Analysis

How Lebanon Managed to End Its Bloodiest Conflicts, While Israel Failed

Both Lebanon and Israel increased their territories in the wake of war and found themselves ruling new populations. But there's one glaring difference between the two expanded states

File photo: IDF soldiers patrol the border with Lebanon on March 28, 2000 in Lilach, Israel.
Mark H. Milstein / ANS / Getty

In August 1978, Prime Minister Menachem Begin met secretly in Jerusalem with Camille Chamoun, a leader of Lebanons Maronite Christian community and a former president of his country. In the meeting, Begin promised Chamoun that Israel would expand its aid to the Christians in Lebanon, and in this context drew a comparison between the Lebanese Christians and the Jews who were persecuted in the Diaspora. The meeting between the two concluded with ardent embraces, but as Chamoun left the Prime Ministers Residence, his face clouded over. Mr. Prime Minister, he said to Begin, dont make the same mistakes that we made in Lebanon. The French forced Greater Lebanon on us and made us annex Muslim-populated areas. That was the source of our troubles. Dont annex Muslim territories to your country.

Begin listened, but said nothing.

In a recently published book, "State Expansion and Conflict: In and Between Israel/Palestine and Lebanon," I draw a first comparison of its kind between two expanded states: Greater Lebanon, which was established in 1920, in the wake of World War I; and Greater Israel (or Israel/Palestine), which came into being after the 1967 Six-Day War. What both cases have in common is that a relatively small political unit – the autonomous district of Mount Lebanon and the State of Israel, respectively – added to itself territories that had previously been outside its boundaries. Thus, instead of becoming (in Lebanon) or continuing to be (in Israel) a more-or-less homogenous nation-state, as its leaders had hoped, each state became a divided society: namely, one containing a number of religious, ethnic or national groups between which there is tension, friction and sometimes also violent conflict.

Nevertheless, there is one outstanding difference between these two expanded states. Greater Lebanon, which later became the independent state of Lebanon, was eventually accepted by the majority of its inhabitants, including the Sunni and Shiite Muslims who lived in the areas annexed to it in 1920, and was also accepted by its Arab neighbors (including Syria, which initially refused to recognize Lebanons separate existence, but eventually, in 2008, established diplomatic relations with it). In contrast, not one country – including Israel itself – has recognized the existence of Greater Israel as a state. Moreover, many of its residents, including most of the Palestinians but also a not insignificant number of Israeli Jews, refuse to accept it to this day.

At the same time, all efforts that have been undertaken to date to bring about the contraction of the two expanded states have failed. Lebanons borders remain unchanged since 1920, as have the borders of Israel/Palestine since 1967. (Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but no recognized international border exists between it and that region, and the Strip itself is under an Israeli land, air and sea blockade.) This lengthy existence of the two expanded states – almost a century in the Lebanon case, and a half-century for Israel/Palestine – obliges us to take them seriously as political phenomena, and also creates an opening for a comparison between them.

Such a comparison shows that in the first decades after the expansion, the political leaders in both countries adopted different ways to cope with the divided society they had created (in Israel/Palestine) or asked others to create for them (in Lebanon – and here it needs to be remarked that, contrary to what Chamoun said to Begin, it was the Maronite Christians who pressured France, their ally, to expand their countrys borders in 1920). Moreover, the decisions made by these leaders engendered consequences that were sometimes similar and sometimes different, and in some cases became intertwined – as occurred, for example, in the period of the Israeli-Maronite alliance of 1976-1982, which reached its zenith in the first Lebanon War.

Both cases, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine, were at first characterized by relative political stability, whether in the wake of a power-sharing arrangement between the different communities, such as existed in Lebanon from 1943 to 1975, or by the establishment of a system of control of one community over the other, as existed in Israel/Palestine until the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. But in both expanded states, political stability was undermined later, when those who viewed themselves as being victimized by the situation – groups consisting largely of Muslims in Lebanon (though some of them included Christians, too), and the Palestinians in Israel/Palestine – put forward demands that were rejected by each countrys leaders.

Arab prisoners of war are led blindfolded to interrogation in the old city of Jerusalem, June 8, 1967.
GOREN / AP

Decline of statism

Its important to note that in both Lebanon and Israel/Palestine, considerable differences existed in the countries strength, in the degree of their legitimacy in the eyes of their residents and in the scale of international intervention in their affairs. As a result, the conflicts that broke out in the two divided societies were different in character. In Lebanon, where a civil war raged from 1975 until 1990, the conflict revolved largely around power, positions and resources, but most of the parties involved did not challenge the very existence of the expanded state, and those who did were branded isolationists. But in Israel/Palestine, since 1987 the conflict has been over the expanded state itself, with one side, Israel, seeking to continue maintaining it, and the other, the Palestinians, seeking to part from it.

This basic difference between the two conflicts can explain why the conflict in Lebanon – in which, according to official estimates, 150,000 people were killed – concluded with a relatively successful peace process culminating in the 1989 Taif Agreement and in the end of the civil war, a year later, whereas the peace process in Israel/Palestine in the 1990s did not succeed in putting an end to the conflict and its collapse brought about the renewal of violence between the sides in 2000. True, Lebanon did not become a strong state in the wake of the Taif Agreement, and its political stability is occasionally disturbed, whether by local players (such as Hezbollah in 2006) or by external developments (such as the civil war in Syria since 2011, during which hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into the country). But, unlike Israel/Palestine, Lebanon is considered a legitimate state by the overwhelming majority of its citizens.

