Opinion

The US should make a U-turn on its approach to Hezbullah

Past efforts to uproot the militant group have failed. Obama must try a different tack and focus on Israel and Lebanon.

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The US government has been trying unsuccessfully to uproot the military wing of Hezbollah for over a decade.

It continues to fail because Washington is headed in the wrong direction – the United States still does not understand Hezbollah's role or appreciate its multiple faces, and instead opts for quick solutions that add fuel to a burning Middle East.

To uproot the military wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Obama needs to make a U-turn and capitalize on the good relations this administration has with Israel.

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In the recent past, the US government has opted for three courses of action that have either backfired or proved ineffective in weakening the group.

First, the US supported an Israeli attack (in 2006) that forced Lebanon back 20 years and killed innocent civilians on both sides, without achieving any military objectives against Hezbollah. Then there was an attempt to defang Hezbollah through Iran, the group's main sponsor.

When President Ahmadinejad was reelected this year, that failed as well. Most recently, Washington has tried to uproot Hezbollah through another ally, Syria. But with an international tribunal under way investigating the assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri – which may or may not evict Syrian officials – the situation could become very complex. [Editor’s note: The original version of this essay misstated the nature of the international tribunal investigation.]

A big part of the problem is that the US is only looking at Hezbollah through a security lens. Washington only sees Hezbollah as a military wing backed by Syria and Iran. To make any headway, the US must acknowledge the diversity of Hezbollah's supporters and move beyond the group's military side to appreciate the religious, political, economic, and social ties that connect Hezbollah with its supporters. The alternative is to risk further alienating and marginalizing over a million Lebanese, mostly Shiite, on the border with Israel.

To be sensitive to this, it means that the real path for sustainable peace in between Lebanon and Israel involves Hezbollah's biggest enemy – Israel.

"We are a nation of today and tomorrow. Others look at the past. We are in peril if we do not do the same," said US Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently, as he pointed out that Hezbollah was created in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon in the civil war.

He's right. Israel gave legitimacy to Hezbollah arms during Lebanon's civil war, and again when it invaded Lebanon in July 2006. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the author's intent about Hezbollah.]

Unlike President Bush, Mr. Obama's family background and open diplomacy gives him appeal in the Middle East. Obama can use this to the region's advantage. Obama is in position to help Israel see that working with Washington to engage in real dialogue to resolve disputes will work to Israel's advantage.

The US should now play the role of effective broker and help negotiate long-term peace between Lebanon and Israel to destroy the legitimacy of Hezbollah's arms.

The UN Security Council, where the US is a member, needs to move beyond recent complaints made by both sides in violation of Resolution 1701 ending the July 2006 war, and address the root causes of the conflict.

Three main issues have floated around for too long because the political will to move forward on them has been absent:

1. Land dispute. A major point of conflict between Lebanon and Israel has been the border. Hezbollah regularly campaigns for the return of a part of land called Shebaa Farms. This land dispute dates back to 1967.

Since Israel declared its withdrawal from all occupied lands in 2000, Hezbollah has insisted that so long as Shebaa Farms is not liberated, Israel remains an occupier, and this justifies the need for arms. The US could begin to address this by using the auspices of the UN to encourage Israel to use the land as a bargaining tool for peace.

2. Prisoners of war on both sides. Given that the last war broke out when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, it should be a priority for the international community to pressure Israel and Hezbollah to put a plan forward to return all prisoners of war.

The US and international community can apply a carrot approach and link the financial assistance granted to both countries with this political objective.

3. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon. The UN needs to find a just and durable solution to deal with these refugees. Given the link between poverty and extremism, Israel stands to benefit most from a solution to the refugee dilemma.

The sooner these issues are brought to the negotiating table and resolved, the greater prospect for peace and stability in the region. It will also help restore respect for the UN and for rule of law.

It's the right time: Obama, more than any other recent US president, is in a position to successfully work with Israel to take the necessary steps. Even Hezbollah realizes that, in the long term, it cannot be both part of the Lebanese government and a military force outside the government.

Ultimately, only a national defense strategy developed in collaboration with all parties in the Lebanese government including Hezbollah will be sustainable for peace. [Editor's note: The original version should have included this line.]

Rima Merhi is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. She has worked as a researcher at the Middle East Institute, as a human rights activist, and as a freelance writer.

[Author's additional comments: This commentary in no way belittles the role Hezbollah played in liberating South Lebanon in 2000. It was my intention to show that Hezbollah is a legitimate player in the Lebanese government, and that in order for peace, Lebanon must resolve its issues with Israel. It is also important for the US to note Hezbullah’s willingness to collaborate with the government to build a national defense strategy. Hezbollah’s military wing is only the means to an end. What is most important is protecting Lebanese soil and Lebanese civilians, particularly the vulnerable population along the Lebanon Israel border. The future of Lebanon lies in a strong Army and government.]

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