By Ramzy Baroud
On 1 September, the Lebanese group Hizbullah, struck an Israeli military base near the border town of Avivim. The Lebanese attack came as an inevitable response to a series of Israeli strikes that targeted four different Arab countries in the matter of two days. The Lebanese response, accompanied by jubilation throughout that country, shows that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have overplayed his cards. However, for Netanyahu it was a worthy gamble, as the Israeli leader is desperate for any political capital that could shield him against increasingly emboldened contenders in the country’s 17 September general elections.
A fundamental question that could influence any analysis of the decision to strike Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza is whether the strategy originated from the Israeli government or the limited personal calculations of Netanyahu himself. I contend that the latter is true.
Israel has already violated the sovereignty of all of these states and territories, bombing some of them hundreds of times in the past; but striking all at once is unprecedented. Since neither Israel nor its US allies offered any convincing military logic behind the campaign, there can be no other conclusion than that the objectives were entirely political. One obvious sign that the attacks were meant to benefit Netanyahu, and Netanyahu alone, is the fact that the Israeli prime minister violated an old Israeli protocol of staying mum following this type of cross-border assault. It is also uncommon for top Israeli officials to brag about their country’s intelligence outreach and military capabilities. Israel, for example, has bombed Syria hundreds of times in recent years, yet has rarely taken responsibility for any of these attacks.
Compare this with Netanyahu’s remarks following the two-day strikes of 24-25 August. Only minutes after the strikes, he hailed the army’s ‘major operational effort’, proudly declaring that ‘Iran has no immunity anywhere’. Regarding the attack in the southeast region of Aqraba in Syria, Netanyahu went into detail, describing the nature of the target and the identities of his enemy.
Two of the Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria were identified by the Israeli army, which distributed their photographs while allegedly travelling on the Iranian airline, Mahan, ‘which Israel and the United States have identified as a major transporter of weaponry and materiel to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon,’ according to the Times of Israel.
Why would Israel go to this extent, which could surely help the targeted countries to uncover some of Israel’s intelligence sources? The Economist revealed that ‘some…in Israel’s security and political establishments are uncomfortable’ with Netanyahu’s tireless extolling of ‘Israel’s intelligence-gathering and operational successes in surprising detail.’
The explanation lies in one single phrase: the 17 September elections.
In recent months, Netanyahu has finally managed to wrestle the title of israel’s longest-serving prime minister, a designation that the Israeli leader has earned, despite his chequered legacy dotted with abuse of power, self-serving agendas and several major corruption cases that implicate netanyahu directly, as well as his wife and closest aides.
Yet, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu can hang on for much longer. Following the 9 April elections, the embattled Israeli leader tried to form a government of like-minded right-wing politicians, but failed. It was this setback that resulted in the dissolution of the Israeli Knesset on 29 May and the call for a new election. While Israeli politics is typically turbulent, holding two general elections within such a short period of time is rare, and, among other things, demonstrates Netanyahu’s faltering grip on power.
Equally important is that, for the first time in years, Netanyahu and his Likud party are facing real competition. Their rivals, led by Benjamin Gantz of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party, are keen to deny Netanyahu every possible constituency, including his own pro-illegal settlements and pro-war supporters.
Despite Gantz’s attempt to project his party as centrist, his statements in recent months are hardly consistent with the presumed ideological discourse of the political centre anywhere. The former Chief of General Staff of the Israeli army is a strong supporter of illegal Jewish settlements and an avid promoter of war on Gaza. Last June, Gantz went as far as accusing Netanyahu of ‘diminishing Israel’s deterrence’ policy in Gaza, which, he said, ‘is being interpreted by Iran as a sign of weakness’. In fact, the terms ‘weak’ and ‘weakness’ have been ascribed repeatedly to Netanyahu by his political rivals, including top officials within his own right-wing camp. The man who has staked his reputation on tough personal or unhindered violence in the name of Israeli security is now struggling to protect his image.
This analysis does not in any way discount the regional and international objectives of Netanyahu’s calculations, leading among them being his desire to stifle any political dialogue between Tehran and Washington, an idea that began taking shape at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. But even that is insufficient to offer a rounded understanding of Netanyahu’s motives, especially because he is wholly focused on his own survival, as opposed to future regional scenarios.
However, the ‘Mr Security’ credentials that Netanyahu aimed to achieve by bombing multiple targets in four countries might not yield the desired dividends. Israeli media is conveying a sense of panic among Israelis, especially those living in the northern parts of the country and in illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Golan Heights. This is hardly the strong and mighty image that Netanyahu was hoping to convey through his military gamble. None of the thousands of Israelis who are currently being trained to survive Lebanese retaliations are particularity reassured regarding the power of their country.
