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THE CRISIS TODAY - An Insider's Briefing (Friday, July 21, 2006)

Israeli Security Expert Yossi Alpher offers a daily briefing during the elevated crisis in Israel...

Today's Briefing - Friday, July 21

"Not the Enemy, But Not a Reliable Neighbor Either" by Yossi Alpher

In mid-1983, I joined six other academics from Tel Aviv University in a visit to Lebanon. We were the guests of Maronite Christian academics, for a seminar they organized on the future of Israeli-Lebanese relations. At the time, a year or so after Israel's invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, the Maronite-Israeli alliance was on the verge of collapse. The Sabra and Shatila massacre, the murder of Bashir Jumayil and the unreliability of the Maronites as allies had all taken their toll. Israelis were fed up with the Lebanon adventure orchestrated by Ariel Sharon. The academic conference idea was a last-ditch Maronite attempt to shore up the foundations.

We landed by IAF helicopter at Juniya, north of Beirut, under blackout conditions. Our armed escorts from the Lebanese Forces reminded us of mafia gangs. The seminar, held in a beach hotel, featured lectures by both sides on the history of Lebanese-Israeli and even ancient Phoenician-Hebrew relations. But the dominant theme was the Maronites' glorification of Ariel Sharon and insistence that the IDF strike again at Syria and push it back from Lebanese soil.

None of the Israeli delegation had a word of praise for Sharon. The atmosphere was surrealistic, the tension audible despite academic decorum. The clincher came when the Maronite professors, almost as one, turned to us and said, "if you don't get rid of the Syrians for us, we'll have to become their allies!"

That was, and is, Lebanon: torn by inter-communal conflict, unable to stand on its own feet, hating its neighbors but drawing them in cynically to fight its internal wars. In the 23 years that have elapsed since the Juniya meeting, Hezbollah was born and gained strength, aided and abetted by its Iranian coreligionists. It seeks to represent the 40 percent (or more, there are no censuses in Lebanon lest the results bring about total collapse) of Lebanese who are Shi'ites and are under-represented in its anachronistic confessional system. It effectively rules large swaths of the country. Its forces are the best armed and best trained, with Iran and Syria firmly behind them. It would win a civil war.

Israel's current strategy in Lebanon is intended to weaken Hezbollah to such an extent that the central government can, after nearly 40 years, finally exercise its authority in the South. Even assuming we succeed against Hezbollah, the history of those past decades, reflecting as it does Lebanon's built-in limitations as a viable state, suggests that the intended Lebanese government role will be problematic, if not impossible. Communal tensions will still dominate the government; Shi'ite units in the army might not serve the common cause. Hezbollah will rebuild, with Iranian help; both will cite a mandate to lead the downtrodden Shi'ites. The Syrians, then as now, will await the anguished calls of one or more of Lebanon's myriad of ethno-religious communities for help.

One way to bolster the Lebanese government's performance when and if the time comes, could be large-scale international intervention: not an international force on Israel's border but rather a multi-national effort, bordering on a condominium, to reinforce the courage and capacities of Lebanon's government and armed forces.

Another option is to try to neutralize Syria--the weak link in the Iran-Iraqi Shi'ite-Syria-Hezbollah axis, but for Lebanon an overbearing and highly-manipulative neighbor. Israel has ruled out doing this militarily, since the resultant escalation could be extremely dangerous for all parties and the Middle East at large.

That leaves the diplomatic option. In recent years, Bashar Assad has asked Israel repeatedly to renew bilateral peace talks. The Pentagon has responded by asking Israel to rebuff Assad lest he break out of the isolation imposed on him due to his support for terrorists in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. In Ariel Sharon's day that caution was welcomed, since Sharon had no intention of giving up the Golan.

Now this option should be reconsidered. Washington, which helped lay the foundations for Israel's current two-front war by encouraging armed Islamists like Hezbollah and Hamas to participate in premature democratic processes, might stand back. In a renewed Syrian-Israeli peace process, Israel would have to insist that in return for most of the Golan Heights it get not only peace with Syria but peace and quiet in Lebanon and an end to Damascus' support for Palestinian Islamist radicals.

A tall order, but perhaps now is the time to try.

The Crisis Today-An Insider's Briefing is a new daily, internet publication of Americans for Peace Now. A new edition of The Crisis Today will be posted every weekday morning by 9:00 a.m. for as long as the current crisis continues.

The Crisis Today is written by Yossi Alpher, whose views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Link to APN's Crisis Resource Page

Links to previous Briefings:

July 20, 2006
July 19, 2006
July 18, 2006