Akiva Eldar / Peace Talks With Syria Can Avert War With Lebanon

The fragile quiet on the northern border is liable to break unless Israel, Syria and Lebanon hold peace negotiations.

The latest incident on the Lebanese border shows that a single tree can disrupt the calm in the northern sector. The clash of August 3 cost the lives of an Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and one journalist. A new report written by experts of the International Crisis Group warns that the next time is liable to end in an entirely different way. They concluded the quiet prevailing on the Israeli-Lebanese border since the Second Lebanon War has barely a leg to stand on. In the absence of efforts to deal with the roots of the conflict, an error in judgment on the part of one of the sides could suffice to lead to an explosion with many casualties. Hence their decision to give their important and comprehensive report the title "Drums of War: Israel and the 'Axis of Resistance.'"

In interviews they held recently with top people in Hezbollah, in Syria and in Israel, the ICG researchers found the main obstruction to another war is the fear on the part of each of the players that the next clash hostilities will be wider and more destructive than its predecessors. Hezbollah people told them the missiles they are acquiring will deter Israel from another round, because they make it clear what will be the high price of a military attack on Lebanon. Nonetheless, one source in the organization assessed: "War ultimately is inevitable. The Israeli army must rebuild its image of invincibility."

According to the same Hezbollah source, in the next war, Israel will have to embark on an extensive ground invasion, deep within Lebanese territory. "They are preparing for the next round and realize the failure of the 'revolutionary' approach developed in the West, with its heavy reliance on advanced technology and air dominance. Next time, they will have to revert back to something more traditional, like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon." The source stressed that even a limited Israeli action would elicit a strong response: "If Israel launches a strike on any target in Lebanon, we will not take it lightly. We would not consider it a routine act. Israel would have to face the consequences."

Amos Biderman

The members of the research group recommend not taking such remarks as mere boasting, intended simply to encourage the fighters and deter Israel. They note that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has proved over the years that he keeps his promises. In interviews they conducted in Israel, the research team found that from Jerusalem the reality in the north looks like the reverse of how it is perceived in Beirut: The more Hezbollah arms itself, the more Israel perceives it as a grave threat. And the conclusion: "Something has to be done." A senior Israeli official said, "In any coming confrontation, civilians will be vulnerable. I believe that Hezbollah will hit hard in this respect, whether from the outset or later on. In turn, Israelis will react by saying we must respond in kind and put pressure on both Lebanon and the Lebanese population."

American sources expressed to the researchers "alarm at what they describe as the unprecedented integration of Syria's, Hezbollah's and Iran's military systems - along with increased training, intelligence sharing and weapons transfers - suggesting that Syria might be dragged into a conflict involving Israel and Hezbollah."

A prominent Syrian businessman, who enjoys close ties to the ruling elite, told the members of the ICG group: "The irony is that we've essentially been protecting Israel over the years, de facto, by restraining our allies. They are really dangerous; they aren't averse to a final showdown. But for Israel and for us, all-out confrontation would now mean massive destruction." He expressed the fear that the war would push Syria more deeply into Iran's embrace, or even lead to the latter's takeover of his country.

Israeli sources, who in the researchers' opinion sometimes err on the side of the simplistic in their view of Hezbollah as no more than an agent of Iran, expressed concern that Tehran will pressure Hezbollah to attack in order to divert attention from its nuclear program and reduce the international pressure. An advisor to the Israeli government told the researchers last April that if there is a toughening of the sanctions or even a partial blockade on Iran, Tehran will prefer an attack on Haifa by means of Hezbollah to an attack on American targets. The team found differences of opinion "as to whether, in theory, optimal timing" for neutralizing Hezbollah's arsenal, sometimes described as Iran's "second strike" capacity, "would be immediately or several months prior to a putative attack on Iran's nuclear facilities."

The experts found that some Israeli cabinet members remained skeptical about President Barack "Obama's approach to Iran and are concerned and fear the U.S. inexorably is moving toward a containment strategy - living with a bomb instead of eliminating it." Those ministers will undoubtedly find support for this in one American official's remarks to the authors of the report: "Many thought 2009 would be the critical year. Then they said 2010. I no longer believe it will be this year. But then again, we still have 2011."

According to most of the collected testimonies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be tempted to thwart Obama's attempt to soften up Iran by means of diplomatic measures and economic sanctions. Official American sources believe Tehran will seek any means in the coming days to resolve the crisis around the discussion table. In the assessment of the Crisis Group, substantial peace talks between Israel and Syria and Lebanon are the best way to ensure the next tree will not set fire to all the forests of the Galilee and Lebanon. Until then, the international community must make efforts to improve communication between the sides, to neutralize the tensions and to prevent mistakes liable to exact a price that none of the sides is interested in paying.