Israeli Score-Settling?

At 8.30am on 3 November, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri received a message from King Salman of Saudi Arabia instructing him to fly to Riyadh. Hariri thought he was going to accompany Prince Mohammad bin Salman on a camping trip, but when his plane touched down in the capital he was confronted by a troop of Saudi security officers. They separated the PM from all but one of his bodyguards, confiscated his phone, manhandled him into an unmarked car and drove to his house (Hariri is a Saudi citizen), where he spent all night waiting for the Crown Prince. The next morning, the Lebanese leader was handed a resignation speech and told to read it in front of a camera. If he refused, he would be arrested on corruption charges, and the 250,000 Lebanese workers living in Saudi Arabia would be expelled. He complied, stumbling through the pre-written statement that cited Hezbollah – the pro-Iran, anti-Israel party which serves in Hariri’s administration – as the reason for his departure. Iran ‘has a desire to destroy the Arab world’, he said. ‘Hezbollah imposed [itself on] Lebanon through force of arms, and their intervention causes us big problems with all our Arab allies’. After his speech, he placed a phone call to Lebanese President Michael Aoun (a Hezbollah supporter), who registered that the resignation was forced, and contacted Western diplomats to inform them that Hariri had effectively been kidnapped.

The purpose of the Saudi intervention was clear: to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon by collapsing the Hezbollah-Hariri coalition. Since 2012, Hezbollah (an organisation of Shia militants led by Hassan Nasrallah) had been locked in a struggle against Sunni extremists in Syria. Nasrallah’s soldiers fought alongside Bashar al-Assad, as well as proxies of the Iranian Ayatollah, to prevent jihadism from contaminating northern Lebanon. But, once Assad emerged victorious from this conflict, Nasrallah’s focus shifted towards consolidating Lebanese political power. This remains a pressing task for Hezbollah, since many of its voters were alienated by the party’s campaign against ISIS. How could it claim to be a leftist ‘Resistance army’, or a friend of the Palestinians, when it was propping up Assad at the expense of its constituents? How could it effectively oppose Lebanese neoliberalism and Israeli expansionism when its resources were diverted in Damascus? Hezbollah-sponsored welfare, education, healthcare and food programmes – vital to its success in Lebanon’s 2009 election – contracted once it entered Assad’s civil war. This diminished the group’s cross-sectarian appeal and stifled its capacity to represent the Palestinians, to the advantage of its Israeli rivals.

In this context, the conclusion of the Syrian conflict, months before Lebanon is set to hold parliamentary elections, gives Nasrallah an opportunity to reconnect with his traditional support base. He will court disenfranchised Shiites and Palestinian nationalists by decrying Hariri’s austerity agenda and excoriating Trump’s Jerusalem position. If this rhetorical strategy is effective, and Hezbollah increases its popular support, several Lebanese cabinet members will retain Palestinian and Iranian sympathies. Meanwhile, Iran will use the momentum of Assad’s success to strengthen ties with foreign allies (including Nasrallah and Aoun), which means that Lebanon could follow Iraq and Qatar by normalising relations with the Islamic Republic: a disastrous outcome for Saudi regional hegemony.

It is not surprising, then, that Prince Mohammad should thwart a Lebanese-Iranian alliance with strong-arm tactics. As various commentators have noted, Hariri’s harassment is just one iteration of the aggressive approach – encompassing sanctions against Qatar, support for Syrian fundamentalists and attacks on Yemeni rebels – adopted by the Prince to disrupt Iran’s strategic interests. Nor is Saudi interference in Lebanon a new tendency. The precedent stretches as far back as 1967, when the Kingdom deported its Lebanese population and withdrew aid payments to undercut the country’s cooperation with Nasser. Wikileaks cables reveal that, in recent decades, the Saudis have pressured Lebanon to delay elections, censored its media outlets, and bankrolled Beirut officials in exchange for loyalty. But while Hariri’s detention fits this established trend, it also highlights an aspect of Middle Eastern politics that is less reported and more disquieting: the alignment of Saudi and Israeli interests. It is increasingly apparent that these nations (the primary recipients of US arms and military finance) have reached an accord which will not only destabilise Lebanon, but extinguish the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

