During the first decades of Israel’s existence and until the late 1970s, many Israelis felt Lebanon would be the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel. This belief was based on the fact that during this period, Lebanon was dominated by the Maronite community, whose foremost goal at that time was believed by many Israelis to be the preservation of Lebanon’s Christian and generally Western character. Thus, in the view of many Israelis, it followed that the Maronites in Lebanon would not only be prepared, but even eager to establish peaceful relations with Israel, which they presumably saw as a kind of natural ally in face of the Muslim Arab world surrounding both states.
Yet contrary to the expectation of many Israelis that Lebanon would manifest goodwill toward the Jewish state, until the late 1970s, Lebanon generally showed itself to be hostile or, at the very least, unwilling to establish ties with Israel. Hopeful Israelis explained the anti-Israel stance taken by Lebanon as the result of the Maronites’ fear of how Lebanon’s Muslim population would respond to improved relations with the Jewish state, and of how the Arab states in general might respond. Lebanon was, after all, dependent on trade with those states for its economic survival. Therefore, the conclusion drawn in Israel was that while Lebanon could not take the lead in the Arab world in making a settlement with Israel, once Israel had signed a peace treaty with another Arab state, Lebanon would quickly follow and become the second Arab state to make peace.
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and Jordan did so in 1994. Yet regarding Lebanon, it is commonplace among Israelis to assume that Lebanon will be the last Arab state to take this step for two reasons: first, the feelings of resentment in light of the belligerent Israeli-Lebanese relations of recent decades; and second, the dominance of Hizballah in Lebanese life. Hizballah, after all, absolutely rejects any recognition of or negotiations with Israel, and consequently any prospect of a peace treaty.
However, there is a third reason, which is perhaps the main one, accounting for Lebanon’s refusal to make peace with Israel–the fact that nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees now reside in Lebanese territory. Most Lebanese do not want these people to remain in their country. Indeed, this issue is one of the few upon which there is a consensus cutting across the communal lines and ideological commitments that divide the country so sharply. Even Hizballah supporters are part of this consensus, which makes the removal of the Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and their resettlement either in Israel or in the expected Palestinian state a necessary condition for any future settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Israel’s dilemma regarding its Lebanese policy became sharply apparent once more in the wake of the June 7, 2009 Lebanese elections. The elections yielded a number of surprises, mostly positive for Israel and perhaps the region as a whole. The first surprise was Hizballah’s failure to obtain a majority in the Lebanese parliament. Still, the election results did not change the situation in Lebanon in any fundamental way. The challenges facing Israel thus remain more or less the same.
THE JUNE 7, 2009 LEBANESE ELECTIONS: INITIAL THOUGHTS
The parliamentary elections held in Lebanon on June 7, 2009 came exactly four years after the previous balloting, which had heralded the major change of course that became known as the “Cedar Revolution.” On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in the heart of Beirut. His death evoked a political storm in the country, which was manifested in a great wave of public demonstrations directed mainly against Syria, whose leaders were perceived by those in Beirut as being behind Hariri’s murder. Within a month, the demonstrations led to the expulsion of the Syrian forces that had been stationed on Lebanese soil for many long years. As early as March 5, 2005, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad declared his intention to remove the Syrian troops from Lebanon, and by the end the month, the Syrians had fully retreated. During May and June 2005, still under the shadow of the storm raised by Rafiq al-Hariri’s murder, parliamentary elections were held in Lebanon. The results completed the change of direction begun by the public demonstrations that followed Hariri’s assassination. The results showed a clear victory for the so-called “March 14 camp.” This bloc was an anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian coalition, led by Sunni leader Sa’d al-Din al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who were joined by a number of Maronite partners. The name “March 14” came from the huge demonstration in support of the camp’s ideas that took place in Beirut on that date in 2005.
During the four years following the 2005 elections, the March 14 camp ruled the country. In order to maintain political stability, however, it was willing to compromise its ideas and even cooperate with the forces headed by Hizballah that opposed its path.
The forces constituting the opposition to the March 14 camp were given the name “March 8,” in reference to the huge demonstration organized by Hizballah and its allies in Beirut on that date in 2005 in order to express solidarity with Syria. Hizballah’s junior partners in the March 8 opposition bloc were the Shi’i Amal movement, led by Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri, and the Free Patriotic Movement, led by the Maronite General Michel Aoun.
