To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 16, 2005

Q. What dynamic is developing re: Hizballah and the Lebanon-Israel border? Q. Why are Israelis indifferent to Sharansky resigning from Sharon's govt.?

The views of Yossi Alpher, Israeli Security Expert, do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Q. Hizballah is heating up the Lebanese border with Israel even as the Arab media reports contacts aimed at arranging an Israeli withdrawal from the controversial Shaba Farms (Har Dov) area where the Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese borders meet. What sort of dynamic is developing here?

A. The dynamic involves the impending Lebanese elections, additional democratization efforts in Lebanon spearheaded by UNSCR 1559, and Syria's withdrawal from the country.

According to the Arab press, efforts to arrange an Israeli withdrawal from Shaba have been initiated both by Lebanese pro-western politicians and by the Bush administration. They center on the premise that, if Israel leaves Shaba, Hizballah will no longer have a rationale for maintaining an armed presence in southern Lebanon--indeed, for maintaining a separate militia at all. If Hizballah disarms or, short of that, withdraws its forces from the Lebanese-Israeli border in favor of a Lebanese Army presence, then the cause of unity and democracy in Lebanon will have been served and Iranian and Syrian influence reduced. Hizballah will serve as a model for other Islamist groups like Hamas to abandon terrorism and become strictly political actors.

Advocates of this approach cite UNSCR 1559, which called not only for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but also for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon, including Hizballah. They also cite President Bush's appeal to Hizballah in March, following a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, to disarm and participate in Lebanese political life. They assume that, were this to happen, the US would then remove Hizballah from its terrorist list.

The Shaba Farms were conquered by Israel from Syria in 1967. Even before then, Lebanon claimed the area as its territory. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 it did not withdraw from Shaba. The UN, which supervised the delineation of the Israeli-Lebanese international border, concurred with the Israeli judgment that the Shaba region is Syrian, hence its return should be negotiated with Syria. The Syrian leadership at the time made some vague references to having ceded Shaba to Lebanon, but never backed them up with documents demanded by the UN.

While the Barak government at the time sincerely wanted to end all territorial disputes with Lebanon, it feared that if it abandoned Shaba it would set two negative precedents. First, Syria might "cede" additional territories on the Mt. Hermon slopes of the Golan to Lebanon in order to oblige Israel to withdraw from them. Secondly, Hizballah would come up with additional territorial demands along the Israel-Lebanon border--it has a list of abandoned Arab villages on the Israeli side of the border that it occasionally claims for Lebanon--in order to justify its ongoing militancy.

Ever since the Israeli withdrawal, Hizballah has trumpeted the occupation of Shaba as its casus belli against Israel. Every few months it launches a series of provocative attacks like the ones over Israel's Independence Day weekend, when katyusha rockets fell in and near an Israeli village (apparently fired by dissident Palestinian groups sponsored by Hizballah), and mortar rounds were fired at IDF emplacements in the Shaba area.

This most recent round of attacks must be understood against the backdrop of Lebanon's elections, a four-stage process that begins at the end of this month. The Lebanese government claims to be powerless to prevent Hizballah's provocations, and effectively legitimizes its armed presence in the South. Hizballah fears that an anti-Syrian, Christian/Druze coalition will triumph in the elections and clamp down on the militant Shi'ite movement. Hence it is apparently seeking to escalate its conflict with Israel in order to persuade the Lebanese government to postpone the elections. Short of achieving that goal, it wants to remind the Shi'ite electorate, its constituency, of its vital role in "defending" Lebanon.

An additional objective of Hizballah relates to the current initiative--as reported in the Arab press--to arrange a coordinated Israeli withdrawal from Shaba. The idea is for Syria to renounce its sovereignty over Shaba in favor of Lebanon. Israel would withdraw, with an international force moving in to occupy the region, pending its transfer to Lebanese Army forces. The Lebanese government would then insist that Hizballah disarm. Meanwhile, the moderate forces in Lebanon would present this as a triumph for their approach.

Hizballah would probably be happier with the status quo, i.e., with Shaba's ownership status disputed and Hizballah leading the Lebanese patriotic camp over the issue. But if Shaba is to be transferred by Israel to Lebanon, Hizballah would undoubtedly seek to present this as a triumph for its armed opposition to Israel, much as it did in May 2000 when Israel withdrew from the South. This reasoning provides yet another rationale for Hizballah's latest attacks.

Israel has adopted a policy of minimal response to the current Hizballah armed provocations, particularly insofar as they have not caused any Israeli casualties thus far. One key Israeli consideration is to enable the Lebanese elections to proceed unimpeded, lest Israel be accused of sabotaging them, and in the hope that they will install a more independent government that begins to dismantle Hizballah's armed forces.

