Near-Term Prospects for a Lebanon-Israel Peace Treaty


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On Sunday, August 20, 2006, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora suggested that Israel, if it ‘behaves wisely, ’ could be in a position to enter into a peace treaty with Lebanon. Don’t schedule the celebrations just yet. Throughout the course of its long history, the Middle East has been a graveyard for optimism. There, the promise of peace has typically proved more illusory than a desert mirage. Therefore, the offer needs to be tested to determine if it is credible. Even if it is, major obstacles could still block the way to peace between Lebanon and Israel.

Prime Minister Siniora’s willingness to pursue peace with Israel could be ascertained by determining whether he is willing to engage in direct and unconditional negotiations with Israel aimed at reaching a bilateral peace treaty. Israel should test the Prime Minister’s commitment to peace by inviting him to Jerusalem for such talks. Afterward, rhetoric would have to give way to diplomacy.

If the Lebanese Prime Minister is serious about peace, the path to peace between Israel and Lebanon is relatively uncomplicated in terms of the substance involved. An agreement would declare that the historic conflict between Israel and Lebanon is “finally terminated, " provide for full diplomatic relations between the two countries, resolve the status of the disputed Shebaa Farms area in creating a secure, recognized, and agreed border, provide for the disarming of Hezbollah and offer assurances that both parties would take responsibility to prevent attacks against the other from being launched from their soil, and would end any economic boycotts.

Nonetheless, uncomplicated as the path to peace might be, a host of obstacles would likely make the peace process perilous. A glimpse at those possible barriers is useful in assessing the near- or medium-term prospect for a peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel.

The Historic Arab Narrative:

The historic Arab narrative that sees Israel as an “artificial" and “illegitimate" state could color attitudes against a bilateral peace agreement. The bias could be tilted severely toward a prolonged ceasefire that falls far short of peace and full diplomatic relations.

In 1977, former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban explained, “…history is the enemy of the Arab-Israeli reconciliation. The past is the adversary of the future. The vision that Arabs deduce form their history has never included the idea of a Jewish sovereignty in the heart of the Middle East…" Such attitudes can be overcome to the extent that a bilateral peace treaty becomes possible, as they were in Egypt and Jordan. However, in a weak state with a weak government, not to mention a fairly large share of the population that is radicalized, the effort could prove much more daunting.

Lebanon’s Internal Dynamics:

Lebanon rests on a fragile, often uneasy, balance between diverse religious groups. The religious balance continues to shift toward an increasing Muslim majority and a shrinking Christian minority. Muslims include Shia, Sunnis, and Druze. Christians include Maronites, Roman Catholics, and Greek Orthodox. As a result of its diverse population, the Library of Congress’ Country Study on Lebanon explains, “sectarianism (or confessionalism) is the dominant social, economic, and political reality. Divisiveness has come to define that which is Lebanon… While Muslims and Christians have lived together in Lebanon for over a century, their deep disagreements over the Lebanese political formula and state make it unrealistic to treat all Lebanese as members of one social unit… Lebanon’s somewhat peculiar political system has reinforced sectarian identification and consciousness. " The report adds, “Each sect has its own set of personal status laws… The confessional system of personal-status laws strengthens the role of communal religious leaders and impedes the evolution of Lebanese nationalist or universalist secular ideas. "

These dynamics translate into a weak government that might not be able to gain sufficient public support to conclude a peace treaty with Israel. With the Shia population, radicalized by longstanding support from Syria and Iran, now comprising up to 45% of Lebanon’s population, popular sentiment in Lebanon is likely to run against a peace treaty. The Christians alone could not conclude such an agreement without the risk of a fresh civil war.

At the same time, Lebanon’s internal dynamics also provide an ideal environment in which “state within a state" entities can flourish. In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorist groups enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and used Lebanon as a staging ground for cross-border terrorist attacks against Israel. From the late 1980s to the present, Hezbollah has dominated south Lebanon and launched terrorist attacks against Israel from there. Fresh from what it perceives to have been a “victory" on account of the inconclusive outcome from the recent combat between Israel and Hezbollah, Hezbollah is not likely to be very keen on efforts to bring about a bilateral Lebanon-Israel peace accord. Furthermore, even if Hezbollah could be persuaded by Lebanon’s Government to accept such a peace treaty, breakaway factions or newly-formed radical groups would likely have the ability to supplant Hezbollah in the absence of broad-based communal support for bilateral peace.

Regional Geopolitics:

Lebanon is likely to remain an important piece of a growing geopolitical struggle between the Middle East’s forces of “Rejectionism" and “Moderation. " Such a battle could put further strains on Lebanon’s weak government and divisive society.

Iran and Syria will continue to spearhead the Rejectionist element. Both have substantial influence with regard to Hezbollah. Syria still sees Lebanon as a historic part of “Greater Syria" and is vying to keep Lebanon within its sphere of influence. Syria could well attempt to use Lebanon as a bargaining chip for pursuing its own demands with Israel and avoiding increased diplomatic isolation. A bilateral Lebanon-Israel peace agreement would shrink the pool of the Middle East’s “confrontation states" and weaken Syrian regional influence. An erosion of Syrian influence could exacerbate internal pressures for reform within Syria.

