ATbar The History of Israeli Policy in Lebanon - Lessons Learned and The Future Outlook
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The History of Israeli Policy in Lebanon - Lessons Learned and The Future Outlook

29/06/2000 | by Erlich, Reuven (Dr.)  



These comments are made at an historical moment in Israel’s policy in Lebanon. We are now at the end of a fifteen-year chapter, which commenced with the decision of the Government of Israel on 14th January 1985 to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon and to continue supporting the Southern Lebanese Army. This chapter terminated in the early hours of the morning of 24th May 2000, when the last of the Israeli soldiers were removed from Lebanon. This is a good moment in time to point out several characteristics of Israel’s policy in Lebanon from an historian’s viewpoint and to raise a few thoughts on the lessons to be learned from this policy.

Over the past 80 years, the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel have had different goals, and produced different results. We can point to six main historical periods, as follows:

  • The British Mandate (1918 – 1947)
    Goals: The policy of the Zionist Movement was to advance a political alliance with the Christian-Maronites; to advance economic interests(the waters of the Litani river) and to give a response to the threat of the Palestinian terrorism during the “Arab Revolt” (1936 – 1939), which already then had become a problem.
    Results: On the whole, these goals were not attained; though some of them, such as a response to the terror threat, were partly achieved.

  • The War of Independence (1947 – 1948)
    The Goals: The State of Israel tried to respond to security threats from Southern Lebanon on the part of the regular army(Syria), the semi-official “Salvation Army” (controlled by Syria) and to a lesser degree, the Lebanese Army.
    The result: A defensive policy was implemented along the border until the “Hiram Operation.” This Operation involved the conquest of the Galilee, entering Lebanon, capturing 15 Shi’ite villages and establishing the “Security Zone.” On 23 March 1949 a cease-fire agreement was signed with Lebanon.

  • The Cease-Fire Administration (1949 – 1967)
    The Goals: To prevent infiltration into Israel of the Palestinian “Fedayeen” (controlled by Egypt and Syria) from Lebanese territory by combining ongoing security measures with the enforcement of the cease-fire measures. There were attempts at discussions between the Shamrun administration and the “Phalanges” behind the scenes on matters of mutual interest.
    The result: The Cease-Fire Administration had a relatively good relationship with the Lebanese until it collapsed in 1967 after Israel unilaterally canceled it. The infiltration and terrorism were reduced, particularly after the “Sinai Operation.” The secret political ties with the Lebanese government brought positive results at certain specific times but were not a substitute for a political agreement.

  • Consolidation of the Palestinian military infrastructure and the civil war (1967-1982)
    The goal: On the security level, the goal was the prevention of Palestinian terrorism from Lebanon. This was accomplished through a variety of military options, such as the Litani Operation, specific attacks on terrorist hideouts, and the bombing of the Beirut headquarters. On the political level, the goal was to neutralize the risks accompanying the fall of the Lebanese government during the Civil War against Syria and against Fatah. Indirect understandings and agreements were reached in 1986 and in July 1981, at the end of a “two weeks war”). Israel established a network of contacts with the Christian camp - particularly with the “Lebanese Forces” led by Bashir Jumail - as a substitute for the Lebanese government).
    The result: The dynamic of hostile attacks and Israeli retaliation ultimately led to the Israel-Lebanese War. The Litani Operation and the ensuing military reactions had short-term results but did not solve the terrorism problem. The “oblique understanding” with Syria was maintained, while the understanding with the PLO became extremely problematic in 1981 and collapsed completely with the outbreak of the Lebanese War.

  • The Israel-Lebanese War and its consequences (1982-1985)
    The goals: To destroy the Palestinian military and the PLO terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon, which had become “a state within a state.” A secondary goal was to undermine the Syrian influence in Lebanon, and institute a “new political order”in Lebanon, and perhaps in the entire Middle East.
    The result: The Lebanese War did not push the Palestinian problem aside; on the contrary, it elevated it to a major issue, and may even have accelerated the Intifada and the Oslo Peace Process. It did solve the problem of Palestinian terrorism from Lebanon for a period of 15 years, but it put the far more problematic Shi’ite terror on the agenda. In the political sphere,the Syrian influence became stronger rather than weaker; a peace agreement with Lebanon (17 May 1983) collapsed, and an attempt to reach a security agreement through the Nakura talks came to nothing. Israel withdrew from Lebanon unilaterally, without a political agreement, and with no real solution to the terrorism problem.

