Encountering Peace: Peace with Lebanon

Our northern neighbor is a dominant force in the Middle East we cannot ignore

A Hezbollah fighter stands at a watch tower at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Hezbollah fighter stands at a watch tower at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The blatant violation of Israel’s sovereignty by Hezbollah is certainly a casus belli according to international law and norms of behavior between sovereign states. It would be foolish though to launch a war with Lebanon over this provocation. Israel has every right to defend its borders and Israel’s government has an obligation to its citizens to secure the borders and to prevent the kind of surprise attack that Hezbollah was planning. Hezbollah, according to its leaders, seeks to destroy Israel, without any clear rational reason for its extreme enmity. It is unfortunate that there does not seem to be outrage from Lebanon’s citizens against this dangerous provocation of Hezbollah, the kind that could embroil Lebanon in another catastrophic war. It is also unfortunate that there is no appeal coming from Israel to Lebanon’s citizens that Israel has no territorial aspirations in Lebanon nor any real reason for conflict between the two countries. Both Israel and Hezbollah excel in the verbalization of threats and flexing of military muscles.
It is important for us all to recognize, that despite slogans too easily tossed around, Hezbollah is not Lebanon and Lebanon is not Hezbollah. Lebanon is a complex country with a very diverse population that has been through social and political agreements and understandings and still managed to survive disastrous civil wars and even without a functioning government, manages to operate and even prosper. Hezbollah is a very powerful force in Lebanon and no one can ignore its power, but Lebanon is still bigger than Hezbollah.
I remember a time, way before Anwar Sadat’s dramatic and historic visit to Jerusalem when most of the world believed that Lebanon would be the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. I remember the “good fence,” when thousands of Lebanese crossed into Israel to work and shop. I remember when we called Lebanon the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” I remember in the early days of June 1982 when Shiite villagers greeted Israeli forces in the south of Lebanon with rice and roses. Israel’s occupation of Beirut in the first war in Lebanon and its 18 years of occupying southern Lebanon removed hopes of rosy relations between the two countries.
During the Second Lebanon War, which followed the border raid by Hezbollah forces that killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others on July 12, 2006, I was chatting almost every night of the month-long war with friends on the other side of the border. During the first days of the war, these friends, Muslims – Sunni, Shiites, Druze and Christians were all supportive of a measured Israeli retaliation following the Hezbollah ambush. My friends in Lebanon actually wanted Israel to “teach Hezbollah a lesson” as they put it. That desire ended very quickly following Israel’s massive bombing of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and the destruction of the whole Dahieh suburb south of Beirut. Although Dahieh is a Hezbollah stronghold, it is also a district with other groups, markets, a Palestinian refugee camp of 20,000 people and a main route to Beirut’s airport. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted to send the message that “ the landlord has gone crazy” (as the expression goes in Hebrew). The message that was sent to the people of Lebanon is that Israel is an enemy state that must be fought against and never forgiven. I remember the anger and the fear of my friends during the Israeli bombing. And I continue to witness the very strong animosity felt by most Lebanese citizens against Israel. They continue to speak about the constant Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty with ongoing flyovers by the Israeli Air Force since 2006. Every time Israeli war planes fly over Lebanon, the memories of 2006 are brought to life and the animosity festers.
In truth there are no real conflicts between Israel and Lebanon today. Haaretz’s military writer Amos Harel pointed out on Tuesday that there are 13 points of contention between Israel and Lebanon over the exact location of the international border between the two countries. But these differences could easily be resolved through international mediation or direct negotiations. But there is no political will on either side of the border to take initiative aimed at trying to resolve conflicting issues between the two states. This is most unfortunate and once again points to the lack of leadership in Israel and in Lebanon, as well as in the international community. Perhaps an early sign of hope can be found in a statement made by Lebanon’s President General Mishel Aoun on Tuesday, that Israel’s operation to identify and dismantle tunnels across the border has no aggressive intent behind it, likewise Lebanon, he said, has no aggressive intentions towards Israel over this operation.
Lebanon is our neighbor and I hope to one day visit Lebanon as a neighbor. We, as Israelis should voice our desire to have peace with Lebanon. We should at the same time criticize Lebanon’s treatment of its Palestinian residents who are denied basic human rights since 1948. I guess it is problematic for us to do that but nonetheless, I raise this with Lebanese friends and colleagues whenever I meet them. We have no conflict with Lebanon and a prosperous Lebanon is good for Israel and good for the region. I love watching Lebanese television, the music programs, the game shows, the sitcoms, and on occasion, even the food shows (despite the overwhelming dominance of cooking shows on Israeli television today). Lebanon remains a dominant force of culture in the Middle East and it is a shame that most Israelis have so little knowledge and interaction with the diversity and beauty that exists just north of us. It is also a shame that most of my Lebanese friends can only speak to me when we are both out of our countries.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press.