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Hopeless Search for Peace in the Aftermath of the Second Israel-Lebanon War

V. Krishnappa was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 25, 2007

    As the dust slowly settles down over the battlefields of South Lebanon and North Israel, the major actors in this tragic drama are now debating ways and means to salvage the long stalled Arab-Israel peace process from the wreckage of war and violence in the region. Israel's 34-day military campaign against Lebanon ended in mid-August with no clear victory to either party. While both Israel and Hezbollah have claimed victory for their own sides, it is becoming apparent that war has not settled the fundamental issues that were at stake for either of the parties to the conflict and their allies. The region remains violent, uncertain and hopeless. While a fragile peace is maintained over the Israel-Lebanon border with the insertion of boosted United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers and the Lebanese army, as mandated under UNSC resolution 1701, the situation on the Israel- Syrian front remains frozen. There is little hope that the Arab-Israel peace process, which was stalled in 2000, is likely to be revived any time soon.

    Wars almost always end up producing unintended consequences unfavourable even for the victors. The recent Israeli-Lebanon war is no exception to this rule. It is true that Israel was successful in satisfying the most important among its war objectives. However, the poignant images of death and destruction rained by Israeli airpower and long range artillery have enraged public opinion across the globe, further alienating the 'Arab street' from their otherwise fragile regimes. The rulers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are coming under increasing pressure from within. This was best demonstrated by their confused responses to the unfolding events during the war. Nasarallah is topping the popularity charts in most Arab countries. He has become an icon - a Che Guevara - of the resurgent Islamist forces. Hezbollah is today seen as a model force of Islamic resistance against the West. The stock of Israeli military is at its lowest ever, at least in the public perception in the region.

    To top all this is the mood of disillusionment within the Israeli body politic. Mired in sex and corruption scandals involving the country's president, justice minister, and the chief of staff, Olmert's government is clutching at straws to survive. The war has vaporised the Kadima-led government's singular policy plank - its raison d'etre - the 'convergence plan', which envisages unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. The government is coming under attack both from the left and the right of the Israeli political spectrum for what many perceive as muddled management of the war effort. The revolt of decommissioned reserve soldiers is poisoning the public debate. Looked from any which way, the public mood in the region is one of despair and hopelessness leading to an easy embrace of fatalism.

    As the world watches the moves and counter moves of the important actors jostling for advantage on the grand chessboard of West Asia, is there something in the situation that can be leveraged in the interest of peace and stability? Can wilful statecraft turn around what is otherwise a hopeless situation?

    To many Israelis, the recent war exposed the dangers of unilateral withdrawal. Trading of territories for peace appears illusory at this moment. A large section of Israeli public opinion does not favour the convergence plan because of the fear that the vacuum created thereby will be filled in by non-state actors armed with rockets and missiles, thus rendering Israel vulnerable. This is, to them, the lesson of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in the summer of 2000 and of the pullout from the Gaza strip in 2005. Israeli public opinion is consumed by a sense of vulnerability. The year 2006 pushed the Iranian nuclear issue to the fore of Israeli concerns. Many commentators believe that the Second Lebanon War was a war over the Iranian Bomb. The kidnap of an Israeli soldier on June 25, 2006 and the violent engagement that ensued added another layer to an already pessimistic outlook. The Olmert government's convergence plan was under challenge even before the Lebanon War. In the immediate aftermath of the war it is inconceivable how the Kadima-led government would win the support of the public and the political elite. The negative perceptions about higher direction of the war have engendered much finger pointing, introspection and endless bickering in Israel's domestic political debate. Can Olmert turn this around?

    There are some hopeful signs that could indeed be leveraged by Olmert's government. First, is the growing recognition among the Israeli elite of the need for a new approach on the Palestinian front. Two, the Second Lebanon War did not increase support for either the Likud party or other right wing political groups. Third, a majority of Israelis continue to view the occupation as a political and security liability. The travails of combat during the recent war have further reinforced the view held by many security experts that the continued exposure of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the occupied territories is eating into its combat preparedness for conventional operations. Also, many experts are anticipating an increase in terrorism fuelled by Israel's aggressive military operations across Gaza and the negative image of the IDF generated by Israel's unsuccessful military operations in Lebanon. Many have come to fear increased rocket attacks if the Palestinian militias are driven to desperation. Some, like noted military historian Martin van Creveld, believe that a withdrawal from the West Bank, unilateral or otherwise, would release resources for attending to more important security needs.

    There are other hopeful signs, such as the possibility of handing over some responsibilities of Palestinian security to a European peacekeeping force till the time the Palestinian Authority establishes stability in its territories. The simultaneous withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanese territory as European peacekeepers arrived there is seen as a useful model to replicate in the Palestinian territories. Particularly expanding the role of European monitoring troops to a larger number of border crossings is seen as a distinct possibility.

    As far as the Syria-Israel track is concerned, a dramatic turnaround is unlikely in the near term. In the immediate aftermath of the Lebanon War, two distinct and contradictory trends are noticeable in the Israeli discourse with regard to Syria. On the one hand, many in the media and some in the government are pushing for a diplomatic engagement with Damascus. On the other, both countries are publicly ratcheting up hostile rhetoric. Each is accusing the other of hostile military intent. Both are reportedly dusting up their war plans and exercising their troops. The Syrian front is both hopeful and confusing at the same time. The Israeli attitude toward Syria, in the main, is shaped by six important factors. First, in the aftermath of the recent war many Israelis have come to believe that Syria is the key to regional stability. Second, a breakthrough with Syria will crack the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. Third, Olmert's government needs a major diplomatic initiative especially if the stalemate persists on the Palestinian front. Fourth, a belief among the Israeli elite that Assad is in desperate search for international legitimacy, is fearful of a possible indictment of his regime in the Rafiq Hariri murder case and the international sanctions that may follow, and would therefore be willing to bargain for a peace process without seeking to define the end point as a precondition for talks. Assad's bellicose public statements are seen as an expression of desperation rather than communication of real intent. Fifth, an engagement with Syria would significantly enhance Israeli security especially in case of an Israeli or American pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Sixth, engaging Syria would bolster the diplomatic efforts underway to compel Iran. This is of particular importance to Israel as most Israelis see the Iranian nuclear threat in existential terms. Any effort that would help undermine Iran's 'will' to resist international pressure is seen as useful.

    Although, Israeli-Syrian detente would significantly alter the strategic landscape, arriving at a modus vivendi is neither easy nor are there any visible signs of that happening any time soon. For one, Israeli public support for a peace process does not imply support for full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This Israeli domestic consideration would influence the terms and conditions Assad would put on table. The most important factor that may restrain the Israeli approach to Syria is the Bush administration's implacable hostility towards Assad. While the United States may be more flexible in dealing with the Palestinian question, it may well be the chief obstacle for Israeli initiatives on the Syria front.

    In general, the West Asian peace process faced a bleak future before the war. There is little to show that the war has altered, in any fundamental sense, that outlook except in the limited context of Lebanon. The war has created conditions for the reordering of Lebanese politics. It, however, still remains an incomplete task. Wars do not, on their own, settle the fundamental differences between the combatants. That is the task for statecraft in the coming months and years. The true measure of success would be whether or not Hezbollah is persuaded to become one among the many political parties in Lebanon.