Testing the limits of resilience

21 June 1996

The resilience of the new investor-friendly, reconstruction-focused Lebanon was severely tested in April by Israel's 16-day bombardment of the south. That the country withstood this test, and quickly bounced back was a tribute to the newfound self-belief of Lebanese state and society. But fresh and probably more formidable tests lie ahead in what promises to be a highly charged period in Middle East politics, following the victory of the hardline Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Israel's 29 May elections. When there are rising tensions in the region, Lebanon is sure to feel the impact first.

The April operation clearly illustrated Lebanon's lightning rod role. Israel chose to launch a major operation against south Lebanon at that time for a number of motives, most of them having nothing to do with Lebanon. The principal one appeared to be the perceived need to retaliate in general against terrorism following the February-March suicide bombings in Israel carried out by Palestinian Islamist groups. The Lebanese dimension involved Israel wishing to punish Hezbollah - the military/political group led by radical Shia Muslim clerics - for firing rockets into Israel after a Lebanese civilian had been killed in an Israeli undercover operation outside the Israeli-occupied border zone. An allied factor was the Israeli elections, and the desire of Labour leader Shimon Peres to show he could be tough on security issues.

In the view of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Peres lost this election partly because of his miscalculation of the impact of the Lebanon attack. 'He talked about peace, and he made war,' Hariri said of Peres in an interview with the London Independent on 6 June. 'He killed civilians and then went to Paris and talked about tolerance. I think many Israelis were confused.'

Hezbollah's commentary on the election result was delivered one day later in the form of an operation in the occupied zone in which four Israeli soldiers were killed. The group followed this up with another operation on 10 June, killing five Israeli soldiers. According to the 27 April understanding agreed by Peres with Syria's President Asad, Lebanon, France and the US, such operations are perfectly permissible. Israel is also forbidden to retaliate by hitting civilian targets.

Even before Netanyahus victory, the civilian population of the south had indicated they had little confidence in Israel's good faith in keeping to this commitment. There were widespread demands for the Lebanese army to build a network of bomb shelters to give civilians some prospect of avoiding the fate of those who took refuge in the UN base at Qana on 18 April and were cut to pieces by Israeli shellfire

Netanyahu factor

The advent of Netanyahu, who shares little of Peres' vision of a peaceful, co-operative Middle East, has aroused fears that it will be only a matter of time before Israel launches another major military operation into Lebanon.

The Netanyahu factor has concentrated the minds of the various political forces with interests in Lebanon. Top of the heap is Syria, which has some tricky calculations to make. President Asad has, to some extent, fallen out of favour with the US, and is feeling threatened on a number of fronts. Syria is clearly concerned by the increased military co-operation between Israel and Turkey, and was unhappy about the recent US military manoeuvres in Jordan. Syrian officials have expressed irritation at US reports of security problems in Syria - apparently involving Turkish agents - and at a German magazine report on an alleged chemical weapons programme in Syria. In addition, Syria is facing financial sanctions from the US according to a new counter-terrorism bill signed by President Clinton on 24 April. As Syria is a state listed by the US as supporting terrorism, this bill could mean that US companies and individuals will be barred from any financial dealing with the country.

'If Syria is weak and feeling threatened, it becomes dangerous,' says one Beirutbased European diplomat. 'I think Europe has a responsibility to try to reassure Syria, in everybody's interests.'

Hezbollah hazard

The key calculation for Syria in Lebanon is how to deal with the Hezbollah factor. Helping Hezbollah wage a low-level campaign against Israeli forces in Lebanon has provided Syria with the means to demonstrate to Israel that it cannot occupy Arab territories without cost. The danger of this strategy is that Israel could decide to retaliate against Syria or Syrian interests. This could either take the form of military operations against the 22,000 Syrian forces stationed in Lebanon, or covert activities inside Syria.

With Peres in power, committed to peace with Syria including a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Syria could be reasonably confident that Israel would not escalate matters too far. With Netanyahu, it is difficult for Asad to have any such confidence.