As Aoun contacted global leaders to explain Hariri’s predicament, Riyadh sent out another summons. This time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was beckoned to a private meeting with Prince Mohammad, who solicited the Palestinian leader’s support for his Lebanese policy. When Abbas was unforthcoming, the Saudi premier threatened to inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps – to use them as recruiting ground for a new ISIS proxy which would wipe out Hezbollah. The Prince had already sent a proposal to residents of the Ain al-Hilwe camp, broaching a Sunni mobilisation against the Lebanese state, but even the most seasoned extremists branded it unthinkable. If this attempted blackmail wasn’t enough for the 82-year-old Abbas, he was then informed of a ‘peace deal’ which Trump’s team had been designing alongside the Saudis and Israelis. It offered the Palestinians a state mainly confined to Gaza, with discontinuous patches of territory in the West Bank over which the Palestinian Authority would have limited sovereignty. East Jerusalem and current settlements would remain in Israeli hands, Palestinians would have no mandate to police their borders, and refugees would receive no right of return. Sources claim that when Abbas rejected the proposal, the Prince offered him a bribe, then expressed his intention to force him out of office (à la Hariri). In light of this refusal, Trump announced via Twitter that he would begin slashing aid to Palestine.

Even if Abbas had joined the anti-Hezbollah crusade, it would not have made the Saudis’ intervention any more effective. Intense diplomatic activity culminated in the personal mediation of Emmanuel Macron, who negotiated Hariri’s release in mid-November. The Lebanese PM suspended his resignation and was reinstated by Aoun. Throughout the disruption, Hezbollah encouraged the public to keep calm, initiated dialogue with its coalition partners, and hastened its withdrawal from Syria to secure Hariri’s return. These developments turned Prince Mohammad’s plot into an unmitigated failure. But his desire to break the Lebanese government and intimidate Abbas nonetheless exposed the dominant thinking in Riyadh: self-determination in Lebanon and Palestine must be forcibly curtailed to restrict Iranian power. As it happens, the same logic has informed Israeli policy for decades. Zionist leaders are just as keen to deprive their opponents of a political foothold in Lebanon and attack the Gulf state from which they draw resources. Hence the recent upsurge in references, both public and private, to the Saudi-Israeli security alliance – an intelligence-sharing partnership which has been conducted through back-channels for the last five years. Prince Mohammad ‘doesn’t give a damn’ about the Palestinians as long as he secures Israel’s backing against Iran, in the words of former Israeli Defence Minister Yaacov Nagal. The countries’ ‘shared security interests’ have been touted by top Jerusalem officials, many of whom are pushing to establish formal relations with the Kingdom. The only barriers to acknowledging such ties, according to a leaked Saudi Foreign Ministry document, are Arab public opinion and Israel’s wish to retain the sole nuclear arsenal in the Middle East.

Were such an alliance formalised, the first losers would be the Lebanese. While Saudi Arabia has just launched its scheme to disturb the balance of power between Lebanon’s religious groups, this has been the effect of Israeli policy throughout much of the twentieth century. Since the 1970s, Israel has tried to excise pro-Palestinian forces from its Northern neighbour. It seeks to deprive Israeli adversaries (once the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Arafat, now Hezbollah under Nasrallah) of a political outlet which would legitimise their demand for a two-state solution. If opponents of Israel’s illegal settlement programme develop an organised platform in Lebanon, they could advance the cause of Palestinian statehood, or lobby to enforce UN Resolution 242 (which calls for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories). So the dispersal of their members and destruction of their infrastructure is a crucial bulwark against meaningful compromise.

When the PLO signed the Shtaura accord in July 1977, agreeing to surrender heavy armaments, halt cross-border operations and improve relations with the Lebanese state, the Israelis launched a major offensive. They employed Christian militias led by Saad Haddad (a murderous fanatic) and Pierre Gemayel (an admirer of Nazism) to massacre Muslim leftists and Palestinian refugees. The resultant casualties prompted a ceasefire in July 1981 which Arafat’s men observed. Yet Israel continued its sustained assault on the PLO, undertaking periodic air raids which culminated in a full-scale invasion the following year. During the subsequent war, Israeli forces intensified the bombing of Beirut just as the Palestinian population surrendered, and launched indiscriminate attacks on civilians trying to flee the conflict. They also enlisted Gemayel’s fascist army to slaughter the inhabitants of Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – a three-day act of systematic extermination where hundreds were raped and approximately 3,000 were murdered under the direct oversight of the Israelis.