While the Sharon government claims it has not been asked to leave Shaba, the idea has been bandied about in recent months in Israeli security circles as a possible Israeli gesture to Lebanon following the Syrian departure. Few in Israeli security circles claim that Shaba is vital for Israel's security. Rather, it is a political issue. The problem is how to ensure that, when Israel leaves, Shaba is occupied by an independent and strong Lebanese force, one that obeys government orders, rather than Hizballah.

Q. Why are Israelis indifferent to the resignation of Natan Sharansky from the Sharon government? How does the resignation affect Sharon's efforts to maintain majority support for disengagement?

A. Sharansky never struck the same chord of close identification and support among Israelis as he did in the US. One reason is the presence in Israel of so many other former Soviet dissidents, some of whom are critical of him. Another is that, outside the dissident community, Sharansky was not known to Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel until he went into politics here. Sharansky also suffered from the typical attitude of veteran Israelis toward all new immigrants: let them smooth out their accents and prove themselves on our soil first. Finally, Sharanksy never "clicked" with Israeli liberal circles that support human rights causes, because he has identified himself with the Israeli settler right wing and the occupation, and has never done anything for the cause of Arab human rights.

In particular, in key ministerial posts in the Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon governments, Sharansky systematically helped build settlements (as housing minister), using the same semi-legal means of transferring funds that all recent Israeli governments have been accused of. He ignored Arab rights even when (as minister for Jerusalem affairs) his decisions directly influenced the well being of some 200,000 Palestinians. When questioned about his deliberate avoidance of Arab-related human rights issues in Israel, Sharansky once told Haaretz: "If I had wanted to devote my life to the universal struggle for human rights I could have stayed in Russia. I came to Israel to fight for Jewish rights." That attitude turned him into just another right wing politician in Israel, and not a particularly successful one at that.

Sharansky's theories regarding the relationship between democratization and peace have generated a positive response in Israel mainly among those right wingers who are looking for "respectable" excuses to avoid giving up territory to the Palestinians. His theories ignore the relative success of Israel's peace agreements with non-democratic Egypt and Jordan. And while the passing of Yasser Arafat and the emergence of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as Palestinian leader appeared in some ways to validate Sharansky's argument that Israel had to wait for Palestinian democracy before making peace, he has never given his blessing to a peace process with Abbas. Nor has he explained how Israel should deal with a democratic Palestinian political process that brings Hamas to a position of major influence. Indeed, he has never offered the slightest indication that he understands or is prepared to engage the nuances and intricacies of Middle East politics.

Thus the dissonance between Sharansky's dissident past in the USSR and his political career in Israel has turned off most of his potential supporters in Israel. In the US, however, he has long wielded greater influence, most recently with President Bush, who enthusiastically endorses his latest book, and Time magazine, which chose him as one of the most important global influentials, but including significant American Jewish and neo-conservative circles as well.

Sharansky has no scruples about campaigning among these circles against Israeli government policy. In the spring of 2000, during the countdown to the Camp David summit, after resigning from the Barak government (indeed, in some instances even before he had resigned), he made the rounds of American Jewish audiences campaigning against Barak's peace plan. When I was sent by Barak in early July, 2000, to prepare the American Jewish community for his Camp David proposals and the possible consequences of a successful summit, I found that Sharansky had been everywhere before me, describing Barak's policies as a sell-out of Israel's interests and persuading Jewish communities and organizations to publish full page ads condemning Barak's policies.

Sharansky resigned from the Knesset and joined the Likud upon becoming a minister in Sharon's government in early 2003. He resigned to make room for another member of his party in the Knesset, and dissolved his Yisrael b'Aliyah Party because its dismal showing in elections convinced him that the days of strictly Russian politics in Israel were over. Hence his withdrawal from the political scene has no immediate effect. Whether he is able to muster enough support within the Likud to become a power factor there remains to be seen. His democracy arguments ring hollow in a region where free elections appear to be empowering Israel's (and America's) worst enemies, and some autocratic regimes (Egypt, Jordan) count themselves among Israel's and America's friends and allies.

Now Sharansky appears headed for another anti-government campaign in the US, this time against disengagement, the reason he cites for his latest resignation (and reportedly charging $35,000 a lecture). It is essential that PM Sharon and those American Jewish circles that actively back disengagement provide credible spokespersons to speak out against the Soviet dissident turned Israeli settler apologist. It would also be helpful to direct President Bush's attention to the startling contrast between Bush's support for disengagement and a two state solution, on the one hand, and his support for Sharansky, on the other.