Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 August 2006
Issue No. 809
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

Division spells disaster

Resolution 1701 is potentially explosive. Hassan Nafaa* suggests ways the booby traps might be defused

The Arab world will never return to the way it was before 12 July, the day that Hizbullah mounted its daring raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers. Nor will it ever be the same again as it was before 14 August, when the guns fell silent on the Lebanese front and Resolution 1701 went into effect. So much has changed and even more is in the process of changing.

What Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world should be on the lookout for are the political landmines that continue to lurk beneath the surface, ready to explode at any moment. In order to better be able to avert these perils the Arabs must conduct a thorough and objective assessment of recent events and their repercussions and potential ramifications.

On 12 July, Hizbullah forces mounted a cross border raid, attacking an Israeli military post and killing eight soldiers, wounding 18 and capturing two. Although some believe that Hizbullah could not have undertaken such an operation without prior consultation and coordination with its Syrian and Iranian allies, the information I have received has led me to a different conclusion. The Egyptian foreign minister told me in an interview that the Syrians had stressed to him in no uncertain terms that they had no advance knowledge of Hizbullah's intentions. He also ruled out the possibility that Hassan Nasrallah would have consulted with Tehran behind Syria's back given Iran's sensitivity to Hizbullah activity that might place Syria in jeopardy.

The most likely scenario is that Hizbullah decided upon a cross-border raid for strategic considerations of its own and acted when it felt the conditions were right. In so doing it did not feel it would be placing any strain on its relations with Syria and Iran since it was not seeking full- scale engagement but rather a smartly executed foray intended to demonstrate its military dexterity and, eventually, to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel. In short, Hizbullah was playing by the rules that have prevailed between it and Israel for years and in accordance with which it had been able, previously, to force Israel into negotiations resulting in the exchange of prisoners.

Hizbullah did not expect Israel to respond so massively to what was clearly a limited operation. Nor was there any reason Israel had to. There were other ways -- more effective and less costly -- that Israel could have contained the crisis. It could have flexed its political muscles and then agreed to a prisoner exchange deal or retaliated in a limited way with the aim of securing the release of its prisoners. Instead it took advantage of the crisis to set into motion a plan already agreed with the US, the aim of which was to introduce a whole new set of rules.

It is sufficient, here, to refer readers to reports by Seymour Hersh that appeared in The New Yorker of 14 August and by Wayne Madison that appeared in the same magazine. These articles discussed the meetings held between Israeli and American officials in the US this spring, including those held on the sidelines of the forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute on 17 and 18 June at Beaver Creek, Colorado. On hand were US Vice-President Dick Cheney, current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the two former Israeli prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and Knesset member Natan Sharansky to put the final touches to an Israeli military offensive aimed at destroying Hizbullah. Hersh makes it clear the decision to invade Lebanon had been taken by Israel and the US well in advance of the Hizbullah raid and that the aim was, as Condoleezza Rice so delicately put it, to create a "new Middle East" from the Lebanese "birth pangs".

Washington and Israel had agreed that Israel should bear the brunt of the war effort while Washington kept it supplied with arms and steered the diplomatic drive in a way that would give Israel the time it needed to accomplish its mission. The declared objectives of that mission were to destroy Hizbullah's military infrastructure, disarm Hizbullah fighters and drive them north of the Litani River, then to secure the unconditional release of the Israeli prisoners and to translate these military achievements into political realities on the ground.

No sooner had Hizbullah struck than the Israeli war machine moved into full gear. According to Jerusalem Post estimates of 15 August during the conflict Israeli air craft had made 15,000 sorties (10,000 combat missions with the remainder for transport, reconnaissance and rescue purposes); the Israeli fleet had performed 8,000 hours of combat manoeuvres, during which it undertook 2,500 missile bombardments of fixed targets and sustained a blockade of the Lebanese coast throughout the period of hostilities; and ground and airborne forces deployed their best units to secure advanced positions along the border and then deeper inside Lebanon.

The results? Lebanon's infrastructure was totally decimated, a third of the country's population was displaced and thousands of civilians were killed and wounded. But all this death and destruction failed to accomplish the war's objectives, for Hizbullah forces still remain in the south, their military infrastructure is still intact and they still have their arms, most notably their missile launchers. One can only conclude, therefore, that Israel suffered a drastic defeat. Hizbullah is still capable of firing missiles into northern Israel and the two Israeli soldiers are still in captivity.

