Why Lebanon should also look east

The Russians have a competitive edge, as their position in Syria has given them leverage with the various parties

  
A demonstrator carries a national flag along a blocked road, during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, near the Central Bank building, in Beirut, Lebanon March 16, 2021.

A demonstrator carries a national flag along a blocked road, during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, near the Central Bank building, in Beirut, Lebanon March 16, 2021.

Reuters/Mohamed Azakir
 

Everyone in Lebanon is talking about the potential American, French and Russian roles in solving the conundrum of forming a government that can stop the eventual collapse of the country. However, few are talking about the Israeli elections and the effect they might have on the situation. An Israeli intervention would make the situation much worse and should be prevented by all means.

Israel’s main concern has been Hezbollah’s high-precision missiles. Nevertheless, despite the escalating rhetoric and tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, the Tel Aviv government has not taken a decision on how to handle the issue, as it did not want to take a step that could have had unknown and unwanted repercussions ahead of last week’s elections. Now that the vote is over and the Israeli electorate is as fragmented as ever, we might end up with a far-right government that is even more hawkish than the last coalition.

Another option is an amalgam government of left, center and far-right parties that wouldn’t be able to agree on anything except their rejection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It would be difficult for such a government to make bold foreign policy decisions when it gathers parties like Meretz, whose main narrative is ending the occupation, with far-right groups that advocate annexation. A third option is for the deadlock to remain and for the country to head to a fifth election in the last two years.

However, a far-right government that has a more extreme view on national security and on the Palestinians might be enticed to strike Lebanon, especially if a new leader emerges and wants to prove that he is tougher than his predecessor, such as when Ehud Olmert struck Lebanon after succeeding Ariel Sharon in 2006.

While the general perception in Lebanon is that Israel is happy for its neighbor to be in turmoil, the reality is far from that. Despite the animosity between the two countries, Israel has an interest in relative stability, as it views chaos as playing into the hands of Hezbollah, which is a very well-organized armed group that can quickly fill any vacuum. The signs of a potential breakdown of social order in Lebanon are becoming clearer by the day. Two weeks ago, the commander of the army addressed the political elite and warned them of the risks the country will face if the army runs out of money.

A right-wing government might be inclined to strike Lebanon, as it would want to hit Hezbollah while it is down and facing scrutiny from the Lebanese, who are blaming it for their problems and more insistently asking for its disarmament. Israel knows that Hezbollah no longer has the quasi-unanimous support it had when it struck Lebanon in 2006. Also, the far-right narrative thrives on conflict and the perception of threat. The turmoil the country is living in can help increase Hezbollah’s influence, which causes a security threat to Israel. A hit might weaken the group in the short run, but it will increase the state of chaos in Lebanon, from which the group will ultimately benefit.

While the US, France and Russia are trying to push the different parties to make the necessary concessions that will enable the formation of a government capable of conducting the reforms the country badly needs in order to be eligible for any form of international aid, few have paid attention to the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, which might result in disaster. In this case, the Russians have a competitive edge, as their position in Syria has given them leverage with the various parties. The Russians can talk to everyone, including Hezbollah — unlike the Americans. Much media fanfare was given to this month’s visit to Moscow by Hezbollah members. Though no breakthrough was made, it is obvious that Russia has a line of communication with Hezbollah and it has leverage over the group.

Though Russia and Hezbollah fight on the same side — in support of Bashar Assad — Israel has been striking Hezbollah in Syria, supposedly with the tacit acquiescence of Moscow, which has not used its firepower to defend its “ally.” Here, Russia can play a role on the Hezbollah front, which could untie a knot in Lebanon’s government formation file. Russia could play the role of guarantor between Hezbollah and Israel. With Hezbollah facing demands of disarmament from a large faction of the Lebanese and the US, Moscow could present a compromise solution by asking Hezbollah to freeze its current arsenal, meaning no new influx of arms from Iran and no improvement of its current weapons. In return, Russia could mediate a nonaggression pact between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Israel. This agreement would be an interim one until elections are held and a new representative Lebanese parliament is voted in. These lawmakers would then decide the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons.

Such an agreement would reduce the uncertainty surrounding Lebanon and help decrease tensions. It would also be an opportunity for Russia to play a constructive role. It could create common ground to cooperate with the US and help stabilize Lebanon.

While America and the EU can use sanctions to pressure Lebanese politicians into convening a government of specialists that will conduct reforms, Russia can handle relations with Hezbollah. This sort of cooperation, with the aim of stabilizing Lebanon, could also create an example to be extended to Syria and throughout the region.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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