Opinion: Keeping Hezbollah and Israel from waging war

NEW YORK — Lebanon’s southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, and it could easily spiral out of control. At a White House meeting last week, President Barack Obama asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to stop the flow of weapons being smuggled into south Lebanon.

But Obama knows that the most powerful military force in Lebanon does not answer to the president or any other Lebanese politician. The Shiite militant group Hezbollah is far more accountable to its main patron, Iran, than to any internal Lebanese constituency. And so Lebanon — a small country wedged between Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea — once again finds itself at the mercy of battles beyond its borders.

In November, after five months of political bickering, the new U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri agreed to share power with Hezbollah and its allies. But Hariri’s government will have no influence over the militia and its weapons buildup along the border. As long as the Lebanese army remains weak, Hezbollah can argue that its fighters are needed to defend the country against Israel.

When Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, all of the country’s militias disarmed. But the government allowed Hezbollah to keep its weapons as “national resistance” against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which continued until May 2000. After the Israelis withdrew, many Lebanese asked why the group did not disarm and become a strictly political movement. Hezbollah insisted that its mission of resistance was not over because Israel was still occupying a strip of land — called Shebaa Farms — at the murky intersection of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. (The United Nations later determined that the area is Syrian territory, not Lebanese.)

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 ammunition. Israel claimed that it was an Iranian arms shipment intended to reach Hezbollah through Syria. That led to a new round of threats from both sides.

The border has been flaring up in recent months: Two suspected Hezbollah weapons caches mysteriously exploded, and Al Qaeda-linked groups were blamed for two salvos of rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon. Under the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war, U.N. peacekeepers 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 the U.N. resolution with frequent overflights into Lebanese airspace and by planting surveillance devices on Lebanese territory.

As it wades into Lebanon’s tortured sectarian politics, the Obama administration needs to develop a more nuanced policy, especially when it comes to Hezbollah. The president’s soaring rhetoric will mean little if the Arab world perceives his administration as favoring Israel. After his meeting with the Lebanese president, Obama came off as more worried about Israeli security than Lebanon’s complaints. “President Suleiman emphasized his concerns with respect to Israel,” Obama said. “I emphasized our concerns about the extensive arms that are smuggled into Lebanon that potentially serve as a threat to Israel.”

Obama did pledge to continue beefing up the Lebanese army and security forces, so that they can eventually secure the country’s borders. Since 2006, the United States has committed $410 million in military assistance to Lebanon, including ammunition, artillery, small boats, Humvees, cargo trucks, grenade launchers, rifles and other light weapons. Washington has hesitated, however, to provide more sophisticated arms like anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters, an air defense system and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. Israeli officials are worried that such weapons might one day be used against them, and they are pressuring Washington to slow the transfer of arms. But the Lebanese army needs this heavier weaponry to make a convincing case that it is capable of replacing Hezbollah.

The current situation is also untenable: Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and makes decisions, without the involvement of the Lebanese state, that lead to war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to hold the Lebanese government responsible for the militia’s actions. That puts Hariri and Suleiman in a no-win situation, and makes them dependent on Obama to restrain Israel.

The 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 U.S. officials must eventually reach out to Hezbollah, which the State Department designates as a terrorist organization. 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 U.S. officials can leverage their influence with Hezbollah’s other major backer, Syria, which is trying to improve its relations with Washington.

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah has an immediate interest in starting a war. Israel is more concerned right now about Iran (although if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Shiite militia would likely be part of the Iranian retaliation). As part of Lebanon’s new government, Hezbollah cannot afford to instigate 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.

While Hezbollah has shown some willingness to adapt and evolve politically, the movement is unlikely to give up its weapons — and the notion of perpetual resistance — without a political settlement between the West and Iran.

Unfortunately, that kind of regional deal seems out of reach for the moment. Without a strong central state that can defend itself, Lebanon will remain a powder keg that could ignite the Middle East.