The tension between these two camps–the Sunni and Druze-led March 14 camp on the one side, and the Shi`i camp led by Hizballah on the other–stemmed not only from Lebanon’s internal situation, but also from Sunni-Shi’a tensions throughout the region, as well as the tensions engendered by the division of the Arab states into those favoring a pro-Western line and those labeled the “axis of evil” (Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas). In recent years, it seemed the “axis of evil” was gaining power and that the U.S. failures in Iraq were opening the way for it to exercise great influence over the region. People were concerned about Iran in particular, due to its hegemonic aspirations over the entire region, from the Iran-Iraq border to the shores of the Mediterranean.
In light of these factors, the heightened interest manifested by the other states of the region in the course of the Lebanese elections and their results was understandable. Observers tended to view the balloting as a reflection of the power struggles bedeviling the entire region, speculating the results might provide an indication of the balance of forces between the moderate and radical axes. In this regard, no observer could ignore the deep involvement of two other states in the region in the Lebanese balloting: on the one side, Saudi Arabia, which threw all its weight behind Sa’d al-Din al-Hariri and his camp, and on the other side, Iran, which supported its local client, Hizballah. With both states investing large sums of money in hopes of advancing the cause of their Lebanese supporters, to a certain extent, the campaign had become a Saudi-Iranian struggle for prestige.
The forecasts on the eve of the voting predicted a very close race, with the March 8 opposition camp appearing to be the victors. However, when the votes were counted during the night of June 7, 2009, it turned out that the March 14 camp had won. Thus, in the view of many, the “camp of the good guys” had defeated the “camp of the bad guys.” The expectations of an opposition victory were based mainly on reports and forecasts publicized in Lebanese and foreign media outlets generally identified with the opposition. The main source was the Qatari television channel Al Jazeera, which in recent years had thrown its full support behind Hizballah and the radical camp in the Arab world in general.
Yet the Lebanese people gave the victory to the March 14 camp, which won 71 of the 128 parliamentary seats. The March 8 opposition camp (Hizballah, with Amal and Michel Aoun) won only 57 seats.
Political forecasts in Lebanese elections are complicated even at the best of times. The country’s electoral system is founded on the principle of religious community affiliation, with the seats in the parliament allotted in advance according to a religious community key. Thus the voting for candidates is based upon considerations of communal affiliation. In addition, there exists a division of the seats by regions, that is, the voting is on a regional, and not national, basis. For purposes of analysis, therefore, each region must be examined separately, since as a rule, the residents are heavily influenced by local, familial, religious, and communal considerations in their voting.
Nonetheless, the June 2009 election results yielded the following conclusions:
First, the voting was indeed clearly and heavily influenced by communal considerations. Thus, for example, nearly all the Shi’a (92 percent, according to estimates) voted for the Shi’i parties, Amal and Hizballah; the vast majority of the Sunnis voted for Sa’d al-Din al-Hariri’s party, the Mustaqbal movement; the Druze voted for Walid Jumblatt and his supporters; and the members of the Maronite community were split between Michel Aoun and his opponents, with Aoun evidently having received most of their votes. Despite the general’s alliance with Hizballah, and perhaps precisely because of it, his supporters still view him as the unquestionable leader of the Maronites in Lebanon as well.
Second, even after the elections Lebanon has remained a state–or perhaps more accurately a society–sharply split between two camps of almost equal size. The worldviews of the two camps conflict sharply, but what is more serious is their division by communal differences. On the one side are the Sunnis and the Druze, on the other are the Shi’a. It is interesting to note at this juncture that the Maronites–who in the past ruled Lebanon high-handedly, and who, in fact, were the main factor behind the establishment of the state as an independent political entity–now lag far behind in the political struggle, with very little political influence or status. Worse, they are sharply divided among themselves. On the one side is General Michel Aoun’s faction, which joined forces with Hizballah; on the other side are several factions, including the Phalangist Party, the Lebanese Forces, and a number of others, who joined the Hariri and Jumblatt camp. It is also important to mention that immediately following the elections, Walid Jumblatt signaled that due to political considerations, he might remove himself from his alliance with Sa’d al-Din al-Hariri and might even join the Hizballah camp.
During the elections, determining which camp would win and which would lose was based on the outcome of a very small number of races. It was enough for just a few seats to shift from one camp to the other in order to give the victory to the opposing camp. Indeed, one could say that it was the voters in the Zahla electoral district who gave the victory to the March 14 camp. This is a mainly Christian district, although the residents mostly Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Armenian rather than Maronites. Despite the expectations of a victory for the opposition candidates, that is, members of the March 8 camp, it was the ruling coalition’s candidates who emerged victorious, giving the March 14 camp seven extremely valuable parliamentary seats. However, things could have easily turned out differently. The same local, family, and religious community considerations–and perhaps even money such as that invested in the district by Sa`d al-Din al-Hariri–could have brought the voters to choose the other camp thus making it the overall winner in the elections.
