The warning signs of an impending confrontation between Israel and Lebanon are on the rise and should be of great concern to the Lebanese government and international community. Most experts conclude it’s not in either party’s interest to initiate military actions against the other, although some policymakers are now suggesting that a provocative process is unfolding that would give Israel cause to escalate military action in Syria and Lebanon.
Israel has made its redlines clear, and threatening movements by Iran or the regime in Syria, or Hezbollah from Lebanon, could result in an unfortunate miscalculation, if not an excuse, for Israel to move against Lebanon.
The rhetoric is worsening. New disagreements in the past few weeks have brought an experienced diplomat, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, to the region in an attempt to calm tensions between Lebanon and Israel, especially with regard to border disputes. This follows the statement of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reported in Reuters that Lebanon’s latest oil exploration plans were “very, very challenging and provocative.” This resulted in exchanges of threats between the far-right minister and Hezbollah to wage a full-scale war with one another.
Additionally, a new escalation between Iran and Israel in Syria appears to have opened up, following Iran’s bold move to send a drone into Israel territory, which resulted in a downed Israeli jet when Israel attacked the drone’s control center manned by Iranians and Russians. In retaliation, Israel boldly bombed Syrian anti-aircraft facilities.
Many experts have warned that a regional war that neither side wants could be only “a miscalculation away.” In a new report from the Brookings Institution, authors Dror Michman and Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud state, “These actions prove that Israel is ready and able to couple its warnings with force, to make the other parties pay a real price.”
As the rhetoric and military escalation increase, the U.S. has asserted itself in the middle of the dispute, a welcome sign to help separate Lebanon from a widening regional war. There is a clear U.S. policy supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Lebanon.
Following Saudi Arabia’s November detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad El-Din Rafik Hariri, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasted no time announcing his support for “the stability of Lebanon,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces, and cautioning “against any party against using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country.” The White House issued a similarly strong message.
Satterfield has been clear in emphasizing U.S. support for Lebanese institutions, saying at a forum in Tel Aviv, “We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which is the only legitimate force in Lebanon.”
These U.S. statements have even more meaning — and are quite amazing — as they come at the very time that Israel says it sees no difference between the LAF and Hezbollah, accusing Iran of constructing underground missile factories in Syria and Lebanon.
The dichotomy in statements between the U.S. and Israel could signal a policy shift, focusing on actions of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah outside of Lebanon, as long as Hezbollah does not pursue aggressive actions from Lebanon, such as building missile factories or other aggressive acts against Israel. In addition, U.S. resolve to protect rebel held safe zones in eastern and southern Syria, combined with the Israeli actions in Syria, appear to be aimed at a more strategic regional approach, rather than one than punishes Lebanon with little or no long term strategy.
Lebanon stands to gain from this new sense of U.S. policy. The time and effort that Satterfield and Tillerson have devoted is an encouraging sign. Responsibility now falls to Lebanon to keep its part of the bargain and put teeth behind its dissociation policy, extricating itself from regional conflicts whether in Lebanon or outside.
Edward Gabriel served as U.S. ambassador to Morocco from 1997-2001 and is currently president of the American Task Force for Lebanon.