In a very significant and potentially dangerous move, Israel’s security Cabinet recently decided to reverse its long-standing policy of distinguishing between Hezbollah and the democratically elected Lebanese government. Instead, Israel has threatened to respond to actions by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah by attacking Lebanese state institutions and the Lebanese national army — on which the United States and the international community have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster as a counterweight to Hezbollah.
The reasons cited by Israeli officials for this abrupt shift in policy are Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s newly formed national unity government and a Lebanese Cabinet statement recognizing the right to “resistance” until the disputed border area of the Shebaa Farms is returned. These compromises allowing Hezbollah to retain arms independent of the Lebanese state are unwelcome to many Lebanese — not only to Israel and others. Yet they hardly constitute a conclusive victory for the militant group, and they certainly do not justify the radical and sweeping policy shift Israel has undertaken.
Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s current government is restricted to one token minister out of 30 — no different than the arrangement in previous governments. Furthermore, the Cabinet statement on the Lebanese right to “resistance” until the return of the Shebaa Farms is arguably a measured improvement over previous ones that, due to Syrian pressure, unconditionally supported Hezbollah’s military activities.
What Israel’s latest decision on Lebanon demonstrates is its lack of regard toward Lebanese moderates who have repeatedly confronted Hezbollah in the hope of building a sovereign, liberal and peaceful Lebanon.
These are the more than 1 million Lebanese who in the 2005 Cedar Revolution peacefully took to the streets to directly challenge Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. They are the same people who supported the government earlier this year when it confronted Hezbollah by deciding to dismantle the organization’s countrywide communications infrastructure and remove the pro-Hezbollah security chief of Beirut’s airport. It is worth remembering that the democratically elected government was forced to rescind its decision after being left to fend for itself, with little support from the international community, against an armed assault by Hezbollah.
These Lebanese have not vanished. They are still there, and they number in the millions. They need to be spared the wrath of collective punishment and misguided policies, which only serve to undercut them.
Israel will not defeat Hezbollah by adopting failed strategies that force Lebanese society into embracing the militant group as its only viable means of defense. By lumping all of Lebanese society into the same category with Hezbollah and threatening collective punishment, this is exactly what Israel’s latest Cabinet decision will do. It will leave the Lebanese with no choice but to grudgingly stand behind Hezbollah, just as they were forced to do last month when Israel repatriated Samir Kuntar and other Lebanese prisoners to the militant group instead of to the Lebanese state.
Israel must cease adopting policies that undermine efforts by the United States and the international community to strengthen the Lebanese state and the moderate forces within Lebanon. Whether intentional or not, that is exactly what it is doing.
Bombing Lebanese state institutions that compete with Hezbollah in providing social services and security would not serve the interest of regional peace and stability. A more sensible approach would allow the United States and the international community to strengthen the capability of those in Beirut who are striving to spread state authority at the expense of Iranian and Syrian proxies.
Firas Maksad is the Washington director of the Beirut-based Lebanon Renaissance Foundation.