  • The Conquest of the “Security zone” (1985-2000)
    The goal: To defend the north of Israel from Shi’ite terrorism—primarily that of Hizballah. The risks of escalation were to be limited and “rules of the game” determined for all the relevant players, while at the same time advancing the peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon.
    The result: On the whole, this policy enabled the approximately 200,000 residents living south of the international border to lead a routine existence, which was occasionally interrupted by Katyusha rockets. The war with Hizballah exacted a heavy price—338 IDF personnel and 441 SLA personnel killed. Israeli public opinion was not willing to accept the price and demanded a change in Israeli policy. In the 1999 elections, Ehud Barak publicly committed himself to such a policy shift, and in May 2000 the IDF withdrew from Lebanon.

The Past 80 years: What can be learned?

“The more I thought about the historical experience, the more sure I became that the solutions obtained by force were extremely shaky and even to suspect those cases where it seemed that the use of force had seemingly solved the difficulties” (Liddle Hart, in the foreword to his book, Why Don’t We Learn From History, page 83).

Over the past eight decades, Israel has failed to achieve a lasting peace with Lebanon and has not succeeded in providing a permanent answer to the phenomenon of terrorism. Rather, Israel has been compelled to resort to the use of force or to partial, temporary, or unstable solutions.

Seven lessons learned from this history should be emphasized:

  • Lesson No. 1: The ease with which the weapon of terrorism was used from Lebanon. Lebanon was and remains an ideal arena for the use of terrorism against Israel, the Arab world and the international community. This is due to its topography and geography, as well as political and demographic reasons. Among the primary factors are the delicate balance of its inter-factional system, the close proximity of the impoverished Shi’ite community to Israel’s northern border, the problem of the Palestinian refugees, whose refugee camps are hothouses for terrorism, and the influence of outside factors which encourage terrorism (Egypt in the 1950s; Syria and Iran in the 1990s). All these factors, unfortunately still exist, with no connection to the existence or non-existence of the “security zone.” The attempt to present the terror from Lebanon as deriving from the Israeli occupation is completely incorrect.

  • Lesson No. 2: Limitations of armed force.The decision-makers in Israel have learned the hard way the limitations of the use of military force in Lebanon. Israel has tried numerous military tactics in Lebanon: from armored intrusions and point strikes, through destruction of infrastructure, and escalating to the full-scale entry into Lebanon in 1982. There have also been direct confrontations with the Syrian army on land and in the air. All these had a short-term effect. Whoever relies on a policy based on the use of force in response to continued terror from Lebanon, would do well to remember this to prevent over-expectations. After the withdrawal of the IDF, military action against Syria and Lebanon in response to terrorism could be viewed by the decision-makers as the as a necessary actuality, and may even initially be accepted by the international community. However such action will not ultimately solve the terrorism problem from Lebanon.

  • Lesson No. 3 – Limitations of local power cells and the advantage of the central Lebanese Government. Israeli policy, for long periods of time, has attempted to cooperate—on security and political levels—with local power cells, in particular those of the Christian camp (the Church, the “Phalanges,” the Sham’unites, “the Lebanese forces”). For short periods of time, during the Lebanese war and beforehand, attempts were even made to establish channels of cooperation with the Shi’ites (“Amal”) and the Druzes. However, the Lebanese political system is precariously balanced between the various religions and sects, each of which is dependent upon external power groups—Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia in the past; Syria and Iran today. Thus, it has become apparent that these cells and sects cannot be considered stable supporters of Israel’s policy in Lebanon. Ideas currently being bandied about, such as allowing the Christians to negotiate with Hizballah on behalf of Israel, cannot be counted upon. On the other hand, there was latent cooperation in the past for some time with the Lebanese government within the framework of the Cease Fire Administration and, even today, the Lebanese government is seen as the preferred address for negotiating channels.

  • Lesson No. 4 – In the absence of a peace agreement there are no satisfactory solutions to the problem of terrorism from Lebanon. The military and political alternatives to political agreements can, at best, provide only temporary and partial solutions; without agreements, there are no “magic solutions” to the terrorism problem. Understandings, arrangements and accords are a necessary substitute for such agreements, but are short-lived and quickly eroded, as seen after the “Operation Accountability” (1993) and after Operation “Grapes of Wrath Operation” (1996). Menahem Begin’s saying, “the land shall have peace for 40 years,” or alternatively, present expectations that Israel has “extricated itself from the Lebanese tragedy” by withdrawing from Lebanon, are unfortunately unrealistic considering the Lebanese reality.

