Eleven days of Palestinian-Israeli violence in May 2021 saw precious little input from Lebanon. A handful of rockets launched from southern Lebanon were either intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system or landed harmlessly in the Mediterranean Sea and in uninhabited Israeli fields. Israeli artillery reprisals were likewise harmless. Clearly, Hezbollah was not disposed to put itself or Lebanon at risk for the sake of Hamas. Its inaction reminded me of a conversation I had with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a decade ago.
On the morning of Feb. 28, 2011, al-Assad confirmed to me, in a one-on-conversation in Tishreen Palace high above Damascus, that he was prepared to break military ties with Iran and Hezbollah in exchange for peace with Israel, a peace deal that would, over time, return to Syrian control all land lost to Israel in the June 1967 War. Al-Assad assured me that Iran and Hezbollah would accept, without objection, Syria-Israel peace. He went so far as to state that the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills, a narrow strip of elevated land in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights were, in fact, Syrian and that the claim to that land registered by Hezbollah and the government of Lebanon was false.
Al-Assad also assured me that Lebanon-Israel peace would follow closely on the heels of a fully ratified Syria-Israel treaty of peace. He said he had already advised the president of Lebanon to prepare his negotiating team. He assured me that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was a Lebanese Arab fully prepared, in the context of peace with Israel, to transform his heavily armed movement into a genuine and peaceful political party. It was clear to me that al-Assad wanted company in coming to peace with Israel and that Lebanon, like it or not, would be coming along for the ride.
My main tasks in the U.S. Department of State for nearly two years, beginning in April 2009, were to mediate Syria-Israel peace and to mitigate periodic armed confrontations between Israel and Lebanon. Officially, I was also charged with mediating Lebanon-Israel peace, which was, after all, an essential component of our goal: comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Indeed, I did mediate an Israel-Lebanon agreement in principle on a maritime separation line in the Mediterranean Sea, one that would have delineated their respective exclusive economic zones. But the idea that “Lebanon will be last” to achieve peace with Israel — something articulated repeatedly by then-Lebanese President Michel Suleiman — was fully accepted wisdom a decade ago. Is it still?
“Lebanon will be last” has a long history rooted in the structural weakness of what the recently departed Michael Hudson long ago called the “Precarious Republic.”
“Lebanon will be last” has a long history rooted in the structural weakness of what the recently departed Michael Hudson long ago called the “Precarious Republic.” Even a peaceful, largely unfenced, and sometimes unmarked armistice demarcation line between 1949 and 1967 did not incline a chronically divided Lebanon, trying to stay afloat in the turbulent seas of Arab nationalism, to seek formal peace with its neighbor to the south. Post-1967, those internal divisions, exacerbated by a growing Palestinian military presence, widened. In June 1982, Lebanon’s civil war was briefly interrupted by Israel, which invaded in the hope of destroying the armed Palestinian presence, ousting Syrian military units that had intervened in 1976, and making peace with a state in which the Maronite-dominated Lebanese Forces militia (which had encouraged the invasion) would be in charge.
At first Israel’s campaign seemed to be proceeding according to the ambitious plan. Armed Palestinians were packed off to Tunisia. Syrian units in the Bekaa Valley and the Syrian air force took beatings. The leader of the Lebanese Forces — Bashir Gemayel — was elected Lebanon’s new president.
But Bashir was assassinated in a bombing directed by Syria and succeeded by his brother, Amin.
Civil war, with Syria orchestrating anti-government resistance in the background, resumed. Israel and the U.S. pressured the new President Gemayel into signing, in May 1983, an agreement with Israel terminating the state of war between the two parties. But this “May 17 Agreement” would become the focus of hostility by anti-government armed Lebanese backed by Syria and Iran. In March 1984, Lebanon’s parliament would repudiate the agreement. Those Lebanese who had backed the May 17 Agreement had learned an important lesson: Peace between Lebanon and Israel could never precede Syria-Israel peace. “Lebanon will be last” was the most recent articulation of this reality.