Third, the elections gave a small but clear majority to the March 14 camp–71 representatives in the parliament versus 57 for the opposition. Hizballah quickly claimed that because of the communal character of the Lebanese voting system, the results of the elections did not reflect the will of the voters. If the proportional system of voting were employed, they said, the opposition’s representation in the parliament would be much greater. Indeed, according to the opposition’s data, its candidates received about 66 percent of the votes while the other side received only about 33 percent.
It would seem that there is some truth in Hizballah’s claim. The religious community key upon which the Lebanese voting system is based allots the seats in the parliament among the different communities in the various districts in advance. Thus the Maronites received 34 representatives, the Shi’a 27, the Sunnis 27, the Druze 8, and so on. As a result, the opposition actually received many fewer seats than it would have received if the elections were held according to the principle of proportionality.
This issue, it would seem, is at the root of the controversies and power struggles troubling Lebanon today. When the Lebanese state was established by the French Mandate authorities in September 1920, the Christians of various denominations constituted about 55 percent of the country’s population. The Maronites alone constituted 29 percent of the general population and were thus the largest single community. The members of the various Islamic communities together constituted only 45 percent of the Lebanese population, with the Sunnis, the largest Islamic group–22 percent of the general population–the Shi’a 18 percent, and the Druze just 5 percent.
Yet according to recent unofficial estimates in Lebanon, the Christians constitute only 25-30 percent of the overall population, while the Muslims have clearly become the majority, constituting about 75 percent of the population. It is assumed that this majority will only grow. Furthermore, the ratios between the different communities has also changed. The Maronites have become the third largest group, while their place has been taken, surprisingly, by the Shi’a, who, now make up about 35 percent of the Lebanese population, if not more. The Sunnis trail a bit behind the Shi’a, and seem to be about 30 percent of the population.
Therefore it is no wonder that the Shi’a are demanding the status and rights warranted by their position as the largest community in the state. However, the Ta’if Agreements of 1989, which brought the Lebanese Civil War to an end, granted the senior position in the Muslim camp to the Sunnis.
It is an irony of fate that for a thousand years in the history of the Mount Lebanon region, the nucleus and birthplace of the Lebanese state, it was the Maronite Christians and the Druze who fought an ongoing and bitter struggle over who would rule the area and its institutions. World War I brought this struggle to an end, when the French established the large Lebanese state after the war as an entity with Maronite hegemony. However, a new struggle immediately broke out, this time between the Maronites–who sought to defend and secure their privileged position in the state–and the Sunnis–who sought a larger part in the rule of the country, as warranted by the size of their community. This conflict reached its peak with the outbreak of violence and civil war in Lebanon in 1975. The fighting in the country raged until 1989. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were wounded or fled. The civil war was brought to an end by the compromise agreements of Ta’if, which aimed at a fairer division of power between the Maronites and Sunnis. However, just at that moment the Shi’a burst forth as a new player at the center of the Lebanese political arena and, like their predecessors, began demanding their due.
The Shi’i political struggle is led by the Hizballah organization, which has become the most powerful factor in the Shi’i community. The organization has indeed come a long way since its establishment by Iran in 1982. While Hizballah engages in normal social, economic, and political activities, it also maintains a formidable and intimidating military arm that has become the strongest military force in the country, even stronger than the Lebanese army.
When Hizballah published its platform in 1985, it announced the goal of turning Lebanon into an Islamic republic closely tied to Iran. At the same time, Hizballah added a restrictive clause to its struggle, saying that it would work to achieve its goal only by means of peaceful persuasion and with the consent of the Lebanese people. Indeed, in the spirit of this restraint, the organization accepted the Ta’if Agreements and announced its readiness to become integrated into Lebanon’s political life on the basis of that agreement. Hizballah began electioneering and in 2005 even joined the government of Fuad Siniora, who took office in the wake of the Cedar Revolution. At the same time, Hizballah did not hide its long-term aspiration of eventually bringing about a change in the rules of the game as fixed at Ta’if, which in Hizballah’s view allotted the seats in the Lebanese parliament in a manner that discriminated against the Shi’i community.
Following its occupation of Iraq in 2003, the United States began instituting a democratic political system in that country. That system enabled the Iraqi Shi’a, who constitute a majority of the country’s population, to rise to power. Since then, the leaders of Hizballah in Lebanon have been calling for the establishment of such a genuine democratic system in their country. Their calculation is clear. Fully democratic elections, with no predetermined seats being allotted to the various communities, would ensure a clear advantage to the Shi’a in any election in the foreseeable future. Since Hizballah is the leading organization in the Shi’i community, a Shi’i victory would mean–at least for the time being–a Hizballah victory, and this would be achieved without firing a shot or using the organization’s military might at all.
