Lebanon comes full circle back to the Syrian fold
Assad's old fear that Lebanon might make separate peace with Israel is all but gone.
We could not have guessed which would be the first country to make peace with Israel, but we always knew which country would be second: Lebanon. Meanwhile, Egypt signed an agreement, Jordan followed and Palestine signed a deal that collapsed, but either it or Syria will be next. Lebanon was pushed to the bottom of the list.
Whoever doubts this can pull out of the archives the clear-cut statement made by the previous Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora. The man who conducted a bitter duel with Hezbollah, and whose power diminished as a result of the Second Lebanon War, made it very clear that "Lebanon will be the last country that will sign a peace agreement with Israel."
Today, as it marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of prime minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon comes full circle back into the Syrian fold. In 2005, Lebanese public opinion was what pushed the Syrian troops out of Lebanon. Lebanese politicians and pundits swore then that Syria would never again set foot on Lebanese soil, and Hezbollah faced a terrible dilemma between loyalty to the Lebanese motherland and dependency on Syria. But the Lebanese "order" was restored. The current prime minister, Saad Hariri, the victim's son, has already paid Damascus a visit, embraced Bashar Assad, and Lebanese politics continue to be dictated by Syria and Iran.
This is not some theoretical analysis about developments in a faraway country. Lebanon's southern border poses the most permanent and serious threat to Israel, and peace with Syria is mostly driven by the hope that Damascus will neutralize, on our behalf, this Lebanese threat. A withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for Hezbollah - this is how Israel puts it. We wanted a new order in Lebanon and we got it. If our ambition used to be to sign a peace agreement with Lebanon in order to counter the Syrian threat - now the order has been reversed. Syria is necessary in order to check the Hezbollah missile threat.
Lebanon is an excellent example of how the pages of history are like the pages of a calendar: They are pulled out and fly in the wind along with the opportunities marked on them. The assumption that there will always be a Lebanese leadership that will seek to be close to Israel is similar to the assumption that there will always be a Palestinian leadership that will be forced to sign a peace agreement with Israel. But little Lebanon, lacking in strategic importance, is giving Israel the finger precisely because Mahmoud Abbas decided one day that he is tired of begging, and if Israel is interested in peace with him, tough luck.
Lebanon's position also offers a good view into Israel's new regional standing: It lacks any leverage through which it can force Beirut to sign a peace agreement. If it still holds Lebanese territory, that is insufficient leverage. At most, this would be cause for the continued arming of Hezbollah, or the threat to strike at Israeli targets.
Lebanon is also an example of a country controlled by an organization that dictates its foreign policy, just as Hamas dictates a significant part of the foreign policy of the Palestinian Authority, although it is not a partner in it. Territory in exchange for no fighting, Hezbollah says in the best-case scenario - just as Hamas offers a long-term cease-fire in exchange for withdrawal. No recognition and no negotiations.
This is also the position put forth by Syrian President Assad. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, he made it clear that there are differences between peace agreements. For the Golan Heights he is willing to make peace, which means no fighting and ending the military threat. Peace, normalization, warmth and love, on the other hand, are a different matter. When he started as president, he used to talk of normalization.
If several years ago Assad was the one who feared that Lebanon may make separate peace with Israel and imposed the "joint track" on it, limiting its foreign policy, today that concern is all but gone. Even if he wanted to, Assad would not be able to bring Lebanon to Israel as his dowry; he is faced with Hezbollah and Iran. The only thing remaining for Israel is to wait for the next opportunity, or the one after that, so long as the dream of peace is not stripped from it. Israel, like Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran, is certain that one day something good will happen. All that is needed is patience.