Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued an unusual statement Tuesday morning: Due to Lebanon’s severe economic crisis “and Hezbollah’s efforts to bring Iranian investments to Lebanon,” he has sent Beirut an offer of humanitarian aid through UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon.
One day earlier, at the dedication of a memorial to fallen South Lebanon Army soldiers in the northern town of Metula, Gantz said the sight of hungry people in Lebanon’s streets hurt his heart, and that Israel was willing to work with other countries to try to improve the situation.
The Lebanese government is expected to reject Israel’s gesture, and Gantz surely knows this. Even when Israel offered urgently needed aid after the explosion in Beirut’s port last August, the government immediately rejected it.
Aside from a trilateral committee (with the UN as the third member) that deals with routine problems along the countries’ land border and the recently resumed talks on delineating Israel and Lebanon’s maritime border and control over offshore gas reserves, the Lebanese have rejected any direct contact. And despite their distress, they have no intention of deviating from this policy.
But Gantz’s statement nevertheless reflects a change in how Israel views events on the other side of the border. First, Israel is worried by the severity of Lebanon’s domestic crisis, which is deteriorating rapidly. Second, it’s worried by the possibility that Iran will cast itself as the country’s savior.
Finally, even though this possibility currently seems remote, it’s aware that in extreme circumstances, Hezbollah could be tempted to seize the reins in Beirut, exploiting the caretaker government’s weakness and the growth of the country’s Shi’ite population (the division of power in Lebanon is based on a census conducted nine years ago, but the proportion of Shi’ites has grown since then while the proportion of Christians has fallen).
In the backdrop is the ongoing battle for regional influence between Iran on one hand, and Israel and the conservative Arab states on the other. On Tuesday, Iran officially blamed Israel for a drone attack that damaged a centrifuge plan in the city of Karaj last month.
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Israel’s political and military leaders are closely monitoring the twists and turns of Washington’s negotiations with Tehran over an American return to the nuclear deal. They are also preparing a list of the military compensation Israel hopes to receive from U.S. President Joe Biden.
Israel understands that removing most of the sanctions former President Donald Trump imposed on Iran after withdrawing from the deal three years ago will gradually inject billions of dollars into Iran’s economy. Some of this money is likely to find its way to Hezbollah. And some of Iran’s oil profits may be used in the future to increase Iranian influence in Beirut.
The Lebanese collapse has been ongoing for several years, but was recently accelerated by the coronavirus, the port explosion and political paralysis. The caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, said Tuesday that his country is just a few days away from a “social explosion” and urged the international community to save it from its severe economic problems. Over the last two months, Lebanese Chief of Staff Joseph Aoun has tried to obtain donations from America and France to help his army keep functioning.
Israel would prefer that money to rehabilitate both the country and its army come from the West and the Gulf States rather than Iran, Russia or China. Despite its criticism of the Lebanese army for its failure to prevent cross-border infiltrations and its ties with Hezbollah, Israel prefers having it there as a stabilizing factor, especially when the alternative might be increased influence for Hezbollah.
The Israel Defense Forces say the financial situation of ordinary Lebanese citizens is worse than it was a year ago, when the port explosion brought tens of thousands of people into the streets to protest. The value of the Lebanese pound has collapsed, and people are having trouble buying basic necessities on the black market.
Incidents of gunfire while waiting in line at gas stations have become almost routine. The supply of electricity is disrupted for several hours a day – a situation reminiscent of what’s happening in the Gaza Strip, and very far from what residents of Beirut are used to. By all assessments, shortages of essential products are likely to worsen in the coming weeks.
For now, Israel is only experiencing ricochets from these problems, in the form of occasional incidents along the border. Sudanese and Turkish workers who are having trouble earning a living in Lebanon are trying to sneak into Israel to find work. There has also been a rise in drug and arms smuggling, again largely due to the economic problems.
But one possibility that has been discussed is that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah might try to bolster his organization’s political status with Iranian support. Though this doesn’t currently seem very likely, the events of the Arab Spring a decade ago showed that even relatively stable countries can collapse completely in a very short time.
Consequently, the need to give Lebanon aid to ensure its stability and prevent a Hezbollah takeover is raised in every political or security conversation Israeli officials have with counterparts from the United States, France and other European countries.