Five comments on the Israel-Lebanon border clash and what it means

Sept Tuesday’s flare-up on the Israel-Lebanon border continues to be analyzed from every angle. Thus far at least, the deaths of three Lebanese (two soldiers and a journalist) and one Israeli soldier have not spiraled into a broader escalation. The much-dreaded and talked about summer war is still a matter of speculation, albeit now heightened ...

By , the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator.



Tuesday’s flare-up on the Israel-Lebanon border continues to be analyzed from every angle. Thus far at least, the deaths of three Lebanese (two soldiers and a journalist) and one Israeli soldier have not spiraled into a broader escalation. The much-dreaded and talked about summer war is still a matter of speculation, albeit now heightened (all of this exactly on the fourth anniversary of the 2006 war).

The exact sequence of events is still unclear. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had informed the relevant UN officials of a planned tree clearance deployment in the border area. UNIFIL updated the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as per protocol while apparently asking the IDF to postpone its activity. The Israelis undertook their somewhat python-esque mission (Israel has none-too-subtle surveillance cameras throughout its border area with Lebanon. The Lebanese don’t like it, the trees get in the way, but until this week they were the only innocent victims). An Israeli soldier can be seen almost dangling from a crane to fell the tree – he is clearly over the border fence though the UN has clarified that this particular territory, while on the Lebanese side of the fence, is still on the Israeli side of the UN-demarcated blue line border. The Lebanese seem to be disputing this.

Here is where the respective versions of events go their separate ways. Seeing their side of the fence transgressed and having shouted for Israel to pull back, the LAF either fired warning shots or immediately responded with lethal fire at an IDF position. The IDF either responded with lethal fire of its own on LAF positions or escalated by taking this action. Initial investigations suggest that the Lebanese side escalated. A brief exchange between the LAF and IDF ensued, both sides took casualties, and UNIFIL together with Washington, Paris, and other capitols urgently intervened to prevent further escalation.

In addition to dissecting exactly what happened, the immediate question is whether this will develop into a broader outbreak of violence. That development would not exactly come as a shocking surprise – both the International Crisis Group and the Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action have released reports in the past month looking into this very question and how it could be prevented. The reports were respectively entitled, "Drums of War" and "A Third Lebanon War."

The CFR report, authored by former U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer, considered such a war to be almost inevitable and focused a significant part of its contingency planning recommendations on limiting the scope of such a conflagration (the report suggested that the U.S. might "encourage a limited Israeli military strike as a means of forestalling a major military operation by Israel"). Against this backdrop, Tuesday’s events might be considered to carry a foreboding echo, and the quiet that has prevailed since the flare-up does not mean that we are in the clear, yet.

Nevertheless and somewhat paradoxically, Tuesday’s incident could help avert a more intense and bloody round of violence. The Israel-Lebanon border was not exactly being ignored in international diplomacy but it was certainly not on the front burner. That has now changed. The U.S., the UN, and various players in the region are not taking any chances, and anything that might signal further escalation will now be placed under a far more intense diplomatic microscope than would have been the case just 48 hours ago. That much is good news.

A fair working assumption is that while none of the key protagonists (the Government of Israel, the Government of Lebanon, and Hezbollah) is interested in war, the hair-trigger tension and fragility of the situation on the Israel-Lebanon border has the capacity to produce miscalculations that carry devastating consequences. What initial conclusions then can be drawn from the aftermath of Tuesday’s clash?

1. The Internal Lebanese Dynamic             

While Israel has threatened to hold the government of Lebanon responsible for any future clash or attack by Hezbollah (and the IDF attacked not only Hezbollah but also Lebanese targets in the 2006 summer war), the LAF have not made itself a party to previous rounds of fighting.  This time the LAF was at the heart of (and perhaps even initiated) a bloody round with Israel, and Hezbollah sat on the sidelines. Lebanese internal politics still exhibit a surfeit of fragility, fluidity, and conspiracy theory-driven posturing. Nevertheless, we are in a quite prolonged period in which a sustained effort (kicked off by Qatari mediation) has successfully held together a wall-to-wall coalition government in Lebanon and prevented the outbreak of internal clashes (since May 2008).

