The cease-fire in Lebanon seemed to gain traction this week as Israeli troops continued their gradual withdrawal from the south and prepared to begin lifting the air, sea and land blockade of the country. Lebanese and United Nations troops took up positions in southern Lebanon to enforce the truce that last month ended 34 days of Israeli-Hezbollah fighting.
But experts note the situation is fragile.“If weapons from Syria and Iran begin to reach Hezbollah, Israel will ask the UN what it is doing about it,” said David Newman, chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Will it watch and report and do nothing? In that case, Israel will go in and take unilateral action, in which case the cease-fire will break down and the world would blame Israel. But Israel must say `no’ to more weapons coming in.”
In the past week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he won assurances from both Syria and Iran that they would abide by the cease-fire and not provide Hezbollah with any more weapons. “There is a lot of pressure from the European Union and the UN to stop the flow of weapons,” Newman said.
Should the cease-fire hold, Newman said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “would not come out looking good, but it would save his skin” and permit him to remain in office.
“From an internal Israeli perspective, [the war] was a failure,” he said. “Logistics were not worked out. There were a whole load of failures. The image of Israel being invincible has taken a severe beating.”
Nevertheless, Newman, who is now a visiting senior professor at the University of Bristol in England, said he believes that “despite everything, this government will hold on” because Israelis do not favor “a right-wing government now.”
The Olmert administration “fouled up in Lebanon,” he said, “but that is the fault in part of [governments over] the last five to 10 years.”
Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said many in Israel are conducting reassessments in the wake of the war — particularly the political and military leaders.
“Everybody feels that we are facing some kind of vague future which might hold the possibility of another round [of fighting] and that it might involve states like Syria and Iran,” he said. “The reassessment is so that we are better prepared for the next round.” Although Olmert has resisted calls to establish a full-scale government commission to examine the handling of the war — he has instead announced the creation of three separate inquiry committees — there is not an overwhelming public demand for a commission, according to Yossi Alpher, a political analyst.
“Public protest is not extensive and he might be able to hang in there,” said Alpher, adding that Olmert had an even chance for political survival without a commission.
Kedar said the speed with which Hezbollah began handing out American dollars to Lebanese who claimed their homes were destroyed in the war is a sign that “Lebanon is becoming more and more dependent” on the Iran-sponsored group.
Asked about reports that the money appeared to be counterfeit, Kedar said: “Iran is known to print American money to undermine the American economy. But if the money can cover the work in Lebanon in order to bring the houses back in shape, what does it matter if it is forged?”
As Hezbollah strives to become the “master of Lebanon,” Kedar said, the group may end up splitting the country.
“The Christian part of the population would declare their separation from the Shiite part of Lebanon,” he predicted. “Lebanon might disintegrate between those who would like to continue the way of the Iranians, and the Christian and Druze who stay away from them.”
He said there are voices in the Christian community calling for such a separation.
If Hezbollah became the “master of the Shiite community,” Kedar added, this would be best for the rest of the population because it might otherwise “be put under the hegemony of the ayatollahs.”
The Shiites are the core of Hezbollah and they represent as much as 40 to 50 percent of the Lebanese population. They are primarily concentrated in southern Beirut, southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, Kedar noted. He said that if such a split occurs, “that Shiite state would be definitely owned by Iran, while the other state would continue as a pluralistic, democratic and open state.”
Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week that Israel’s decision to conduct a war against Hezbollah should have sent a message to Syria not to consider a war with Israel. He said the Syrians “understand our strategic capabilities” and that if Syria attacked Israel, “we would remove the limitations we placed on ourselves in the fighting in South Lebanon.”
In the conflict with Hezbollah, the Israeli military was said to have exercised care to minimize civilian casualties because Hezbollah fighters were using civilians as human shields. Even so, hundreds of civilians were killed in the bombings.
Kedar said Israel’s fighting machine would be much more effective in conventional warfare and that Syria knows its military would be defeated in such a match up. That is why, he said, Syria is reportedly training a Palestinian militia “to fight Israel on the Golan Heights.”
“I don’t believe Israel would tolerate this,” he said. “Israel would not agree to a Lebanon-like situation [on the Golan Heights] and it would respond by saying the Syrian government is responsible and react against Syria.”
There are now about 350,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps in Syria. These are the offspring of Palestinians who fled Israel during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.