Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

Recommended: Hezbollah 101: Who is the militant group, and what does it want?

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.

But the danger of heightened rhetoric and a military buildup is that small incidents along the border could spiral out of control. In recent months, there have been two instances of rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon (which were blamed on Al Qaeda-linked groups) and two weapons cache explosions.

On July 14, an explosion destroyed a building in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Silim. United Nations peacekeepers blamed it on a Hezbollah weapons depot that accidentally blew up. A few days later, when UN troops tried to search houses in the town, they were surrounded by hundreds of villagers who pelted them with rocks and forced them to withdraw.

Under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war, UN forces are supposed to intercept illegal weapons shipments and raid storage sites south of the Litani River. They have rarely done so. While Hezbollah continues its arms buildup, Israel has also violated Resolution 1701 by frequently flying into Lebanese airspace and by planting surveillance devices on Lebanese territory.

When Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the country's militias were disarmed. But Hezbollah was allowed to keep its weapons as a "national resistance" against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000.

After the Israelis withdrew, many Lebanese asked why the group did not become a strictly political movement. Hezbollah insisted that its military mission of resistance was not over because Israel was still occupying a strip of land along the border called Shebaa Farms.

What now?

While Hezbollah has shown a willingness to adapt and evolve politically, it is unlikely that the movement would give up its weapons – or the idea of perpetual resistance – without a political settlement between the West and Hezbollah's main patron, Iran.

The Obama administration can avert a new conflict by keeping its attention focused on Lebanon, continuing to support Hariri's government, and helping to strengthen state institutions like the Lebanese Army. But US officials must eventually reach out to Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. Washington could begin indirect outreach through France and other Western countries that maintain contact with Hezbollah.

The administration must also press Israel not to overreact to future incidents along the Lebanese border, which could lead to war. And US officials should leverage their influence with Hezbollah's other major backer, Syria, which is trying to improve its relations with Washington.

None of this will be easy. For now, Hariri's government will depend on the US and Europe to protect it from Israel – and from Hezbollah.

In the absence of a strong central state, Lebanon will remain the victim of proxy battles and foreign intervention.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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