Lebanese Tensions Raise Israeli Fears, but Experts Say for Naught

By Orly Halpern

Published December 08, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.
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Tensions were running high in Beirut this week as a crowd of more than 100,000 Shi’ite protesters continued to camp out in the streets of the Lebanese capital, demanding a greater say in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.

The encampment is an outgrowth of a December 1 rally outside parliament that was organized by Hezbollah and drew an estimated 800,000. The Shi’ite show of strength has raised fears in neighboring countries of a Hezbollah takeover that could turn Lebanon into an Iranian proxy, and pit it against pro-Western countries such an Jordan and Egypt.

Nowhere are the fears running higher than in Jerusalem, where government officials warn that an Iranian proxy on Israel’s northern border could represent a mortal danger, given Iran’s frequent threats to wipe Israel off the map.

Should Hezbollah win increased parliamentary power, said Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “Lebanon will become an ally of Iran, and very soon we shall see Iranian ministers traveling to Lebanon and massive arms supplies to the country.”

So high is the alarm that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last Sunday reportedly ordered his Cabinet ministers to hold their tongues and stop discussing Lebanon publicly, for fear of inadvertently weakening Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a pro-Western moderate who is the main target of the Shi’ite protests.

Among experts, however, opinions are sharply divided over the level of threat in the Lebanese turmoil. “This is not a clash of civilizations, as all sorts of populist leaders here are presenting it,” said Guy Ma’ayan, a Lebanon expert at Hebrew University. “Hezbollah is not a pan-Islamic organization. It’s a local Shi’ite religious organization. It would not try to destroy Israel. It is interested in internal strength.”

Lebanon is governed under a religious power-sharing arrangement known as the National Pact, adopted when French colonial rule ended in 1943. The system calls for a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister and a Shi’ite speaker of parliament, reflecting the balance of power at the time. Today Shi’ites have grow into the largest group with some 40% of the population, leading to complaints that they are underrepresented. One of the demands of the Shi’ite protesters is an extra Cabinet minister, giving them veto power within the Cabinet.

Adding to the tension is the controversial role of neighboring Syria, which entered the country in 1976 as a peacekeeping force to end a civil war but remained as an occupying force until 2005. Since Syria’s departure, a wave of assassinations, believed largely to be the work of Syrian government agents, has targeted outspoken anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

The Shi’ite protesters in Beirut are demanding that the government withdraw support from a United Nations tribunal investigating Syria’s alleged role in one of the assassinations.

Early this week, the Shi’ite encampment had an atmosphere more similar to Woodstock than to a coup-in-waiting, according to local reports. Singing, dancing, praying and placid smoking of water pipes marked the scene, Lebanon’s Daily Star reported. The mood was described as a sharp contrast to the angry demonstrations by pro-Western, anti-Syrian protesters that toppled the government a year and a half ago and forced new elections.

Hezbollah has given orders to its Shi’ite supporters not to get violent, the Star reported, adding that plainclothes Hezbollah security men have “maintained a tight grip on the crowd.”

Outside the encampment, however, there have been repeated incidents of Sunni-Shi’ite violence leading to dozens of injuries. The first death came Sunday, when a Shi’ite protester was killed in a Sunni neighborhood. Thousands of Shi’ites attended his emotional funeral Tuesday, sparking fears of wider violence and possibly civil war.

Israelis following the current crisis have mixed feelings on what to hope for as an outcome. Some observers claim that a civil war would keep the various militant groups busy with each other and distract them from attacking Israel. Others argue that it could prompt renewed shelling of Israel by Hezbollah and Palestinian factions.

Timur Goksel argued that the likeliest result would be renewed shelling — by both Hezbollah and Palestinian groups — as the Beirut government lost control. Goksel is former spokesman of Unifil, the United Nations observer force on the Israel-Lebanon border; he now lectures at the American University in Beirut.

“What happens if there is no government? Then who cares about heeding the law?” Goksel said in a telephone interview from Beirut.

Most observers believe that civil war is not in Hezbollah’s interest, either. Far from gliding into power, the party and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, would likely be blamed for bringing another disaster upon the Lebanese people.

“Nasrallah’s objective,” Ma’ayan said, “is to gain for the Shi’ites the decision-making power they are being denied by a majority government, which is far from being representative.”

If a civil war does not break out, there are three other possible scenarios, observers say. One is that the Shi’ites fold their tents and go home. A second is that the government gives in to Nasrallah’s demands for veto power in the Cabinet. A third is that the government refuses to give in and instead steps down, paving the way for new elections.

The likelihood that the protesters will back down peacefully is seen as slim. Nasrallah is known to be a patient, determined leader, and would not have started this campaign if he didn’t think he could win. And he won’t have a problem keeping up the pressure over time. His faithful supporters will keep camping as long as he tells them to do so.

The remaining two scenarios — Hezbollah veto power or new elections — both represent a threat to Israel, said Steinitz, the Likud foreign-affairs expert. If Hezbollah succeeds in toppling the government, “it will replace it with its own allies and overtake Lebanon,” Steinitz said. “Lebanon will become an ally of Iran, and very soon we shall see Iranian ministers traveling to Lebanon and massive arms supplies to the country.”

Steinitz conceded that were the government to fall, Hezbollah would prefer new elections to a violent takeover. Still, he believes that with its smaller allies, it could win control of parliament and of the Lebanese army, after which it could “mobilize all resources and manpower to make another war on Israel.”

But polls suggest that with Shi’ites numbering far less than half the electorate, Hezbollah would get only slightly more votes than it already has — not enough, even with its allies, to gain a majority in the parliament, much less create an Iranian proxy-state. “Lebanon cannot become a proxy state of anyone,” Goksel said. “With 17 different sectarian groups? It doesn’t work that way here.”

More widely shared is the fear that a Hezbollah-led Lebanon might sign a mutual defense treaty with Iran by which Lebanon would attack Israel if Iran were attacked by Israel or America.

“If there is a war on Iran, whether Hezbollah is in government or not, you can be sure there will be missiles aimed at Israel,” said Paul Scham, an adjunct scholar at the Washington think tank the Middle East Institute.

The final scenario, in which the Hezbollah bloc receives only veto power, is seen as less threatening to Israel. Nasrallah “won’t be able to mobilize the entire state of Lebanon and its resources in order to challenge Israel,” Steinitz said. “But he will be able to defend Hezbollah’s capacity to rearm its forces, and he can prevent any decision to disarm.”

What most divides experts is whether the rise of Hezbollah to power would embolden other Islamist groups in neighboring countries. “There could be a domino effect of the rise of Islamic groups, which could affect Jordan and Egypt,” Ma’ayan said.

However, several key factors make the domino effect unlikely, Scham said. Hezbollah’s rise has come within a democratic system. In most neighboring states, democracy is limited. And in some, such as Egypt, Islamist parties are illegal. Moreover, other Arab Islamists, most of them Sunni, “are afraid of Shia and Persian influence,” Scham said.

“The best thing Israel can do is to stay away from this mess,” Goksel advised. “Any Israeli intervention in any manner will have negative repercussions. If they keep saying ‘We have to support Siniora,’ they are not supporting him. They are minimizing his chances of survival.”

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