Lebanon and Israel/Palestine, however, are not only cases that exist separately from each other. They are also neighbors, and as such it is worth examining the nature of the relations between them before and after Israels expansion in 1967, and to ask whether this factor influenced their relations.

In contrast to the prevailing image of Israel-Lebanon relations as inherently volatile, both countries have actually known periods of relative stability on their common border. For example, in the period 1949-1967, Israels relations with Lebanon, even without a formal peace agreement, were more stable than those it shared with Egypt, Syria or Jordan. In this period, the problems that arose between the two countries were handled relatively successfully by the Israel-Lebanon Mixed Armistice Commission, which included representatives from both sides and a United Nations observer.

In the wake of the 1967 war, however, relations began to deteriorate. Following the emergence of Israel/Palestine as an expanded state, Israel expelled the armed Palestinian organizations from the territories to Jordan, and in the wake of the civil war that erupted there in 1970 (Black September), they found shelter in the Lebanon-Israel border area, where they could operate against Israel in relative freedom. Israel tried initially to force the Lebanese government to restrain the Palestinian factions, as King Hussein had done in Jordan, and afterward tried to do so itself, notably in Operation Litani in 1978 and during the first Lebanon War in 1982.

Its noteworthy that Israeli decision makers perception of Lebanon in this period was influenced also, and perhaps mainly, by the profound changes that occurred in Israel/Palestine following the states expansion in 1967. This was expressed particularly in the diminishment, not to say decline, of the statist orientation, which places the state at the center, and the rise of the communal orientation, which accords supreme importance to the ethno-national group both domestically and externally. A salient example of this is Israels attempt to annul unilaterally its 1949 armistice agreement with Lebanon in the wake of the 1967 war, even though Lebanon had not been involved in the war. But the height of this process was in the period of the Israeli-Maronite alliance, beginning in the mid-1970s.

Hezbollah as patron

The eruption of the civil war in Lebanon, in 1975, and the rise of the Phalangist Party, under the leadership of the Gemeyal family, as the largest and strongest Maronite Christian force in the country in the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, created a golden opportunity for Israels leaders, particularly those who advocated the community approach, such as Prime Minister Begin, but also for such security officials as Ariel Sharon, Rafael Eitan and David Kimche. In this way, they were able to deal a mortal blow to the armed Palestinian factions, considerably weaken Syria – Israels most significant enemy after the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979 – and radically transform Israel-Lebanon relations.

But Israels attempt to resolve in one fell swoop both conflicts – in Israel/Palestine and in Lebanon – ended in failure. Although Israel succeeded in 1982 in expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his supporters from Lebanon, and inflicting heavy losses on the Syrian army, Lebanons president-elect, Bashir Gemeyal, who was Israels chief ally, was assassinated, and Israel was accused of being responsible for the massacre perpetrated by its ally, the Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces militia, in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. The massacre itself, but also the Reagan Plan for Arab-Israeli peace presented by the U.S. administration, guaranteed that the Palestinian problem – which Israel had sought to make disappear in order to entrench its expanded state in Israel/Palestine – was not only not shelved but that it would come increasingly to the fore.

Clothes left behind by South Lebanon Army soldiers during the Israeli withdrawal are strewn on the barbed wire border fence between Israel and Lebanon as seen from Kfar Kila, 27 May 2000.     
THOMAS COEX / AFP

But these setbacks did not mark the end of Israels ordeals in Lebanon. In the wake of repeated attacks on its forces, this time by Lebanese militias – particularly Hezbollah, the Shiite party-militia – the government of Israel decided on a partial withdrawal from Lebanon and the creation of a security zone along the Israel-Lebanon border in which a local militia, the South Lebanon Army, would operate with Israeli backing and support. Nonetheless, Hezbollahs attacks persisted, and according to Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe Tamir, who served in the security zone in those years, the result was that Hezbollah was transformed from being an outcast terrorist organization, operating contrary to the will of the central government in Lebanon, into a legitimate resistance movement of the Lebanese people against the Israeli occupation.

It was not until 2000, nearly a decade after the end of the civil war in Lebanon, that Israel decided to withdraw its forces from Lebanon completely. But by then, Hezbollah was a well-trained and well-armed player in the Lebanese arena, enjoying the support of Iran and Syria. Indeed, even after the withdrawal by Israel, Hezbollah looked for, and found, ever more pretexts to continue fighting it.

The result, then, was that instead of solving the Palestinian problem in Lebanon, as Israels leaders had hoped to do in 1982, they found that the conflicts in the two expanded states were now intertwined. This situation found expression in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, on which Israel embarked, in part, because of provocations by the Palestinian organization Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but also in prisoner-exchange deals between Israel and Hezbollah, in which the Lebanese organization portrayed itself, in part, as the patron of the Palestinians.

The expanded state of Israel/Palestine that emerged in 1967 created a divided society in this territory, in place of the relatively homogeneous society that had existed in the State of Israel since it had gained independence, and engendered far-reaching implications not only domestically but externally as well, including in terms of its neighbor, Lebanon.

In view of the far-reaching external impacts of Israels expansion in 1967, it would appear that in this case, Henry Kissingers well-known observation that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy, is apt, albeit with a somewhat different meaning than he had in mind.

Prof. Oren Barak teaches in the departments of both political science and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he is a research fellow in the Forum for Regional Thinking.