This relative domestic calm was considered to be under threat in recent weeks against the backdrop of the anticipated Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) decision to charge members of Hezbollah with involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Assad together visited Lebanon last week in what amounted to a joint peacekeeping mission attempting to lower the tensions between their respective allies in the Lebanese polity. Indeed, both Future Movement leader (and Rafik’s son) Saad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have avoided the harsh rhetoric that sometimes characterizes Lebanese politics and demonstrated a degree of mutual deference in their dealings that has surprised many.

This week’s events will almost certainly serve to further decrease the prospects of an internal clash and to solidify some measure of shared Lebanese solidarity in the face of a common foe (Israel). The LAF has now both suffered losses at the hands of Israel and inflicted a casualty on Israel. This will somewhat change its own self-perception and certainly change how Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanese society view the LAF. If there is to be an outbreak of Israeli-Lebanese violence then it is not unreasonable to expect closer LAF-Hezbollah cooperation than has ever previously been the case.

Speaking several hours after the clashes, Sheikh Nasrallah claimed to place his fighters at the disposal of the LAF, and enthusiastically talked of how he was coordinating with President Suleiman, Prime Minister Hariri, and Parliamentary Speaker Berri. One shouldn’t get carried away — there will be challenges ahead, not least how Hezbollah responds if and when the STL decision is announced (Nasrallah has promised that next week he will reveal supposed evidence of Israel being behind the assassination). In addition, PM Hariri may now have to decide on a response if and when the US exerts pressure for the LAF to distance itself from this week’s events and its newly discovered national pride (more on that later). Internal political suspicion and mistrust have not magically evaporated, but in certain significant ways, we are in a new Lebanese reality.

2. Israel’s Next Moves

While Israel’s current governing coalition talks a tough game, this incident was notable in the lack of enthusiasm Israel displayed for turning it into the occasion for a more aggressive military action against Lebanon. Israel, for now, has responded positively to international calls to deescalate. The Israeli government has for sometime been warning that it would not allow Hezbollah to continue upgrading its military capacity and that the Lebanese state should do more to prevent arms reaching Hezbollah and would be held responsible were hostilities to break out. Kurtzer, in his CFR paper, concluded that an Israeli military move in response to Hezbollah’s arming of itself has become unavoidable, suggesting that of the two scenarios in which conflict may break out, an Israeli-initiated attack (as opposed to Hezbollah starting hostilities) was more likely. But that assessment is somewhat out of sync with Benjamin Netanyahu’s modus operandi as prime minister of Israel. Part of the Netanyahu narrative to the Israeli public goes something like this: "I’m a responsible leader in a harsh neighborhood and harsh times. Unlike other leaders, I don’t go for military adventures and I also don’t go for peace adventures." Most observers would hardly take issue with Netanyahu’s lack of enthusiasm for peacemaking, but the other half of the equation is also borne out by his track record as PM.

Israel has not been involved in anything approaching a major military confrontation or action either during Netanyahu’s first term as PM from 1996-99 nor in the first 15 months of this second tenure (unpleasant as they were, the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident this May and the clashes following the opening of the tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1996 hardly fall into that category). The same cannot be said for any of Israel’s other prime ministers in the last 15 years at least: the centrist Ehud Olmert fought two wars in two years as PM; Labor PM Ehud Barak led Israel through the initial escalation phase of the Second Intifada while Ariel Sharon spent much of his term as PM escalating that conflict further; Shimon Peres’s half-year tenure (post-Rabin assassination) saw the large-scale Operation Grapes of Wrath attack on Lebanon in April 1996.

Netanyahu’s response to Tuesday’s events is primarily focused on the diplomatic arena, notably pressing Lebanon’s friends in the West to reconsider their support for (and in particular their military assistance to) the LAF. In a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet on Wednesday, Netanyahu saved most of his bellicose rhetoric for Hamas and the recent rocket-fire incidents in Israel’s south.

