Will Lebanon Suffer Iran-Israel Proxy War?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

February 8, 2018

There is a real danger that the cold war between Israel and Iran may soon turn hot in Lebanon. Statements by Israeli politicians and military officials have highlighted the seriousness of the threat posed by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, threatening military escalation. The Lebanese government has refused to yield ground, although it appears keen to avoid war with Israel. It is not a coincidence that such heightened tensions coincide with upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which are widely expected to favor Iran’s local ally, Hezbollah.

In a statement referenced by Jerusalem Post’s Anna Ahronheim, “IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis warned that a war with Israel could break out if Iran develops precision missiles in the country. ‘Lebanon has become – both by its own actions and omissions and by a blind eye from many members of the international community – one large missile factory’…. Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and the growing Iranian presence on its borders, stressing that both are red-lines for the Jewish State. Senior officials from Israel’s defense establishment have repeatedly stated that while the chance of escalation on the border is low, the smallest incident or a miscalculation by either side has the possibility to lead to conflict.”

 Alex Fishman, in an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth raises important questions about Israel’s willingness to start a war of choice: “Israel is exerting intensive pressure in an effort to deter the Iranians from building precision-guided missile factories in Syria and in Lebanon. So the IDF spokesperson is turning to Lebanon’s residents. Lieberman is preparing Israeli public opinion and Netanyahu is appealing to the Russians to use their influence…. Israel is climbing up a high tree, knowing that it will either slip off with its tail between its legs without achieving a thing or will be compelled to use force….[I]f the Iranians keep digging missile factories, Israel will get stuck on the tree it climbed and will be forced to make a decision: Are two or three missile factories in Lebanon a casus belli for an initiated war or not?”

According to Smadar Perry, Lebanese leaders are still processing the threats coming from Israel, although there is every indication that they are taking those threats seriously: “The flagship trio leading Lebanon—the Maronite Christian president, the Sunni Muslim prime minister and the Shiite Muslim parliament speaker—is having trouble deciding whether the flood of threats from Israel is aimed at revealing contingency plans for a military operation, or that the only purpose of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and senior IDF officers is to intimidate…. As far as the leading trio in Beirut is concerned, when Lieberman talks about “boots on the ground,” he is pointing to a hot summer…. As far as Israel is concerned, a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon’s state institutions and decision-making process has to be curbed. How can it be curbed? It doesn’t take a wild imagination to figure it out.”

Much of the difficulty, argues The National’s Raghida Dergham, arises from the complex nature of Lebanese politics and the various political and sectarian lines in the country: “What is clear is that the escalation in Lebanon has more profound backgrounds that one would divine from just looking at the surface. One is related to a long-standing issue regarding the distribution of power between the ‘three presidencies’ of Lebanon – the president, speaker, and prime minister – and the privileges of their parties and associates. Another has to do with the electoral alliances in the upcoming legislative vote, and the relations between Lebanese entities with regional and world powers. And, perhaps, all these revolve around the theme of the future of the Christian alliance with the two dominant Shia groups, Hezbollah and Amal…. Indeed, in a country as delicate as Lebanon, an explosion is always around the corner. Therefore, its leaders must show exceptional wisdom.”

Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Eyad Abu Shakra believes that changes to the Lebanese electoral system have also contributed to increased uncertainty and the likelihood of a Hezbollah parliamentary victory, a possibility the Israeli government is not willing to consider: “an electoral system based on Proportional Representations (PR) is the last thing Lebanon needed, given its tribalism sectarianism and political schizophrenia. This system is alien in a country where religious sectarianism is now institutionalized, and has permeated parliament as well as all positions of government, be [they] civilian or military…. The fact is, however, that Hezbollah is quite aware that PR negated the need for traditional electoral alliances the Lebanese have grown accustomed to. Actually, the only ‘real alliance’ it wants from the Future Movement is merely co-operation under the pretext of ‘stability’ after retaining its strong Sunni electoral mandate.”

It is such possibilities that lead Arab News’ Baria Alamuddin to conclude that Iran can look forward to a very successful electoral season both in Iraq and Lebanon, with its allies well-situated to win sizeable parliamentary mandates: “Within a week of each other this May, two elections will have decisive consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East. In both the Iraqi and Lebanese elections, Iranian-backed coalitions are currently the largest and best-organized forces, with strong prospects for increasing their share of the vote and consolidating control over the apparatus of government…. Hezbollah and Al-Hashd exploit the democratic system but are wholly hostile to the values of democracy. We can be certain that, if they succeed, their first priority will be to manipulate the ground rules of the political system to perpetuate power in their hands. There would thus be little to prevent Tehran from converting Iraq, Syria and Lebanon into vassal states — creating a passageway through to the Mediterranean, the remaining Arab world, Israel, and even Europe.”

Given such dire predictions about the short- to medium-term developments for Lebanon, it is no wonder then that Hussein Shobokshi bemoans, in a recent op-ed for Saudi Gazette, the ongoing political changes in the country that, according to him, are responsible for Lebanon’s instability: “There are many indications and evidence which point out that the things are going toward an uncomfortable direction and that signs of reassurance, confidence building and improvement of the atmosphere are completely nil. The same reasons exist, as Hezbollah continues to send mercenaries to Yemen for technical assistance in training the Houthi terrorists and launching Iranian ballistic missiles toward Saudi Arabia. The current situation between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon is never reassuring. The Voice of Justice and Lebanon the Free Master is absent in favor of voices threatened by the militias of death. The reality is painful and sad and we only see the ruins of Lebanon that we loved.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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