On the eve of the June 7, 2009 parliamentary elections, Hizballah had high hopes for a victory that would bring it closer to its goal. The idea was to move forward step by step, introducing gradual changes into the Lebanese system that would ultimately lead to a complete transformation and a Hizballah takeover through democratic means. For example, Hizballah hoped that it would achieve an electoral advantage enabling it to change the election laws and reduce the voting age. This would allow large masses of young Shi’a to become new voters and exert their electoral influence. Later Hizballah could hope to change the distribution of parliamentary seats among the religious communities in favor of the Shi’a. The ultimate goal would be to replace the balloting based on a religious community key with a proportional elections system.
However, Hizballah’s expectations of an electoral victory for itself and its allies were not met. It failed in its effort to take over the Lebanese government through democratic means. This circumstance will undoubtedly place a difficult choice before the organization: Should it exercise patience and rely upon democratic means or should it employ the instruments of violence at its disposal? If Hizballah reconciles with the results of the recent elections, it is hard to see how it could take power in a democratic fashion in the foreseeable future. It will have to remain an opposition force on the margins of the Lebanese political scene. On the other hand, it could try to break through the glass ceiling blocking its rise to power through its military might. Hizballah attempted this in May 2008 and succeeded in forcing the ruling coalition to accept its representatives into the government, where they were given veto power over governmental decisions.
An additional conclusion can be drawn from the recent parliamentary elections. The results intensified the already existing tensions and widened the gap between the March 14 camp and Hizballah along with its allies. Again, the March 14 camp is pro-Western and opposed to the policies and political line of Syria, Iran, and Hizballah. Hizballah, meanwhile, still has at its disposal its militia, which is the strongest military force in the country today and can do nearly whatever it wishes. With this in mind, some observers quickly concluded that the elections did not change anything, since, despite its electoral failure, Hizballah was still able to act as it pleased. It could heat up the Lebanese-Israeli border or choose to continue to maintain the calm and quiet that has reigned there since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
As aforementioned, the Hizballah organization is putting forth certain legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese Shi’i community. One such aspiration is the demand for fair representation in the country’s political structure in accord with the community’s demographic strength. However, this problem is complicated greatly by the fact that the struggle between the Shi’a and the rest of the Lebanese communities is taking place in the shadow of Shi’i-Sunni tensions affecting the entire region, and even more significantly, in the shadow of Iran’s mounting power, to the point where that state has become a regional superpower with pretensions to hegemony over the whole Middle East. Thus, Iran’s intervention in Lebanon’s internal affairs only serves to complicate an already complex dispute and to exacerbate tensions.
The results of the Lebanese elections thus have significance extending beyond their local implications in the Lebanese arena. As noted above, until a short time ago many people in the region were under the impression that Iran had the upper hand, that the “axis of evil”–the coterie made up of Iran, Hizballah, Hamas, and Syria–was constantly gaining in strength, and that it was doubtful that it could ever be stopped in its quest for control of the Middle East. However, the “axis of evil’s” victorious and self-assured image has been tarnished somewhat in recent years, and the Lebanese elections are part of that development.
During the Second Lebanon War, Hizballah suffered a severe blow, even if this fact and the significance of the war for the organization only became clear after some time. Later, at the beginning of 2009, the Hamas organization suffered a severe blow in Gaza at Israel’s hands. Then, in early June 2009, Hizballah suffered defeat in the Lebanese elections. Next, in mid-June 2009, the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran was struck by mass public demonstrations and unrest that broke out in Teheran after the presidential elections. In this regard, the Lebanese elections sent an important message to the entire region, namely, that the “axis of evil” could be stopped, that it is not all-powerful or invincible. This message has enormous significance, in particular in light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to create a moderate and pragmatic axis in the Middle East as a counterweight to the radical axis.
It should be noted that in the extensive discussions regarding Lebanon during 2009 in Israel, the region, and throughout the world, Syria has all but been forgotten. This is significant, since just a decade ago Damascus had complete control over Lebanon. However, the ensuing years–marked by Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad’s death in June 2000 after a thirty-year reign, and the expulsion from Lebanon in March 2005 of the Syrian military forces–have seen a steady decline in Syria’s influence over its smaller neighbor. Many observers in Israel and the West are convinced that Damascus is likely to return to Beirut. However, it is a fact that Damascus played only a small role in the June 2009 Lebanese elections, by its own decision, but also as a result of the constraints it is faced with. Furthermore, it seems as if the balance of power within the “axis of evil” has shifted and Syria has lost ground to its partners, Iran and Hizballah.