Netanyahu is cautious and well aware that it was a war in Lebanon that wrecked the premiership of his predecessor. He will be pulled in opposing directions – on the one hand to avoid a risky military foray which is anyway unlikely to deliver a decisive outcome, might again expose the weaknesses of a superior military power in an asymmetrical conflict setting, might spread beyond the Lebanese arena (Syria has suggested that it could get involved under certain circumstances), and would likely lead to Israel’s further isolation. On the other hand, Israel is clearly uncomfortable with the re-armament advances being made by Hezbollah and talk of restoring its so-called "deterrence." Netanyahu is notorious for sweating and quite easily bowing under pressure – the question being what will be greater, the pressure to act militarily or to proceed with caution (the Obama administration might want to take note of this equation and not just in relation to Lebanon).

Of course the bigger question is not just a tactical one and cuts to the heart of the current Israeli government’s vision of Israel’s long-term security and place in the region. The ICG report points out, "The only truly effective approach is one that would seek to resume – and conclude – meaningful Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace talks. There is no other answer to the Hezbollah dilemma, and for now few better ways to affect Tehran’s calculations." In his current term as PM, Netanyahu though has shown little to no inclination for advancing peace with Syria and by extension Lebanon (unlike his Defense Minister and Chief of Staff who both prioritize progress on the Syria track, and indeed Netanyahu himself during the late 90’s sent out peace feelers to the Syrians).

The alternative for Israel to ending occupations (including in the Golan) and securing recognized borders and a new, more peaceful equilibrium probably includes a lot of Israeli-initiated military actions in order to restore the balance in its favor or in the laundered lingua franca, to mow the lawn. To put it in more blunt terms, absent peace we will see Israel unleash disproportionate and destructive violence on its vastly outgunned neighbors, with all the consequences that entails.

3. Another Headache for U.S. Diplomacy

This week’s events were the second occasion in as many months in which the U.S. found two of its regional allies more or less in armed conflict with one another (the first being the flotilla incident between Israel and Turkey). Being the unquestioning defender and all-weather political safety net for an Israel that has increasingly lost its strategic (not to mention moral) compass puts America’s standing in the Middle East and ability to advance its self-interests in a rather sticky place. The Saad Hariri government in Beirut and the March 14 Movement which he leads are considered close allies of the U.S. and part of what is referred to as an "axis of moderation," which became a central pillar of U.S. regional policy under President George W. Bush (a policy which has undergone only a limited review under the Obama administration).

Golden rule number one for an American ally – be nice to Israel and whatever you do, don’t shoot at them. Turkey’s ruling party faces a torrent of lobbying and congressional backlash (including these recent congressional hearings) after having dared to challenge Israel’s policy in Gaza. It seems that the Lebanese government might soon be coming in for some similar treatment in Washington, DC. It is worth noting that even Jordan’s King Abdullah had to be browbeaten by the White House into taking a meeting with Israel’s current leader, and it is only the Egyptian regime – obsessed by its own survival and succession – that is on its best behavior, with Mubarak and Netanyahu exchanging pledges of ‘best friends forever.’

America is rather considerably invested in Hariri, his movement, and the assistance it provides to the LAF, which amounted to $162 million in 2009. In recent congressional hearings, both Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador-designee Maura Connolly (in her nomination hearings) explained the thinking behind this support and suggested that it should be increased in time, part of the logic being that the LAF is a crucial factor for stability in Lebanon and a counterweight to Hezbollah. Even before this latest incident, U.S. support for the LAF was being questioned in congress. That scrutiny and the pressure to further condition aid will now become intense – a week prior to the border incident, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on the U.S. to reconsider such assistance, claiming "whatever you give the Lebanese armed forces might end up in the hands of Hezbollah." Israeli officials have repeated this with added emphasis, and AIPAC and JINSA are already pressing the same message.

The next period of relations with Lebanon will require some acute diplomatic navigation from Foggy Bottom. The administration’s initial crisis response seemed to help prevent a further conflagration. Under Obama the U.S. has also actively reengaged diplomatically with Syria. Expect Congress to be trying to further tie the administration’s hands, now not just in reference to Syria but also to Lebanon – Republican senators have already placed a hold on sending an ambassador to Damascus after a hiatus of six years. At times under President Bush, America was a party to the escalation of domestic tensions in Lebanon, and there will now be pressure to return to that MO and perhaps to push Hariri into a confrontation with Hezbollah. The Obama team would do well to ignore any such ill-considered advice as would their Lebanese allies, even if the cost is a cut in budgetary assistance.