Iran sees Lebanon’s Shia population as a natural base for expanding its Islamic Revolution and building a de facto Shia Caliphate that includes Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, not to mention incorporating Shia populations spread across other Middle Eastern states and beyond. Moreover, its role is not incompatible with Syria’s political realities, as the Shia and minority Alawites have long cooperated against the Sunnis in Syria and Syria has aligned itself with Iran since 1980.

So long as Syria is positioned to exert significant influence in Lebanon and the Shia remain steadfast partners in helping perpetuate the Alawite Ba’athist government in Damascus—and Iran could accommodate Syria toward those ends—Syria likely will not resist a de facto Caliphate. With Iraq being pulled in the direction of Iran despite the presence of more than 100,000 American soldiers there, the regional balance of power is beginning to tilt more toward Iran and away from the United States and West. That trend will tend to further deepen Iranian-Syrian cooperation.

At a minimum, the Rejectionist group is likely to try to harden any tough negotiating positions that might be adopted by Lebanon. Following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) launched a diplomatic offensive in the Arab world aimed at blocking the possibility of a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. Later, at a sensitive moment in the early stages of the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, Morocco’s King Hassan praised Sadat’s “firmness" against what he described as “Israeli pretentions. "

If that does not impede progress, terrorists could instigate a major terrorist attack or series of attacks to sabotage the peace process. In March 1978, the PLO seized a bus in Israel and killed 32 Israelis on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s trip to the United States to further the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. If such attacks do little to abort the peace process, a campaign of assassinations and car bombings directed at Lebanese leaders could be undertaken, much as occurred during the early 1980s. Moreover, Lebanon’s Shia could be encouraged by Iran to seek a new governing relationship based on current demographic realities. Such a bid could shatter Lebanon’s delicate political structure and bring an end to any peace process that might be underway.

Radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of whose leaders are hosted by Damascus, could seek to foment unrest among Lebanon’s Palestinian population. Lebanon’s political leaders remain opposed to granting Palestinians full rights of citizenship, even those born in Lebanon. They fear that such an arrangement would upset the current sectarian balance upon which Lebanon’s political and economic system rests. Hence, even if Lebanon embraces a long-term goal for the resettlement of Palestinians in a Palestinian state, radical Palestinian leaders could still provoke such unrest to help block a possible peace treaty.

Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are likely to head up the Moderate camp. In no small part on account of those three states, the Arab League is already attempting to counter the money Iran is providing to Hezbollah for Lebanon’s reconstruction. “This is a war over the hearts and mind of the Lebanese, which Arabs should not lose to the Iranians this time, " a senior Arab League official explained. Concern over Iranian hegemony could tend to erode the longstanding Arab historical narrative, particularly as the Moderate effort is led by two countries that have entered into peace treaties with Israel.

Negotiating Obstacles:

The biggest danger of a breakdown in negotiations would come from an attempt by Lebanon to link a peace agreement to overall Middle East peace. With Syrian and Palestinian demands likely irreconcilable for the time being, such linkage could only preclude a bilateral peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel. Syria would seek to bring the Golan Heights into the calculus while radical Palestinian groups would seek a “right of return" of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel. Both would greatly complicate the diplomatic calculus and the latter demand would be a “deal breaker. "

In addition to linkage, Lebanon could seek the fulfillment of prior conditions before proceeding with possible peace talks. Lebanon could seek that Israel turn over a portion of the disputed Shebaa Farms area to Lebanon as a gesture of good faith. It could seek that Israel turn over control of that area to the United Nations in advance. Early in the Egyptian-Israeli talks, Egypt demanded a guarantee that Israel would commit in advance to turning over all of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Later, Egypt requested that Israel demonstrate its commitment to peace by turning over the West Bank to Jordan and Gaza Strip to Egypt before any agreement was reached. Afterward, Egypt sought a transfer of the town of El Arish as a “good faith" gesture. Historically, such gestures have gone unrewarded in the Middle East. Most recently, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 did little to mitigate terrorist attacks launched from there.

In response to Sadat’s demands, Begin replied, “Nobody can get anything for nothing. " At the time, Prime Minister Begin’s seeming “intransigence" was widely criticized from within and outside Israel. However, well before Sadat had made his dramatic trip to Israel, Israel had agreed to the principle of withdrawal, but the extent and implementation of such a withdrawal depended on the agreement to a peace accord, rather than anything less than a full peace e. g. , a ceasefire or truce extension.

Ultimately, Egypt moderated its stance and dropped its demand for prior conditions. That development led to the successful Camp David Summit in 1978. The Summit led to a breakthrough agreement that paved the way to a bilateral peace agreement the following year.

Outlook for Lebanon-Israel Peace Treaty:

Given the above background information, odds appear to run strongly against the achievement of a bilateral Lebanon-Israel peace agreement in the near-term. Given the hazards of a weak Lebanese government, fragile sectarian balance coupled with Lebanon’s changing demographics, regional geopolitical situation that is arguably tilting more toward Iran, and possible procedural pitfalls, the obstacles are probably too great to overcome, particularly within the next 3-5 years, if not longer. Neither Egypt nor Jordan faced such an array of barriers. Egypt was a strong state, was guided by a visionary risk-taking leader, and had the political capacity to break free of Arab Rejectionism. Jordan’s King Hussein had enjoyed a long period of behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel and a strong relationship with the United States, and those factors coupled with Egypt’s previously breaking the taboo of recognizing Israel, greatly reduced the risks of his formalizing peace with Israel.

Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.


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