August 13, 2009

Signal Flares

Playing the strongman is a taxing role unless the actor is a natural. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never seems to tire of sparking controversy. While touring the Lakhish region on the northern Gaza border, he told reporters, “If Hezbollah joins the Lebanese government as an official entity, let it be clear that the Lebanese government, as far as we are concerned, is responsible for any attack - any attack - from its area on the state of Israel.”

Naturally Hezbollah took offense and unleashed its own public relations barrage. The next day Netanyahu tried to squelch the story by clarifying, “We do not see anything special up there. There are no winds of war blowing. This is a storm created by the media.”

Maybe his words were intended to be innocent, but the genie is free. If Netanyahu revealed any of his strategy to disarm Hezbollah, he should reconsider the signals he’s sending.

That Israel’s fear of Hezbollah is rising is expected. The resilient organization withstood the blow that Hamas struggled to counter and continued its weapons flow without interruption. Now Iran is closer than ever. Even worse for Israel, Hezbollah has successfully transitioned into a political party with legal representation. Leader Hassan Nasrallah has dug into Lebanon, solidifying Hezbollah as a permanent fixture in the Middle East.

Netanyahu feels disarmament is slipping away. Israeli officials have raised several official complaints, and many unofficial ones, to the UN since he became prime minister. The most recent cause for alarm, an alleged weapons cache discovered by the IDF in July, confirmed the worst to Israel. The UN concurred that Hezbollah had violated Council Resolution 1701 by storing weapons in civilian structures.

“This house was connected to an entire underground network that was built right under the noses of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army,” one IDF officer said. “This is a major violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.”

Hezbollah has unquestionably broken Resolution 1701, which explicitly calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed. Mixing guerrilla tactics with political strategy makes Hezbollah a more potent threat to Israel than Hamas, but the bells of irony toll when Israel protests to the UN after defying it during the Gaza War. Meanwhile the UN’s futility can be observed with each Israeli objection. Over three years have passed since the July War, enough time to assume 1701 is dead.

Instead of wasting energy with the UN, Israel should understand why 1701 failed. Hezbollah has a solid political and social foundation, an undeniable truism. Hezbollah is a manifestation of the Lebanese Shiite people, a shield to those who had none. Israel must accept Hezbollah as a perennial feature in Lebanese politics and society, but Netanyahu is trying vainly to scare people away from Nasrallah.

Israel has adopted the tactic of making people feel the consequences of their political decisions, penalizing those who vote for Hamas or Hezbollah with aerial bombardment and political isolation. This tactic runs contrary to the basic counterinsurgency principle of protecting the populace. Instead of fracturing the Lebanese, Netanyahu is bringing them together.

“The Israeli threats, repeated almost on a daily basis recently, expose the enemy government's tendentious intentions toward Lebanon,” President Michel Suleiman told reporters. “These threats call on us to work seriously to close ranks and speed up the formation of a national unity government.”

Riding the government’s legitimacy, Hezbollah Foreign Relations chief Ammar Mousawi told Al-Manar TV, “There is no doubt that he [Netanyahu] was meant to influence Lebanese politics ahead of the formation of the new government. But the Lebanese people will send out a message that they are stronger than these threats.”

Both Israeli and Hezbollah officials maintain, underneath their war of words, that no one is lining up for battle, but their relations are clearly deteriorating to an unstable level. Netanyahu would likely scoff at the suggestion, but he should try speaking to the Lebanese people in a nicer tone since it is they who legitimize Hezbollah. Supporting the only party that represents you isn't a crime.

Speaking more positively is deceptively realistic. When Netanyahu warns of collective punishment, he merely invigorates Hezbollah’s supporters and drives away independents. Even Hezbollah’s enemies are unlikely to appreciate Israel’s threats. Would it hurt for Netanyahu to try something like, “Israel doesn’t want war with Lebanon. Let us work peacefully to resolve outstanding disputes.”

Israel may not like it, but the road to disarming Hezbollah runs through the Lebanese people. Improve relations with them and maybe they’ll begin to weaken on Hezbollah. Undermine Hezbollah’s reason to exist by proving that Israel isn’t hostile. Apologize for mistakes in the July War, stop making incursions into Shebaa Farms. Be the bigger man. Ultimately Israel and Lebanon must sign a bilateral treaty to demilitarize the region, which will require substantial popular support.

The realist solution is to dissolve Hezbollah’s military wing in the Lebanese National Army. For that to occur, Lebanon needs to be sure that Israel isn’t a threat.

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