There is an obvious pattern to these incursions: Palestinian forces disarm, retreat, cease hostilities or pursue diplomacy, and Israel responds with overwhelming force. As historian Yehoshua Porath writes, the 1982 invasion ‘flowed from the very fact that the [1981] cease-fire had been observed’; it stemmed from the threat that a peaceful, popular and respected PLO would pose to Israeli conquest. Whenever a tentative compromise was reached between Lebanon’s warring factions (giving Arafat the chance to extend his political influence), Israel would step in, aggravate sectarian rivalry and eradicate its opposition. In this it was largely successful: the PLO’s inability to cement a political position in Lebanon is a major factor in its impotence today. Its membership has been drastically reduced along with its resources. But the Israelis’ maximal aims – to turn Lebanon into an vassal state, or segregate the country so that Zionist militias controlled the South – were never realised. Instead, the decision to pit Christians against Muslims and ravage the nation with shellfire forced disparate factions into an alliance which became Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God’, whose stand against Israeli occupation preserves the legacy of Arafat. According to Noam Chomsky, Hezbollah remains ‘the only meaningful support for Palestinians facing national destruction’. Over the past decades it has pushed for a negotiated settlement with Israel and voiced demands for Palestinian statehood. For that it has incurred the wrath of the Israelis, who repeatedly crossed Lebanon’s borders throughout the 90s and 2000s.

However, Israel’s most recent assault on Hezbollah ended in embarrassing defeat. Ever since its misguided 2006 campaign, in which Nassralah declared outright victory, successive Israeli ministers have spoken of ‘the next war’ in Lebanon. It is common knowledge that Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet are primed for a ‘score-settling’ excursion, and there are signs that this could take place in the coming months. One is the historical precedent: Hezbollah is moving away from violent struggle; it is inculcating itself in Lebanon’s democratic structure, widening its appeal, and articulating mass opposition to Netanyahu’s settlements. It occupies the same position which the PLO sought in the late ‘70s. And we know what happened to the PLO.

Another mark of imminent war is the Saudis’ bellicose agenda and abandonment of Palestine. If the Israelis decide to strike, Prince Mohammad may provide material support, as both parties would benefit from the destruction of Lebanon’s Iranian affiliates. This is something of a game changer, since Netanyahu has previously held off for fear of a second failure. His country’s refineries, nuclear reactor, power stations and ports are clustered into a small area which leaves them particularly vulnerable to Hezbollah rockets. Moreover, Nasrallah’s contact with Syrian Shiite militia during the civil war has furnished him with more potential allies against Israeli aggression. So a repeat of the 2006 debacle seemed the likely upshot of new tensions – until Saudi backing became a possibility.

Now, the General Staff of the Israeli army are considering ‘an extensive ground operation that would complement air power’ as well as ‘an attack on civilian infrastructure’. The military’s top spokesman asserted that Nasrallah will be targeted for assassination, while the air force chief expressed his eagerness to bomb civilian villages. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz claimed that ‘we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age’ (describing 2006 as ‘a picnic compared to what we can do’) and predicted that an Israeli attack would proceed without UN approval. According to the Lebanese government, Israel has conducted military drills along their border, violated their territorial integrity 11,000 times since the first campaign against Hezbollah, and drawn up plans for a Gaza-style ‘security wall’ which would annex parts of their land. Throughout September and December 2017, Israel sent low-flying jets into Lebanon, where they deployed a series of ‘sonic booms’ – deafening sound attacks which are regularly used to terrify the Gazan population, causing miscarriages and heart problems. Fearing that these scare tactics are the precursor to a serious assault, the Commander of the Lebanese army has asked his men to assume ‘full readiness’ for war. His response indicates that, unlike in 2006, the army has acknowledged the extent of the Israeli threat, as well as the popularity of Hezbollah, and intends to mount a resistance.

There is reason to believe that Israeli hawks are gaining ground, and that their friendship with the Saudis spells ruin for Lebanon. Yet, if the Lebanese army opposes an Israeli invasion, it may receive support from Russia, which fears that Lebanon’s disintegration will reignite conflict in Syria (and reverse the victory that Putin secured for Assad). In which case, the confidence of Israeli jingoists like Yisrael Katz could quickly evaporate, as broader geopolitical dynamics step in to rescue Hezbollah. For Israel would be wise to avoid a confrontation with Nasrallah if it entails a standoff with Putin. Since Trump has stripped American foreign policy of any coherence or credibility, this international power vacuum has been filled by Russia, whose influence is increasingly respected in the Middle East. If that influence holds back the Israeli warmongers, it may keep Lebanon intact.