Netanyahu is, of course, not the first Israeli leader to use the military to achieve domestic political ends. The late Israeli leader, Shimon Peres, did so in 1996 and failed miserably, but only after killing over 100 Lebanese and United Nations peacekeepers in the Southern Lebanese village of Qana.
The consequences of Netanyahu’s gamble might come at a worse price for him than simply losing the elections. Opening a multi-front war is a conflict that Israel cannot win; at least, not any more.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net
By Na'eem Jeenah
The dramatic news out of Saudi Arabia over the past week, including stories of arrests of members of the royal family, assassinations, purges and torture are not entirely a domestic matter. There is most certainly an international dimension to it, as evidenced by the coerced resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, Saudi threats against Lebanon and Iran, and the Saudi call for its citizens to leave Lebanon. That international dimension, it is becoming clearer, also includes the USA and Israel.
Soon after Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is often referred to), the king’s son and now crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was appointed deputy crown prince, he began ingratiating himself to the US Trump administration – with the assistance of the UAE, and is now close friends with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who was briefed about last weekend’s crackdown a week before when he saw MBS on a ‘personal visit’ to Saudi Arabia. There are numerous reasons why MBS would want the kingdom and the US to strengthen relations that had frayed over the US approach to the 2011 uprisings in North Africa, and particularly, their lack of support – from the Saudi view – for Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. One of those reasons is the common hatred of Iran that both MBS and Trump have. Both administrations are bitterly unhappy about the Iran nuclear deal (which the US signed onto during the Obama administration).
In this, MBS has also made common cause with Israel. And that has led to a developing relationship between the Saudis and Israelis. It was recently reported that the Saudi crown prince visited Israel on a secret but official trip, an unprecedented occurrence. And, less than a day after MBS arrested dozens of potential rivals in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli foreign ministry sent a cable to its foreign missions asking them to piggyback on the Saudi repressive actions in order to ramp up criticism of and action against both Iran and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The classified cable, made public by Israel’s Channel 10 News, also asked Israeli diplomats to express support for the Saudi war against Yemen, which has become a humanitarian nightmare.
Israeli diplomats were told to contact foreign ministries in their host countries, and reiterate the Saudi position on Hariri’s resignation, using it to paint Hizbullah and Iran as “destructive”, and to pressure the host governments to regard Hizbullah as a “danger to the stability of Lebanon and other countries of the region”.
Israel regards Hizbullah as probably its second most dangerous enemy after Iran. It was, after all, Hizbullah which forced Israel to end its occupation of areas in the south of Lebanon, and which withstood a sustained war by Israel in 2006. However, Hizbullah is a legal political party in Lebanon, and is part of the government headed by Hariri.
Not long after the Israeli cable, Saudi Arabia, strangely, announced that Lebanon had declared war on the Saudi kingdom – simply because Lebanon has Hizbullah as a political party. Many Lebanese interpreted that announcement as a Saudi declaration of war, a perception that was strengthened when, on Thursday, the kingdom called on its citizens in Lebanon to evacuate the country. Clearly, the Saudi and Israeli agendas not only dovetailed with each other, but were, in fact feeding off and reinforcing one another.
There is a strong belief among Lebanese people and commentators on Saudi Arabia that the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, was forced by MBS to announce his resignation, and that he is being held prisoner in the kingdom, along with the scores of others arrested last Saturday night. Even Hariri’s own Future Party made similar comments to the media later in the week. Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi TV rather than on his own TV channel, and did so from Riyadh rather from his own country. In an announcement that was scripted for him, Hariri blamed his resignation on interference in Lebanon by Iran, and non-cooperation with Hizbullah.
Trump’s tweets of support for the authoritarian actions of MBS reinforce the common agenda between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. “They know what they are doing,” he said, referring to MBS’ crackdown, which included Saturdays arrests – including those of two sons of the former king, a son of the former crown prince (who was also sacked from his position as head of the powerful National Guard), numerous businesspeople (including Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world), heads of three major media networks, and former ministers. Through these moves, MBS has taken full political control and sidelined all other sections of the Saudi royal family; he now has complete control of all sections of the Saudi security and armed forces; he is able to shape the Saudi narrative as he wants it; and he has prepared the way for his father’s abdication and his ascension to the throne – without any criticism from other Saudis.
That he is in the process of transforming an authoritarian system and power structure into an even more authoritarian absolute monarchy where all power is controlled by one person does not faze Trump or the Israelis. Indeed, as the Israeli cable indicates, such authoritarianism can be useful in the effort to isolate Iran and destroy Hizbullah.
