The latest events in Lebanon are a result of an internal power struggle. Israeli’s ability to influence them is small to non-existent. However, we must realize that the latest developments, which prove that Hizbullah is back to being Lebanon’s strongest military and political power, are a result of two Israeli mistakes among other things – errors that neither the Winograd Commission nor other elements paid enough attention to.
The first mistake was made in the years 2004-2005. The government of Israel adopted the recommendation of then-Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who espoused the campaign to push the Syrians out of Lebanon. Syria’s removal from Lebanon was mostly the result of an American-French-Saudi short-term interest that contradicted the Israeli interest.
The result (which could have been expected back then already) was as follows: The partial vacuum that emerged in the wake of Syria’s departure was filled by Iran rather than by moderate elements; when the Syrians left Lebanon we lost a “return address” that we could deter effectively; and the Syrians, who up to that point made an effort to hold on to Lebanon, shifted their political focus back to the Golan Heights.
The second mistake was made at the start of the Second Lebanon War. Israel defined Hizbullah only as the enemy, thereby losing the opportunity to win the war. It is impossible to defeat a terror group that operates out of a neighboring country while this country (Lebanon) is immune to any military or diplomatic pressure.
Israel should have, either before the war or right at its outset, brought the international community to a situation whereby it would have turned to the Lebanese government with the following message: “Dear government of Lebanon, you only have two options. If you continue to allow Hizbullah to be the most important military power in the country, and if Hizbullah rather than the government controls the border with Israel, and if Hizbullah is the element which in practice takes strategic decisions in the country, then you are a Hizbullah state, an Iranian satellite, and as you are such state, we have no problem with Israel destroying you. On the other hand, if you want to be a real country that assumes responsibility for what goes on within its territory, we, members of the international community, will not only assist it, we would also force Israel to end its strikes immediately.”
Creating real deterrenceYet as we know, this did not happen. Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity, Hizbullah was given two precious years to regain its military and political capabilities. The two quiet years along the Israel-Lebanon border resulted from Hizbullah’s preference to deal with restoring its domestic status in Lebanon.
The price paid by Hizbullah during the war was not the loss of weapons – those were re-supplied already. The price was also not the fighters who were killed, as after all we’re talking about an organization that sanctifies suicide for the sake of the overriding goal. The only meaningful price paid by Hizbullah was a certain blow to its legitimacy as result of the (very limited) destruction brought by the war.
There is one lesson here for Israel. We must explain to the international community now already that another war on the northern border will not pit Israel against Hizbullah alone, with the Lebanese state playing the role of spectator. Such war, should it break out, would bring about Lebanon’s destruction, and this is something even Hizbullah doesn’t want to see happen. This is the almost only way to create deterrence vis-à-vis an organization that attaches such great importance to its domestic Lebanese legitimacy.