ISRAELI-LEBANESE RELATIONS FOLLOWING THE JUNE 2009 ELECTIONS
The Lebanese election results were good news for Israel. There were those in Jerusalem who had looked forward to a Hizballah victory. Based on “worse is better” reasoning, they thought that such a victory would serve Israel’s interests, since it would reveal Lebanon’s true face and show that the distinction made between Hizballah and the Lebanese government and army was an artificial one. This separation of the two entities has had a significant impact on Israeli policy. Thus, it may be recalled that during the Second Lebanon War Israel refrained from attacking infrastructure targets in Lebanon because of Western, and especially American, pressure. The Americans insisted that the Lebanese state and pro-Western government headed by Fuad Siniora, a March 14 camp leader and loyalist of Sa’d al-Din al-Hariri, must be protected at all costs, even as Hizballah was being attacked. This constraint–based as it was and is on the differentiation made in the West between Hizballah and the Lebanese government–would, of course, lose its force if the Lebanese government fell into the hands of the Shi’i organization. In such an eventuality, Lebanon could then be likened to the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas takeover turned the entire territory into a legitimate target for Israel.
Nevertheless, contrary to this reasoning, the most important thing for Israel is that the camp interested in a political settlement, and eventually a peace agreement, with Israel was victorious in Lebanon’s June elections. True, a Hizballah electoral victory bringing the organization to power would probably have compelled it to adopt a pragmatic and more realistic approach to the issue of the conflict with Israel. If this had happened, one can assume that Hizballah would have continued to maintain the calm and quiet that has prevailed along the Israeli-Lebanese border since the end of the Second Lebanon War. However, from Israel’s point of view, the main thing in that case would have been the fact that Lebanon had become a hostile entity with which there could be no hope of reaching a political settlement or peace treaty, and the best that could be expected would have been preserving a tense quiet along the border. Hizballah, after all, belongs to the radical camp in the Middle East–along with Iran and Hamas–all of whose members reject completely any possibility of recognizing Israel, negotiating with it, or reaching any kind of peace agreement with it.
On the other hand, the victory of the March 14 camp in the Lebanese parliamentary elections has opened a window of opportunity, narrow as it may be, for a better future. Israel would do well, with the help of its allies in the region and around the world, to take advantage of this. In the short run, one can assume that the European governments and the U.S. administration will increase their pressure on Israel to implement a series of confidence-building measures as gestures to the Lebanese government, for example, withdrawal from the Shab’a Farms or from the northern part of the village of Rajar and, of course, the cessation of surveillance flights over Lebanon. Israel should not make these concessions without receiving something appropriate in return. However, the more important question is how to get Lebanon to join the efforts being made to achieve an overall regional settlement and peace with Israel, developments that would, of course, be the best way to ensure the quiet along Israel’s northern border.
In his speeches following the electoral victory of the March 14 camp, the bloc’s leader, Sa’d al-Din al-Hariri, emphasized that the Lebanese government would not act to impair the “arms of the resistance,” that is, Hizballah’s military forces, and it certainly would not act to carry out any international resolutions calling for disarming Hizballah and putting an end to arms smuggling from Syria and Iran into Lebanon. However, at the same time, al-Hariri declared Lebanon’s readiness under his leadership to become involved in the peace process as a participant in the Arab initiative that was formulated in Beirut itself in 2002.
The possibility of advancing an Israeli-Lebanese peace was and remains slim, and perhaps does not exist at all at the present time. In the past there were those in Jerusalem whose assessment was that the best course for Israel was to reach an agreement with Syria, in the framework of which Lebanon would be turned over to Damascus, and in return Damascus would commit itself to ensuring calm and quiet along the Israeli-Lebanese border. However, the weakening of Syria and its loss of influence in Lebanon–together with the growing strength of Hizballah and its patron, Iran–have removed this option from the table.
The Lebanese election results present a narrow opening that might enable Lebanon to take part in American efforts at advancing a regional process. Indeed, this would seem the only chance for advancing an Israeli-Lebanese understanding, which would also help stabilize Lebanon’s internal political situation. If, however, the efforts to follow this course fail, the only remaining option will be to continue to act in such a way as to preserve Israel’s deterrent capabilities vis-à-vis Hizballah, and thereby to try to preserve the calm and quiet along the Israeli-Lebanese border.