Mixed Messages From Israel

28 01 2010

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

As tensions between Hizballah and Israel continue to put Lebanon on edge, the rhetoric coming from Israel is decidedly mixed.

Recently, a senior Israeli minister commented that another war with Hizballah is “inevitable” but that he didn’t know when it would happen. On the surface, this may sound unnecessarily inflammatory given the situation, but then how likely is it that these two never clash again? It is not known what the minister’s timetable was for this next battle, or if he was merely speaking hypothetically, but his words didn’t help ease the tension between the two sides.

The next day, one of the IDF’s generals dismissed all the tough talk as nothing more than a “virtual escalation”. While the messages coming out of Israel may seem mixed, when taken as a whole the meaning is apparent: we don’t want any trouble, but we are ready for the fight. The question then becomes whether Hizballah is also reading it that way, and so far it seems that they are.

When evaluating the stability of the relationship between Hizballah and Israel, the 2006 War must be used as the disclaimer. No one could have known what Hizballah was going do, and no one could have predicted Israeli’s (over)response. But in retrospect, there were some indicators of what was in store for Lebanon.

Israel was expelled from Lebanon in 2000, and while this was a major victory for Hizballah, it also called into question the groups necessity as a resistance. Five years later, the Syrian army ended its own occupation of Lebanon which left Hizballah without its most powerful ally in the country. So in the time period running up to July 2006, Hizballah was left without its protector, scrambling for a raison d’etre.

The 2006 War, while being extremely damaging for Lebanon, gave Hizballah new life as the one Arab group capable of standing up to Israel. But over time the calls for the group to disarm began again. In May 2008, the government  made an ill-advised attempt to disable the group’s vital telecommunications system, which turned disastrous when Hizballah retaliated and briefly took over West Beirut.

Flash forward to December 2009 when Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government issued a statement legitimizing Hizballah’s weapons. Hariri realized that he had no hope in disarming them and that he had no hope of leading Lebanon without their cooperation, so he made a deal and let them keep their weapons.

This move infuriated the Israelis, but it should have came as a relief  to them because now Hizballah didn’t have to worry about proving its usefulness.  So far, Hariri’s deal with Hizballah permitting the group to keep its weapons has made them far less likely to use them.

So the tough talk continues, but the heated threats coming from Tel Aviv might actually be making the situation more stable, not less, because Israel then puts all the pressure on Hizballah to “be good”. Israel is unlikely to attack Lebanon without provocation, and right now Hizballah is unlikely to provide that provocation. Between the two, Lebanon exists in peace. It may not be a tranquil, but peace existing only as a lack of fighting is still peace.

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