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Israel could respond by reviving the Syrian track

For Israel, as for other actors interested in Lebanese affairs, the visit by Iran's president to Lebanon was more a matter of symbolism than substance. It did not reshape or deeply affect the realities of Lebanese or regional politics, but it did highlight and underline several important aspects of the Lebanese and larger Middle East scene: Hizballah's ascendancy in Lebanon, Iran's use of Hizballah as an extension of its own governmental machinery, Iran and Syria's ongoing collaboration in Lebanon, Iran's assumption of the leading role in the "resistance" to the US and Israel, and the weakness of the Arab world and in particular the major Arab states whose roles in Lebanon and in managing the conflict with Israel are being usurped by Iran.

The Lebanese crisis is now 35 years old (going back to the civil war of 1975-6) and has gone through several twists and turns and ups and downs. It suffices in the present context to review developments since 2005. Rafiq Hariri's assassination was followed by the formation of an international tribunal, Syria's military withdrawal and the victory of the moderate March 14 coalition and the apparent supremacy of the Siniora government. Then came the 2006 war, Syria's gradual return and the formation of Saad Hariri's government, with Hizballah participation and veto power. This in turn led to Hizballah's defiance of the government in 2008, the fragmentation of the March 14 coalition and Hariri's capitulation to Syria. Saudi Arabia then tried in vain to recruit Syria to rein in Hizballah, Syria collaborated with Hizballah against the international tribunal, and a border incident with Israel demonstrated the extent of Hizballah's influence over the Lebanese army.

Lebanon's ability to maintain the Arab world's only functioning parliamentary democracy for 30 years depended on a delicate internal and external balance. Its collapse produced the 1975 civil war, from which Lebanon has not fully recovered. But during the past 35 years, there were periods of relative calm and stability. That brief moment of triumph in 2005 was produced by effective American and French support and reflected the capacity of a significant Christian, Sunni and Druze coalition to collaborate and mobilize support.

But that unique coalescence has vanished. The March 14 coalition has disintegrated, the Obama administration is not as supportive of Lebanese sovereignty as the Bush administration was, and there is no effective support from such Arab states as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Nor can much be expected from Israel. Since 1975, Israel has tried several strategies for dealing with the ramifications of its northern neighbor's failed state status. These strategies have included two wars, three large-scale military operations, a security zone in South Lebanon, the cultivation of a host of allies and clients and the acceptance of Syrian supremacy in Lebanon as a stabilizing force. Over time, none has worked. In fact, some of Israel's actions have actually served to exacerbate rather than remedy the crisis.

From the current perspective, Lebanon and the Lebanese crisis present Israel with a number of severe challenges. First, Lebanon has become an Iranian political and military outpost on the Mediterranean and on Israel's northern border. With more than 40,000 missiles and rockets at Hizballah's disposal, Israel would require a protracted and costly military operation to respond to an attack or remove the threat to its cities and infrastructure. If sanctions on Iran become serious, if it wishes to derail a peace process or seeks to respond to a US or Israeli attack on its nuclear installations, Tehran can order Hizballah to start a war with Israel.

Second, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit and rhetoric offer a fine example of how Iran is turning Lebanon into a showcase of what the "resistance camp" can accomplish against those who wish to cooperate with the US and make peace with Israel. The main target audience for this display is the Palestinians.

Third, in the long term the actual size of the Shi'ite community, Hizballah's skillfulness and Iranian and Syrian support are likely to transform Lebanon from a struggling pluralistic society to a very different, Hizballah-dominated country. And fourth, while in theory Syria must not be happy with these trends--it wants to hold sway in Lebanon and not be surrounded by a Shi'ite Iraq and a Shi'ite Lebanon--in practice it collaborates with Hizballah and Iran and supports the organization's military build-up as part of its own deterrence against Israel.

Israel's own options are limited. The lessons of 1982 and 2006 and the actual prospect of another war in Lebanon have a restraining effect on Israel's leadership. Diplomatically, Israel should persuade the US and its European allies that the Lebanese issue is part of the larger Iranian issue and that failure to act will push more Arab states to behave like Qatar. But is the Obama administration going to take more decisive action against Iran?

Israel can also choose a diplomatic option of its own by reviving the Syrian track. Here the original formula of "territories for peace" is no longer relevant. A realignment of Syria's policies is now a crucial component of any future settlement. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad speaks often about his preference for a peace option. It is up to Israel to test the seriousness of this rhetoric; it should include resolution of the Lebanese crisis within the Israeli-Syrian context.

- Published 21/10/2010 © Edition 19 Volume 8

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