Politically, however, the situation was entirely reversed, for the simple reason that the US had taken command of the diplomatic offensive on Israel's behalf. Through its manoeuvres at the G8 Summit, in Rome and then inside the Security Council, Washington succeeded in getting Israel all the time it said it needed. Then when Israel realised, after a full month of fighting, that it could not attain its objectives militarily, the US pushed through 1701, which gives Israel advantages far in excess of anything it had accomplished in the military arena. Because of the discrepancy between the text and the situation on the ground, it will probably require another political battle and, perhaps, a military one, in order for the US and Israel to put the resolution into effect as they would like.

In all events, now that the guns have fallen silent and 1701 has gone into effect, the various parties are contending with the repercussions of the war. In Israel the political elite is gradually coming to grips with the fact that their country lost the war and their sense of defeat will deepen with every passing day. The Israeli government is certain to come under a barrage of criticism for having taken the decision to launch this war and then failing to accomplish its declared ends. At a deeper level the strategic, military, economic, moral and psychological losses that Israel sustained from this offensive, which in the eyes of many was exceedingly brutal, are far graver than had been anticipated and will almost certainly plunge Israeli society into a crisis that will force it to closely scrutinise itself.

In Lebanon people are torn between a sense of pride in the fact that a resistance movement could accomplish what Arab governments have long failed to do and shock at the magnitude of the destruction that struck their country. In the short term the leaders of Lebanese factions will have to devote their full attention to two urgent issues. The first is the implementation of the controversial 1701 and the second is reconstruction, a process that should draw Lebanese society closer together. If the forces of unity prevail over the forces of discord, Lebanon will emerge from its ordeal much stronger and more capable of participating in shaping its regional environment. Conversely, if the forces of dissension gain the upper hand, Lebanon will revert to being the stage for clashes between outside powers.

The Lebanese crisis exposed the degree to which the UN has succumbed to the will of the US. Nor is the test of the credibility of the international organisation over yet. In the coming days it will face increasing pressure from the US to implement Resolution 1701 in a manner that will enable Israel to obtain politically what it failed to produce militarily.

Finally, the war on Lebanon has brought the official Arab order to a crucial crossroads. This order has had to contend with the fact that the peace process collapsed largely because the US, which had presented itself as an honest broker, had handed over the keys to Israel. The Arabs, without a convincing alternative for recovering usurped Arab rights, turned to the American- controlled Security Council. Now, out of the Lebanese crucible comes the prospect of increasing polarisation between two camps. The first, taking inspiration from Hizbullah's performance, will espouse resistance as the only means to secure Arab rights, not because it will necessarily be able to defeat Israel militarily but because it will enable Arab negotiators to keep some cards in order to advance their position. The opposing camp will be made up of those who fear that the resistance jeopardises their interests by propelling the region towards radicalisation, instability and revolution.

Lebanon, more than ever, will become the focal point for the interplay between regional and international forces and the testing ground for every experiment intended to produce a new Middle East, whether modelled on the US-Israeli vision or on some other vision more closely in tune with the aspirations of the people of this region. I have no doubt that the literal application of the American and Israeli reading of 1701 will steer the region towards a redrawing of the political map along ethnic and sectarian lines, especially if Washington presses forward with its plan to attack Iran. Perhaps some believe that disarming Hizbullah is indispensable if the Lebanese government is to assert its sovereignty over all of Lebanon and exercise control over decisions pertaining to war and peace. While there is no flaw in this in theory, in practice it involves a lengthy process of rebuilding Lebanon on the basis of the concept of individual citizenship as opposed to a denominational quota system. Simultaneously, rather than disarming the resistance, which has demonstrated its ability to defend the country and which has never brought its arms to bear in any domestic ethnic or sectarian conflict, it could easily serve as the kernel for a new national army. I believe that the course the Lebanese should take is for the country's factions to rally behind the strategy of resistance while insisting on an international conference that will tackle all the problems of the Middle East in one go. Together these make up the only way to defuse the political mines that 1701 has planted in Lebanon and that could detonate in the face of the entire Arab world.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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