4. Where Was UNIFIL?

This was one of those occasions where one saw the best and worst of a UN mission at work. The United Nations has an 11,000 strong force deployed in Lebanon in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon mission (the "interim" in its title being somewhat superfluous – UNIFIL has been in Lebanon since 1978). The UNIFIL presence and even its mandate was significantly strengthened after the 2006 war, with its renewed mandate being outlined in UNSCR 1701 and new forces being enlisted from Western European NATO countries including France, Spain, German and Italy- largely at the request of Israel.

UNIFIL deserves credit for immediately making use of its physical presence on the ground, for making contact with the relevant military headquarters of both parties, and for sending its acting chief of mission to the area in question. UNIFIL then convened IDF and LAF officials for a three-way meeting in Naqoura. This facilitation mechanism and the fact that both sides could in their next steps appeal to UNIFIL to clarify matters (rather than, say, shoot at each other) undoubtedly helped to defuse tensions. In this respect, UNIFIL acts as a pressure valve. Both sides, despite some misgivings, work closely with UNIFIL and appreciate the mediating role that it can play. That’s the good.

The bad is that there are clear limitations imposed on what UNIFIL can do (often and for good reason, self-imposed). UNIFIL has neither intervened to disarm non-state actors in Lebanon nor has it prevented Israeli Air Force overflight violations of Lebanese airspace. When UNIFIL does appear to get heavy-handed in southern Lebanon, it apparently soon loses the trust of the local population, and there have been clashes recently against this background. Juan Cole cheekily suggested that UNIFIL could be the ones cutting the trees around the border fence rather than the IDF.

More importantly, UNIFIL is no substitute for a restructuring of the Lebanese state whereby armed militias no longer coexist alongside the official state security apparatus; and by extension of course is no substitute for a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon and a comprehensive regional settlement which would include respect being accorded to Lebanese sovereignty (and the reason/excuse for the existence of militias thereby being removed).

Until that happens, the UN could take a lead role in creating a more robust ongoing coordination mechanism between the sides that clarifies the rules of the game and minimizes and preempts sources of possible tensions and misunderstanding. The ICG in its report calls for the UN along with the governments of the US, France, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon to, "to consider establishing a Contact Group, or alternatively, more informal consultative mechanisms to discuss implementation of Resolution 1701 and address potential flashpoints."

5. And What About That Peace Process?

Tuesday’s incident once again demonstrates that the alternative to a negotiated regional settlement is not the status quo but rather occasional convulsions of violence which sometimes do and sometimes do not ignite a wave of prolonged clashes. Lebanon and Israel have a set of bilateral issues that need to be addressed from relatively minor territorial disputes (the village of Ghajar, Shebaa Farms area, and a precise border delineation) to Israeli concerns of hostilities being launched from Lebanese territory against Israel by non-state actors, and Lebanese concerns regarding Israeli actions that undermine Lebanese sovereignty and of course the question of Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon. It is widely assumed that a stand-alone Israeli-Lebanon bilateral peace deal (something that has been tried in the past and spectacularly failed) is not a realistic proposition but would need to be part of a broader regional realignment. There are currently no peace negotiations between Israel and Lebanon or Israel and Syria. There is no comprehensive regional peace effort. While the current US administration has expressed its intention to pursue a comprehensive peace, it has very much focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track, where there has been little movement.  

The peace process industry is absorbed by the likely resumption in the near future of American shepherded Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but virtually everyone in the region is already dismissing those as lacking any real credibility or prospects for success – and with good reason. This latest spike in violence on the Israel-Lebanon border should serve as a timely reminder for policymakers in Washington that a comprehensive regional negotiation should very much be on the agenda and that siloing the separate peace tracks is as illogical as it is ineffective.

The Syrian and Lebanese tracks, de-occupation and rights for the Palestinians, recognition and final borders for Israel, the broader Arab Peace Initiative, diplomatic efforts with Iran, and even relations with Turkey are all linked. It is time for a policy that recognizes that and wraps its head around an inclusive new approach to building an architecture for regional stability and security.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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