While both sides seem to be relaxing their high alerts for an imminent spike in hostilities, both Lebanon and Israel are stepping back from their rhetorical and armed exchanges this last week and weekend. For Lebanon watchers, the most damaging fatality from the escalation is reinforcing the perception that Hezbollah acts for Lebanon rather than the LAF. World media focused on statements from Hezbollah’s leadership rather than the Lebanese government although, President Aoun’s “declaration of war” did strike some as a dangerous pose. It is Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah who has managed to dominate messaging from Lebanon, strengthening the perception that it acts as a state within a state and the government holds second tier status.
At a time when the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate was being discussed in the UN Security Council, Israel attacked sites in Iraq and Syria and is alleged to be behind the attack on Hezbollah’s media office in Beirut, claiming it is a center for installing guidance systems on Iranian-provided missiles. While not claiming credit for the attack, Israel justified it, just in case, further aggravating Lebanese sensitivities regarding constant overflights by Israel drones and planes.
According to AP News, The Security Council urged all parties to “exercise maximum calm and restraint and refrain from any action or rhetoric that could jeopardize the cessation of hostilities or destabilize the region.” But these actions and rhetoric are precisely what seems to be the motivation from the Israel side. Facing a tough election, Netanyahu is ratcheting up threat perceptions among his electorate to reinforce his image as the war/peacemaker opposing Iran’s threats. The fact that Lebanon is collateral damage because of Hezbollah’s presence matters little when votes are at stake. Partisans for Israel are promoting the narrative that the LAF is a tool of Hezbollah as is the Lebanese government, sentiments finding their way into the language of pro-Israel/anti-Iran policy hawks in Washington.
The UNIFIL mandate renewal, coming on the heels of the attacks, crystalized the debate regarding Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. It “reiterated that “Israel and Lebanon support a permanent cease-fire and for the accelerated deployment of Lebanese forces in the south and the country’s territorial waters. In a clear swipe at Hezbollah, “The council again urged all countries to enforce a 2006 arms embargo and prevent the sale or supply of weapons to any individual or entity in Lebanon not authorized by the government or UN force,” a stricture that has been avoided by Lebanon’s governments claiming that Hezbollah is defending Lebanon.
What was helpful was the statement by Acting US Ambassador Jonathan Cohen that the US “remains steadfast in our commitment to UNIFIL and to Lebanon’s security, stability and sovereignty.” He also underlined the importance of the arms embargo and for UNIFIL’s “unimpeded and timely access to the entire UN-drawn Blue Line boundary between Israel and Lebanon.”
In the immediate aftermath of the tit-for-tat this past weekend, Nasrallah declared that Hezbollah would now fire upon any Israeli drones over Lebanon, once again usurping the role of the LAF as the guarantor of Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. His statements have gone unchallenged by the Lebanese President who relies on the Shite leadership to stay in office. While this may satisfy those with their focus on maintaining the confessional alignments that support the current government, its weakness is all too evident when the Prime Minister’s first call after the drone attack was to Russia and not the US.
More collateral damage from the increased tension may be coming as international investors, the key to Lebanon’s recovery from its stagnating and debilitating economy and infrastructure may think again about investing in a country that has yet to demonstrate control over its political actors and manage its badly needed reform process. Lebanon’s dysfunctional political culture has the potential for leading to the country’s literal destruction through failure to take responsibility for Lebanon’s future.