel, UNIFIL or its Lebanese opponents to try to achieve politically what could not be done militarily. Implementation should focus on several interrelated goals:

  • containing Hizbollah, not by aggressively seeking to disarm it, but through the presence of thousands of Lebanese and UN troops in the south who can constrain its freedom of action, ability to display weapons and, especially, capacity to resupply. Hizbollah will test UNIFIL’s resolve; UN forces must be ready to respond in a measured way that does not trigger escalation. Indeed, the establishment of checkpoints throughout the area already is confronting Hizbollah with a far different environment than the one it faced between 2000 and 2006;
  • containing Israel, by taking a clear stance against any violation of Lebanese sovereignty, in particular through over-flights. Neither UNIFIL nor the LAF can risk being perceived as securing Israel without securing Lebanon or as being more preoccupied with one goal than with the other;
  • strengthening the Lebanese state by empowering the LAF to become a guardian of national borders and a protector of its lands, and forcing it to cede the place it has long held as the arbiter of internal disputes to other security organs and the police; and
  • drying up the immediate potential triggers of renewed conflict through a prisoner exchange and setting in motion a process to resolve the Shebaa farms issue.

While these measures can help stabilise the situation, they are not sustainable in the longer term. Once again, regional and international actors are using Lebanese players as proxies to promote their interests, exploiting and exacerbating both pre-existing domestic tensions and the political system’s dysfunctionalities. Solving the question of Hizbollah and achieving real stability on the Israeli-Lebanese border will require steps both by the Lebanese state to reform the political system and, crucially, by the Quartet and the wider international community to engage Syria and Iran and work toward a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Beirut/Jerusalem/Amman/Brussels, 1 November 2006

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