The repercussions of this triumvirate of cooperation can be catastrophic for a Middle East region that is already mired in a number of wars – with large parts of Syria and Yemen completely destroyed, facing humanitarian disasters, and is dealing with more than 13 million displaced people (mainly from Syria and Yemen). While Iran is more than capable of defending itself against all three, Lebanon, more than 20 percent of whose population is refugees from neighbouring Syria and Palestine, is now under psychological, propaganda, diplomatic and military threat from both Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a fragile political system, the country is bracing itself for a possible external attack from Israel, and internal upheaval from Saudi-funded extremists. If such actions begin, Lebanon could be plunged into another civil war that could destroy the country. And it is quite likely that all three countries will bring their battle with Iran onto the African continent as well.
The newly-emerging Saudi-US-Israeli alliance could prove to be disastrous for the Middle region and for Africa.
Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre
* This article was first published in the the Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune in South Africa
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The election of General Michel Aoun as president of Lebanon earlier this month ends a two-and-half year stalemate when the country could not agree on who the president should be, and parliament extended its own term twice. It also points to a reconfiguration of the bipolar coalition politics which have severely gridlocked the country’s formal political processes. Aoun’s election was spurred mainly by domestic political manoeuvrings, but it will mean little in terms of service delivery and improvements in governance for the Lebanese citizenry. Nor will it result in any immediate change in the country’s stance toward the Syrian crisis. (Syria is an always-looming factor in Lebanese politics.) Indeed, Lebanese politics and governmental functions were only minimally impacted by the presidential vacuum; this because of the country’s entrenched sectarian and religious patronage networks, and because a convergence over the Syrian spillover into Lebanon had, since 2014, seen mainstream politicians being forced to work together. Aoun’s election does, however, indicate that Lebanon’s confessional political system remains entrenched.
Currently leader of the Christian Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Aoun is a former army chief who had been previously involved in a failed attempt to eject Syrian troops from Lebanon after the 1989 Taif Accords which ended Lebanon’s fifteen-year-long civil war. He spent fifteen years in self-imposed exile in Paris after the war and after his unsuccessful attempt to head a rival administration in the years preceding Taif. In 2006 he and the FPM sealed an agreement with Hizbullah, and Aoun changed his position on the Syrian regime, then headed by Bashar al-Asad.
Elected by simple majority, Aoun’s installation as president was a mere formality after he had received the backing of the largest Sunni party, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement (FM), a week earlier. The main reason that a president could not be elected in the past two-and-half years was that the two main political blocs – one led by Hariri’s FM and the other by Hizbullah – could not agree on a single candidate. This stalemate has its origins in the confessional political system left behind by the French when Lebanon gained independence in 1943. In terms of that system, the 128 parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims (Sunni and Shi'a) and Christians (Maronite and Catholic); and the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker a Shi'a. The Taif Accords were supposed to be a stepping stone to take the country beyond confessional politics, but the various roleplayers have not succeeded in transcending sectarian politics.
Hariri’s decision to finally support Hizbullah’s candidate meant that an eighty-six-member parliamentary quorum was realised, and thus, on the forty-fifth attempt since the term of the former president, Michel Suleiman, ended in May 2014, the country was able to elect a president. Hariri’s backing means that there has been a serious attempt by all sides to transcend the bitter divide between the Hizbullah-led March 8 and FM-led March 14 coalitions, formed after the assassination of Hariri’s father and former prime minister, Rafic. This is also the first time that the three largest political parties – FM, Hizbullah and FPM – have endorsed the same candidate.
The change is a result of both domestic and regional political shifts, which have caused Lebanese politicians to reassess the coalition politics that had been in place for over a decade. The impasse regarding the presidential vacuum did not serve Hariri’s political agenda. It ensured that he would not be able to become prime minister because he would be blocked by Hizbullah and its March 8 allies. Although the current prime minister, Tammam Salam, was nominated by Hariri’s March 14 coalition, he played the role of an independent candidate by also maintaining ties with March 8, leaving Hariri without firm control over the government. The deal to elect Aoun as president secured Hariri’s position as prime minister, and he is already rushing to form his cabinet before Lebanon’s Independence Day on 22 November. With Lebanon’s presidency being a ceremonial position, the prime minister is actually more important in terms of governance. The cabinet is expected to mirror the confessional proportions in parliament, and could see Hizbullah ministers serving in Hariri’s government. Hariri was likely also concerned that the delay in electing a president was keeping him out of power at a time when Sunni opinions on a number of issues were diverging. Further delays could see other Sunni politicians such as former justice minister, Ashraf Rifi, or Salafi cleric Ahmed Al-Assir, winning over Sunni support. He thus took a gamble – despite opposition even from within his party – and it seems the gamble will pay off.