For this reason, Beirut commentators are assuming that Syria will try to make sure Hezbollah operations in south Lebanon remain low-key, and certainly do not go beyond what is envisaged in the 27 April understanding. The reasoning is that Israel has so slender a commitment to peace with Syria that it would be prepared to risk a major military operation against Syrian interests at the slightest provocation.

The task for Syria and the Lebanese authorities is to persuade Hezbollah to accept this logic. However, Hezbollah has made political capital from its role in resisting the Israelis in the south, and is seeking to build on these gains. It is directly competing with the government in providing aid to southerners whose homes, businesses or farms were damaged in the April fighting, and it will be seeking to increase its representation in parliament in the autumn elections. The rise in Hezbollah's standing has not been welcomed by Hariri. The government has insisted that all foreign aid provided to Lebanon goes through official channels - the government claims Hezbollah's reconstruction efforts in the south have been directly financed by Iran, and has raised this issue with Iranian officials.

Hariri himself has become embroiled in a war of words with Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. 'The prime minister has always emphasised that the Lebanese state does not approve of Hezbollah's political plan or its manner of speech, its boastful behaviour and its logic of constantly defying the state,' read a 28 May statement from Hariri's office in response to a slighting reference to him by Nasrallah the same day. Hariri has called on Hezbollah not to claim a monopoly over resistance; Hezbollah has rejected the government's attempts to monopolise the disbursement of aid.

Hezbollah has argued that Hariri has no right to claim an exclusive right to the Lebanese state. 'This claim is the reason for Hariri's isolation from the Lebanese people. The people reject Hariri's plan, which empties the state of its content, demolishes state institutions and establishes parallel personal institutions.'

Hariri's entourage have developed a slogan: 'What Hezbollah won in the (Israeli) aggression, they must lose in the elections.' However, Hariri himself has chosen not to become a parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming elections, partly because he is not sure of the strength of his support in West Beirut, the area where he was expected to stand.

In addition to his problems with Hezbollah and with the West Beirut Sunni establishment, Hariri faces trouble with the Christians. The government is keen to ensure maximum participation in the elec tions, which must be held between mid-August and mid-October. The existing parliament has lacked an element of legitimacy because of a boycott staged by most Maronite Christian organisations in the 1992 elections. The Maronite Church has made no secret of its sense of alienation from the government establishment, and many Lebanese believe the country's recovery will never be complete until the Christian community is fully integrated into the new state structure.

The participation of the Maronites in the elections has become tied up in the intricacies of 'The Mount Lebanon Question.' The basic electoral district in Lebanon is the governorate (mohafaza), of which there are five. The Mount Lebanon mohafaza is where many of the Maronite population live, and most of the Druzes. The two sides have been arguing over a proposal to set up subdistricts in the area for the elections as a means to maximise their respective votes. The Maronites fear the eventual solution will work in the Druzes' favour, because the Druzes have stronger ties to Hariri and Syria. This could be enough to provoke another Christian boycott.

This debate has dominated internal politics in 1996, as the debate over extending President Hrawi's term by three years to 1998 dominated the scene last year. The heat generated by these debates shows that Lebanon is unlikely to enjoy tranquillity on the political scene. However, the state has shown it has a basic integrity that has allowed such conflicts to go on without seriously threatening its stability. This is buttressed by the key institution of the post-civil war period: the army. The Lebanese army now has close to 50,000 men, and, in Emil Lahoud, has a commander who is held in high regard by most sections of Lebanese political society. It is Lahoud who many feel is the strongest candidate to take over as president in 1998.

Until then, Hariri is likely to continue as the key political figure. Therein lies both strength and weakness. Hariri is the first Lebanese politician since the start of the civil war to have made a powerful impression on the international scene. But at the same time, his domestic political base is weak, and Lebanon's prospects have probably become too closely identified with him. Commented one European diplomat: 'Before the April events, we could say that Hariri's fall would have a primarily economic or financial effect. After April, the implications of anything happening to Hariri would be much more far-reaching.'

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