The Taif Agreement may have brought calm, but old, vicious forces were always lurking under the surface.
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
Serial political assassinations in Beirut, an embattled Christian community, a terror state within a failed state, regional powers busy transforming civil war-torn Lebanon into their vassal. Here we go again.
The identity of Pierre Gemayel's assassins notwithstanding, Lebanon hasn't looked at any point in the last decade and a half as close as it is now to descending again into strife. Some of the players have changed (though in the case of the Gemayels, their family name remains identical) - instead of Yasser Arafat's PLO it's now Hizbullah that is carving out their autonomy, and Syria is no longer the main foreign player eager to annex Lebanon in all but name, but is now playing second fiddle to Iran's lead - but the dynamics remain the same. An ethnically fragmented nation, ripe for the plundering of the regional strongmen that can't maintain stable government or prevent diverse armed groups from operating within its borders and launching attacks over the border against Israel.
The 1989 Taif Agreement might have brought a period of superficial calm, enabling Beirut to rebuild its coffee shops and waterfront, but the old vicious forces were always lurking under the surface.
Now that Christian politicians and journalists are once again being gunned down in broad daylight, Syria's proxies are trying to bring down the elected government before it authorizes an international court to try the suspected murderers of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and Hizbullah is planning to take to the streets with a million supporters, a new civil war doesn't seem that far away. Only this time, much greater forces are at play in Lebanon, with Iran and Al-Qaida both vying for influence and planning to use the country as another frontline against Israel and the west.
In Iran's case, Hizbullah is in place both as an additional pressure point against Israel and as a means of deflecting attention from its ongoing nuclear program. For Hizbullah, this summer's conflict was on one hand a war fought on Iran's behalf but also a way of staking its claim for a future division of power in Lebanon. All the movement's propaganda during and after the war pictured its men as fighting on behalf of all Lebanon, not just the Shi'ite minority.
This war was seen by many Israelis as the second installment of the one that began as Operation Peace in Galilee in 1982, but in reality, there were few similarities aside from the same battlefield. The second Lebanon war, despite its severity, was essentially a border skirmish that got out of hand. Hizbullah didn't envisage their attack on the IDF patrol escalating into full war and Israel obviously wasn't planning this time around to change the whole power structure in Lebanon. (Back then, though, it was plotting with Bashir Gemayel, uncle of Pierre.)
Renewed chaos in Lebanon carries the threat of eliminating one of Israel's main gains from the war: the deployment of the Lebanese Army for the first time in over three decades on its border with Israel. A power struggle in Beirut will probably mean that these units will be recalled. Even if they are not, their loyalties will remain unclear.
Neither is the presence of the new bolstered UN force in south Lebanon ensured anymore if the country descends into civil war. Whatever vacuum left by the Lebanese Army or the UN will be immediately refilled by Hizbullah, eager to rebuild its military infrastructure. If at the same time the organization will be faced with a political challenge in the Lebanese parliament, it might well be tempted to launch new attacks on Israel, in a bid to once more gain popular support. Lebanese instability could also lead to new anti-Israel forces. Who knows? We might even see a local branch of Hamas set up shop. There are enough Palestinians still living in Lebanon.
On the other hand, there are also some opportunities in the new situation for Israel. Lebanon coming to the front of the stage at this moment, showing both Syria and Iran in their true colors, doing everything in their power and using terror tactics to suppress the forces of democracy in the country, won't help the two countries gain trusted-partner status any time soon.
Meanwhile, Israel would do better to keep as silent as possible on the affairs of its northern neighbor. One hopes though that in her meeting in Downing Street, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni remarked quietly to Tony Blair: "Look what happens when Syria and Iran try to stabilize a country."
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