Another reason for his acceptance of Aoun as president is his recent difficulties with his patrons in Saudi Arabia. His relationship with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, is said to be strained, and Hariri businesses in Saudi Arabia are facing difficulties because of the struggling Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia reneged earlier this year on four billion dollars in military and security aid to Lebanon after the Lebanese government failed to condemn the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January. The Saudis are also much more focused on their war in Yemen, and seem willing to temporarily postpone their interest in Lebanon. It is unclear whether Hariri’s decision to strike a deal with Hizbullah on the presidency was sanctioned by the Saudis, and, if it was, what their strategy might be for this move. It is possible that the January silence on the Tehran embassy issue has convinced the Saudis that they require more loyal leadership in Beirut – even if it means allowing an Asad-supporting Hizbullah candidate to become president.
Yet another domestic factor that should not be ignored is that Lebanese citizens have become increasingly disillusioned with their politicians. In 2015, the Lebanese government’s inability to efficiently dispose of refuse led to the founding of the Youstink movement, and in the May 2016 municipal election the non-aligned Beirut Madinati movement gained around forty per cent of votes in the capital. It has since announced its intention to also contest the 2017 parliamentary election. Both these movements include large numbers of non-partisan Lebanese youth frustrated with the failures of politicians and parties, and less influenced by confessional and sectarian identities. Even in Hizbullah strongholds such as in southern Lebanon and Baalbek, around forty per cent of votes in the municipal election were cast against the Shi'a joint list of Hizbullah and the Amal party.
Mainstream parties such as Hizbullah and Future have thus had to find some means of cooperation to break the political deadlock, prevent a loss of power, and to ensure a reinvigoration of traditional Lebanese politics. This resulted in previously unlikely coalitions for the municipal election, such as between Hariri’s Future and Aoun’s FPM.
For most of Lebanon’s citizens, however, little will change as a result of Aoun’s election and Hariri’s new government. Service delivery will likely continue to be devolved to patronage networks, especially since these are a means for mainstream parties to generate support and revenue. This is especially because these party patronage networks are entrenched, often work more effectively than the state, and have allowed the country to run relatively smoothly throughout the two-and-half-year presidential vacuum. In the meanwhile, Hizbullah’s influence and the maintenance of its armed wing and its weaponry (a cause of much protest from Future and the Saudis in the past) will endure. Further, Lebanon’s stance toward the Syrian conflict and its policy of ‘disassociation’ from the regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue – even if Aoun does make speeches supporting the Asad regime.
But as the political structure in Lebanon is tightened, the one million Syrian refugees in that country might find that their situation becomes worse. All mainstream political parties have already adopted steps to limit the Syrian conflict’s spillover into Lebanon; and President Aoun’s aggressive stance against Syrian refugees in Lebanon could result in attempts at repatriation.
The election of a new president after two-and-half years is an assertion of the sectarian Lebanese status quo that reinforces the letter of the Taif Accord, but fails to transition to its spirit, which aimed to transcend the confessional system to entrench a strong Lebanese national political identity. It is an indication of how Lebanon remains hostage to regional and international influences, and of its inability to assert its independence as a sovereign nation state. The country’s political system is a reminder of the remnants of the French colonial project, and of the consequences of foreign intervention. In this are lessons for those who are keen to divide Syria and further divide Iraq.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Hizbullah was established in 1982, at the height of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war, to protect Lebanon’s Shi'a community which, at the time, was one of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. Its main objective was opposition to Israeli aggression against Palestinians and Lebanon, and it hoped to engender a more favourable view of Iran. The party’s most concrete advances occurred after the 1990 Saudi-brokered Taif Accord which ended the civil war. Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon allowed Hizbullah to retain its weapons, unlike other militia groupings which were largely disarmed and incorporated into the country’s formal political and military systems. Hizbullah’s effective guerrilla campaign forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, and the party began playing a more active role in Lebanese electoral politics. Its providing civil services to its mainly Shi'a constituency, and Lebanon’s consociational system which allocates government and the military positions on a sectarian basis, allowed it to punch above its weight. Following the May 2008 Beirut clashes, which saw the deaths of around seventy people, and during which Hizbullah violently and successfully opposed scrutiny of its telecommunications network, the party negotiated a ‘blocking vote’ which allowed its March 8 alliance a third of cabinet seats, and decisions of ‘national importance’ could only be passed with a two thirds majority. This blocking vote has been largely removed in the current government’s working, but Hizbullah is still able to block decisions that negatively affect it through quorum rules.
By Lamis Andoni
Four years after the end of the Lebanon war, the role of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which had been entrusted with keeping the peace between Israel and Lebanon, has been thrown into doubt amid intensifying threats of another war.
Both Israel and Hizbullah, the latter having been the main target of Israel's 2006 war, have stepped up their accusations against UNIFIL. Israel is again accusing the peacekeeping forces of failure in preventing, if not of collaborating with, Hizbullah in its replenishment of its military power in South Lebanon. Hizbullah, meanwhile, believes that "certain contingents" of UNIFIL are spying for, if not assisting, Israel.