If Lebanon Erupts Again

A new U.S. memorandum doubts the Obama administration's ability to dissuade Israel or Hezbollah from attacking.

The rockets that struck Ashkelon and Sha'ar Hanegev, and the IDF's retaliation in Gaza over the weekend, demonstrated once again how deceptive and fragile the quiet on the border is. This could happen in Lebanon too, due to the sensitivity of the Syria-Lebanon-Hezbollah triangle, as the noose tightens around the suspects in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, father of the current prime minister.

Last month the Council on Foreign Relations in New York published a contingency planning memorandum by Daniel Kurtzer, who was once an ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Kurtzer's essay, which looks to the future, was titled "A Third Lebanon War."

This is a common mistake. Only one of several campaigns took place in the summer of 2006, perhaps the eighth, of the Lebanon war, which has been going on for 40 years. From the armored Operation Extended Turmoil 4 in September 1972 against bases in southern Lebanon, through Operation Litani, Peace for Galilee, setting up the security zone and the South Lebanese Army, Operation Accountability and Grapes of Wrath, to withdrawing the IDF to the international border.

Whether it's a war or merely a campaign, Kurtzer urges preparation for the next event, which in his opinion could begin (less probably ) at Hezbollah's initiative or (more likely ) at Israel's undertaking - a decision to be made vis-a-vis Iran.

Israel will lie in wait for an opportunity to strike in Lebanon, or at training camps and missile storage sites in Syria earmarked for Hezbollah. The operation will hurt Hezbollah's rocket capabilities, thus denying Iran a 'second-strike' capability, in case Israel decides to hit its nuclear facilities.

Kurtzer doubts the Obama administration's ability to dissuade Israel or Hezbollah from attacking. Washington has no negotiation channel with Hezbollah, a terror organization and partner to Lebanon's government, and has nothing effective to convey through such a channel. Israel could perhaps be tempted with military equipment or "some other strategic enhancement as an incentive for not going to war," Kurtzer writes.

But pressure on Israel, including a threat to initiate or support a Security Council resolution against it, would encounter firm political resistance and be futile.

Kurtzer says the Americans will not receive early and sufficient warning of the IDF's preparations for a strike. The alternatives he proposes include renewing the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group - which held meetings of Israeli, Lebanese and UNIFIL officers - to supervise the understandings following Operation Grapes of Wrath. (A similar framework is used today for meetings of IDF and Northern Command officers with senior Lebanese and UNIFIL officers ).

Kurtzer suggests American encouragement for a limited preemptive Israeli strike against military targets, rather than infrastructure and government targets, as a substitute to a wider military operation. If this option is chosen the administration must make the limits and limitations of such an operation very clear to Israel, because Jerusalem tends to interpret U.S. ambiguity as supporting its own views, Kurtzer says.

Even a restricted IDF operation in Lebanon or against Hezbollah targets in Syria holds risks, Kurtzer says. It would freeze the peace negotiations and spur Syria to assist anti-American organizations in Iraq. But it could also weaken Hezbollah and break the standstill in the Palestinian or Syrian channel with the help of an American initiative.

Too large and fast an achievement would increase Israel's appetite for widening the military operation beyond its original objectives, says Kurtzer. Early failures on the battlefield, however, would drive Israel to continue the hostilities until the battle turns in their favor. In both cases there would be substantial civilian casualties. Hence, Kurtzer says, the United States should generate a cease-fire within a diplomatic context, with an optimal but not maximal IDF success highlighted.

Most important, he says, is to authorize the American ambassadors in Tel Aviv, Beirut and Damascus in advance "to intervene immediately and at the highest level to forestall escalation arising from incidents on the border," because the hours and first days after the outbreak of war or campaign are the most crucial (and due to the time differences, Washington sleeps when Tel Aviv decides to attack ).

Once in five years, on average, a major event takes place on the Israel-Lebanon front. Four years have passed since 2006. Kurtzer's memorandum indicates there are people trying to figure out two moves in advance. Unfortunately, none of them is sitting has a decision-making role in the Benjamin Netanyahu/Ehud Barak government.