Lebanon: Mideast Tipping Point

The many countries that feel that Lebanon is their playground are behaving with particular irresponsibility at this moment of historic importance for the Lebanese. It would come as no surprise if some of these countries were actually planning to start a war, should their favored factions fail to emerge victorious in the June 7 election, but even if this is not the case, the aggressive interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs by so many rich and powerful outsiders risks yet another disaster for the long-mistreated Lebanese.

This election is a historic moment for Lebanon. Given a little outside encouragement for Lebanese democracy and stability, there is good reason to hope that Lebanese political actors can emerge from this election with a consensus to put the civil war firmly into the past by creating a political system in which all Lebanese factions can meaningfully participate and which will offer benefit to all Lebanese groups. One can make the argument that Hezbollah is evolving into a reformist democratic party and the other “parties,” in reality feudal factions, are doing the same. One can make a much stronger argument that such an evolution would now be likely if the international political context were to be supportive. As a recent UN report described Lebanon’s domestic situation:

Over the past six months, the domestic political and security situation in Lebanon has continued to improve markedly. The commitments made at Doha have been either fully implemented or meaningfully acted upon. Political divisions between the majority March 14th and opposition March 8th have not led to paralysis, although there have been occasional tensions. The President, Michel Sleiman, has worked tirelessly to forge national unity.

Even this rosy scenario contains the seeds of its own destruction because it still leaves the 400,000 Palestinian guests marginalized, mistreated, and hopeless. That enormous cancer on Lebanese society must be cured either by a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would enable the Lebanese guests to return home or by their inclusion in Lebanese society.

Palestinian refugees aside, Lebanon now has a real opportunity, if it can pull national consensus on both power-sharing and resource-sharing out of a very corrupt (thanks to the foreign influence) electoral hat. Given the apparent moderation of all Lebanese parties at the moment, this rosy scenario seems conceivable.

Unfortunately, the international context is obstructing the democratic evolution that most Lebanese now seem to agree is Lebanon’s only hope of avoiding a return to civil war. The behavior of outsiders is making the rosy scenario fade with each passing day. Cairo’s vitriolic anti-Hezbollah campaign may be designed primarily to crush democratic sentiments at home and to warn off Iran, but it must surely be raising tensions in Lebanon as well. On top of that, we have nastily-timed anti-Hezbollah rumors in Der Spiegel (which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak rushed to accept, without providing any evidence to support the allegations) and the rapidly emerging but still confusing Israeli spy scandal.

Then, there’s the ineptness of Biden’s threat to punish Lebanon if it does not vote according to Washington’s preferences: diplomatic incompetence worthy of Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney.

So would the US cut off and turn its back on strategically important Lebanon if Hizballah wins? Its tough to say. It didn’t go so well when the US did it to Hamas, when they were democratically elected in Palestine. Doing so with Lebanon would be a major debacle, showing the world once again that the United States only supports democracy when its suits their interests.–source

In addition, Lebanon’s best international friends seem to be conducting all sorts of vote-rigging, intent to the man on doing their best to crush every green shoot of democracy the instant it emerges from Lebanese political soil. And all this comes against the background of the highly provocative Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, acts any country on earth would consider acts of war, and suspiciously-timed Israeli military maneuvers the week before the election. According to the above-cited U.N. report, “Intrusions into Lebanese airspace by Israeli aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles continued in high numbers in violation of Lebanese sovereignty and Security Council resolutions.” These illegal provocations are particularly ominous in light of Israeli claims that it, in effect, has the right to control Lebanon’s ability to defend itself.

Lebanese army sources said on Saturday that the country’s military had been placed ‘on full alert,’ ahead of large- scale Israeli army

maneuvers expected to begin on Sunday.– source

All this adds up to a post-election situation that will most likely be extremely tense and prone to misunderstanding and over-reaction. Indeed, a repeat of Israel’s vicious summer 2006 invasion seems more likely than the rosy scenario of the broadening of Lebanon’s fledging democracy to incorporate the poor Shi’a represented by Hezbollah and the evolution of all leading Lebanese political parties into trustworthy democratic forces. If Hezbollah emerges victorious in the face of such blatant foreign manipulation, its leaders will have difficulty restraining themselves. If Hezbollah loses, it will have difficulty controlling its anger at outside forces. Lebanon would be fully justified in shooting down Israeli jets violating its border; Israel might strike to prevent Lebanon from gaining such a capability, even if it did not want to start another war. Given the efforts of outsiders to villify whichever Lebanese factions they dislike, it would take a miracle to avoid an incident, but the reality is much worse.

The likelihood is high that Israel is planning to attack Lebanon should Hezbollah win:

  • the pessimists in Israel, and they are firmly in control of power, will surely see an opposition victory not as a sign of the evolution of Lebanon toward inclusion of the Shi’a poor in the political system and a step toward the “Lebanonization” of Hezbollah but as a victory for Iran requiring an Israel military response even though Hezbollah is only running a small number of candidates and is in a coalition with Christians;
  • Netanyahu needs some foreign adventure to fend off Washington and distract world attention to facilitate his continuing effort to absorb the West Bank;
  • after Israel’s embarrassing failure to defeat Hezbollah in 2006 and failure to destroy Hamas in December 2008, Israeli militarists must surely be looking for an opportunity to send to Tehran a clear message of Israeli power and determination;
  • Netanyahu’s determination to prevent U.S.-Iranian accommodation would be perfectly served by the outbreak of a convenient little war that Israel could then portray as evidence of “the Iranian threat” in order to radicalize politics in Washington and return Washington to a position of subservience to Israeli extremists.

Obama has an opportunity, should he be looking for it, to return the Mideast firmly into the era of subversion of democracy, proclivity of all sides to settle disputes through violence, and a general rise in radicalism. The situation that is developing in Lebanon would make such an outcome quite easy to achieve.

If, on the other hand, Obama happens to want a Mideast under the control of moderates, moving toward democracy, and resolving underlying conflicts, then he will need to think through much more carefully than he appears to have done so far the long-range implications of the behavior of the U.S. and its allies. Washington could treat a Hezbollah victory as the healthy incorporation of Lebanon’s Shi’a into the political system and reward Hezbollah for its “democratic” behavior. Such a reaction by Washington would facilitate the victory the next week in Iran’s presidential election of someone other than Ahmadinejad and, more importantly, would facilitate compromise with the U.S. by Iran’s next administration. Such a reaction by Washington would also instantly lower tensions in the Levant and send a clear signal to Netanyahu that invading Lebanon will not be supported by Washington this time around.

Lebanon today is the Mideast’s tipping point, and Obama has a clear choice to make: work for war or work for peace.

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