(photo credit: )
For better or worse, barring another explosion of conflict, UNIFIL will continue to feature on our northern frontier for at least the next year. Its mandate has just been unanimously extended by the UN Security Council.
The resolution extending that mandate hailed UNIFIL for establishing "a new strategic environment" along the Lebanese border with Israel. But comments from Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, underlined how far from satisfactory this environment continues to be: Israel's two kidnaped reservists have yet be returned, he noted, weapons are continuing to pour into the Hizbullah armory and Hizbullah gunmen are still deployed in southern Lebanon, albeit less overtly than in the years before last summer's Second Lebanon War.
The extension of the mandate does nothing to grapple with those worrying realities. What it does do is perpetuate a dangerous status quo.
The hope in most UN quarters, and certainly among the nations contributing troops to UNIFIL, is that the present situation in Lebanon can be kept as is. So long as it doesn't appreciably deteriorate, UNIFIL's sponsors will be gratified.
But the calm in Lebanon is deceptive. Beneath the surface, Hizbullah has rearmed, acquiring weaponry more sophisticated than that with which it caused such heavy damage to Israel last summer. UNIFIL has not prevented this.
The parallels between today's superficial calm and the six years of apparent calm between Israel's unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 and the outbreak of the war last summer are alarming. Then as now, the quiet was shattered by the occasional unprovoked attack. Then as now, Hizbullah was free to relentlessly gear up for a heavier offensive. Then, UNIFIL's presence was a farce, its forces constituting no obstacle whatsoever to the gradual seizure of sovereignty in south Lebanon by Iran's Hizbullah proxy.
Now, UNIFIL is a beefed-up force, enlarged post-war to more than 13,000 soldiers, among them participants from European countries who are better at performing their assigned tasks than were members of the largely Third World contingents pre-war. But, as was the case in the run-up to last year's conflict, the arms have flowed smoothly to Hizbullah across the Syrian-Lebanese border, and there can be no doubt that Hizbullah is utilizing the relative quiet to train and arm for conflict ahead, confident that the international presence is no strategic threat to its freedom of movement.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has applauded the extension of the mandate; her desire to claim some residual political advantage from the Second Lebanon War is understandable. But even Livni publicly acknowledges that the key objective of UN Security Resolution 1701, to disarm Hizbullah, predictably, has not been implemented.
Not only has Hizbullah been recouping its losses and then some right under UNIFIL's nose, it might be argued that, to some extent, it has been able to do so under UNIFIL protection.
It is not clear what action, if any, Israel might have taken to try to thwart the supply of arms to Hizbullah from Iran and Syria were UNIFIL not there. But given UNIFIL's presence, Israel's hands are largely tied. So much so that even its IAF overflights and Israel Navy patrols close to Lebanese shores have been issues of contention, and there was some pleasure in Jerusalem that such Israeli actions were not the focus of the mandate-extension talks.
Things might have been worse had UNIFIL not been there. The Lebanese authorities would probably not have deployed 15,000 of their own troops south of the Litani River, and Hizbullah would have quickly refilled every vacant niche in broad daylight. But that purported Lebanese sovereign presence is symbolic at best. The Lebanese Army, loath to take on Hizbullah, is at least partially sympathetic to it and has actually cooperated with it on occasion.
An expansion of UNIFIL authority could have countered some of these disturbing realities. But the international community has no desire to crack down on the rampant gunrunning from Syria. The 30 countries participating in UNIFIL do not wish to put their men at greater risk.
The bottom line is that UNIFIL can only keep the peace as long as such deceptive tranquility serves Hizbullah's interests. The UN presence in southern Lebanon, unfortunately, is merely marking time to the next showdown.