Ten years after my conversation with al-Assad — one that briefly seemed to spur progress toward direct Syria-Israel talks and an eventual peace treaty — Syria is ruined. Al-Assad has all but signed over the Golan Heights and everything down to the “line of 4 June 1967” to Israel. Prospects for near-term Syria-Israel peace talks are zero: There is no politically legitimate interlocutor on the Syrian side. Perhaps the day will come when political transition in Syria — mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 — will produce a Syrian government able to speak for the Syrian people on matters of war and peace. When that happy day dawns, perhaps there will be a government in Israel willing to return to “land-for-peace” in the Syrian context. But that day seems, at best, far off. Will Lebanon forever be held hostage to what a violently corrupt clique has done to Syria?
Iran and its powerful Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have no interest (to put it mildly) in Lebanon-Israel peace. Indeed, under current circumstances they would surely commission the murder of any Lebanese suggesting such a thing. The most that might be expected from these actors now would be permission for the Lebanese government to engage in renewed maritime indirect talks with Israel. Is anything more remotely possible?
Probably not. But what if Israel were to signal to Lebanon that full peace, meeting the needs of both sides, would include the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills being transferred to Lebanon? Notwithstanding al-Assad’s 2011 claim to the territory, Lebanon and Israel could both cite Syria’s recognition of Lebanon’s claim, made during a telephone conversation in 2000, by Syria’s foreign minister to the U.N. secretary-general. That recognition, an essential prop for Hezbollah’s bogus ongoing “resistance” status, also implicitly concedes Israel’s right to hand the acreage over to Lebanon voluntarily without reference to Syria, even in the context of mutually acceptable Lebanon-Israel arrangements.
There would, to be sure, be many difficult issues for Israel and Lebanon to sort out before signing a treaty of peace. How to extend justice, opportunity, and dignity to Palestinian refugees currently residing in Lebanon? How to resolve outstanding border (“Blue Line”) issues, including the technically divided town of Ghajar? How to ensure that Lebanon — hardly a state in a practical sense — would effectively implement its security undertakings with respect to Israel? How to resolve age-old issues pertaining to water, especially regarding the Hasbani River arising in Lebanon and flowing into Israel? None of these things requires diplomatic genius to resolve. But the list is long, as is the post-1967 history of hostility and distrust.
Yet if al-Assad in February 2011 was right — if Nasrallah is a purely Lebanese political actor — would Hezbollah’s leader be willing to support a diplomatic pathway to achieving the territorial result he has been proclaiming for over two decades, one which al-Assad denied? Would he be free to take “Yes” for an answer?
If, as many others have claimed, Nasrallah and his leadership cadre are merely proxies for Iran, would Tehran instruct him (if he needs instructions) to bind the Lebanese government to a dismissively contemptuous and hostile response to any Israeli overture? Are maintaining the “resistance” and the armed status accompanying it more important than Lebanon gaining control over the land being claimed?
Might the U.S., eager to find ways to help Lebanese climb out of the abysmal pit dug for them by their political class, take the matter up with Israel and then Iran (in the context of sanctions relief)? Iran, after all (notwithstanding al-Assad’s 2011 view), seems to have decisive influence on Hezbollah. And Syria under al-Assad is very much the junior partner in its relationships with both Iran and Hezbollah. They will bind him to anything they decide.
The prospects of Israel (or anyone) taking some creative diplomatic initiative or of Iran permitting anything decent to see the light of day are minimal, if nonexistent. But Washington is not without influence in all of this, unless it chooses to be.
The Biden administration can and must try to facilitate renewed agreement between Lebanon and Israel on maritime matters, a provisional accord in which terms could be modified in the event of full normalization between the two parties. It can actively seek to mediate other Lebanon-Israel differences (often along the “Blue Line”) that sometimes produce violence. And, given the situation in which millions of Lebanese find themselves, it can think even bigger.
The obstacles are daunting, but no law of nature dictates that Lebanon must remain last in line to make an honorable and complete peace with its neighbor to the south, one that secures the interests of the “Precarious Republic” and its citizens. The eventual creation of a functioning, effective Lebanese state may depend on it.