  • Lesson No. 5 – Syria’s involvement in internal Lebanese politics, combined with its ability to prevent agreements between Lebanon and Israel, allow it to exert a decisive influence on the use of terrorism from Lebanon as a weapon. An Israeli policy in Lebanon contrary to Syrian interests will not end terrorism and will not facilitate a stable agreement with Lebanon. Syria has always regarded Lebanon as its back yard and has enjoyed great influence there. Ever since the Taif agreement (1989), Syria has significantly strengthened its influence in Lebanon and for all intents and purposes, has turned Lebanon into a subjugated country. Syria encouraged terrorism and military action from Lebanon in 1936-39, in 1948, and from 1954 to 1956, as well as during the periods of Palestinian terrorism and Hizballah attacks over the past three decades. This Syrian influence on the Lebanese government was seen during the Israel’s War of Independence. Syrian opposition to peace agreements and separate accords was evident again at the Nakura talks in May 1998, when the Netanyahu government decided to carry out the Security Council Resolution 425. It is a lesson that, unfortunately, Israel may have to contend with again in the future.

  • Lesson No. 6 – The Limitations of the abilities of international forces, such as the United Nations Observers.Forces sent during the Lebanese 1958 civil war to prevent the infiltration of men and weapons from Syria to Lebanon failed. UNIFILhas not succeeded in preventing the consolidation of the Palestinians nor their military activity. The “Pan-Arab Prevention Forces” of 1976 crumbled leaving only the Syrian core. The multi-national force, was obliged to remove its forces in 1983 under the pressure of terrorist activity. That the IDF withdrew under the umbrella of international legitimacy is important, and the anticipated deployment of UNIFIL along Israel’s northern border in the framework of Resolution 425, is the lesser evil in the absence of an agreement with Lebanon. However, at the same time, one should neither expect UNIFIL to protect Israel’s northern border, nor to confront Hizballah or other terrorist groups.

  • Lesson No. 7 – Limitations on the effectiveness of the superpowers in Lebanon, notably, France in the past, and the U.S. in the present.France lost its influence at the beginning of the 1940’s and the Americans have proven ineffective at dealing with local and outside power forces in the Lebanese arena, particularly after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975. Israel’s attempts to rely on American political backing (the agreement of 17th May, 1983) and military backing (participation of the U.S. in the multi-national force) came to nothing. In the 15 years of the “security zone” policy, the limitations of the American influence on Syria’s determination to promote its interests in Lebanon and to continue using the “terrorism weapon,” was once again confirmed.

With the withdrawal of IDF from Lebanon, a new era in the Israel-Lebanon relations has begun, overshadowed by many difficult question marks. Will this period be more successful than the previous ones? Will it give the residents of northern Israel more security at a lower price in casualty? Only time will tell. However, from all the lessons analyzed above, it is obvious that the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon, even if it improves the situation along the border in the short term, will not solve the basic problems in Israel’s relationship with Lebanon in general, or the problem of terrorism in particular. This is because it was not carried out within the framework of a political agreement with Lebanon, and thus has left behind potential terrorists, such as Hizballah and certain Palestinian organizations, who have no intention of laying down their arms. The withdrawal was carried out in defiance of outside factors, such as Syria and Iran, who have an explicit interest in encouraging or enabling the continuation of terrorism from Lebanon.

In summary and in illustration of the lessons learned and the basic problems between Israel and Lebanon, I offer here a free translation of the words of Prof. Fuad Ajami, a renowned expert on Lebanese Affairs and the Lebanese Shi’ites, in the closing paragraph of an article entitled “Barak’s Gamble” published in the “Wallstreet Journal” on 27th May:

The Israeli initiative leaves a bad taste. A society which purports to have the largest number of companies traded on the NASDAQ after the U.S. and Canada, expresses an enthusiasm to abandon the bloodbath of nationalist wars and to finally bid adieu to a difficult period. However, geography is stronger than all else. The world outside Israel’s borders is becoming more impoverished day by day, more highly populated and younger. Such a problematic relationship between the haves and have-nots, living in such close proximity, will continue to involve an inherent danger, which will exact its price.