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Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East conflict

Israel and Lebanon have more pressing concerns than war with each other, but bickering could escalate to incite war if the US and Europe don't help.

By Mohamad Bazzi / December 4, 2009

New York

Lebanon finally has a new government after five months of political bickering. But Western policymakers should not shift their attention away from this small country that has been the staging ground of proxy wars in the Middle East.

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The new US-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri will share power with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies. When Mr. Hariri's coalition won parliamentary elections in June, a seductive conventional wisdom emerged in the West: Because Hezbollah and its partners were defeated at the polls, the group would lose some of its luster and a pro-US alliance would rule Lebanon.

In fact, Hezbollah remains the dominant military and political force. It holds the key to both domestic and external stability in Lebanon.

Hariri's government will have no influence over Hezbollah's militia and its weapons buildup along Lebanon's southern border with Israel – the most volatile border in the Middle East today. If there is renewed conflict along the border, it could be a catastrophic setback for stability in the region. The United States and Europe must ensure that does not happen.

The formation of a new government does not push back the specter of another war with Israel. In July 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, setting off a 34-day war that crippled Lebanon's infrastructure, displaced 1 million people, and killed more than 1,200 Lebanese – the majority of them civilians. Since that conflict ended, both sides have been preparing for a new round.

Hezbollah leaders boast that the group now has an even larger and more potent cache of missiles than it did three years ago. Israeli officials, who are also escalating their war rhetoric, estimate Hezbollah's arsenal at between 40,000 and 80,000 rockets. On Nov. 3, the Israeli navy intercepted a ship in the Mediterranean Sea that was carrying 500 tons of rockets, mortars, and other weapons. Israeli officials claimed that it was an Iranian arms shipment intended to reach Hezbollah through Syria, which led to a new round of bellicose threats from both sides.

The basic problem is that Hezbollah makes decisions that could lead to war – without consulting or involving the Lebanese state. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to hold the Lebanese government responsible for the militia's actions. This puts Hariri in a difficult position and it will make him reliant on the Obama administration to keep Israel at bay.

Neither side has an immediate interest in starting a war

Israel is more concerned about Iran than Hezbollah, although if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, it is likely that the militia would be part of the Iranian retaliation. Hezbollah, meanwhile, is absorbed in internal Lebanese politics and cannot afford to be seen as instigating another war with Israel.