An Israeli Opportunity In a Lebanese Crisis

Israel and the broader Middle East could find common purpose against a rising Hezbollah


Israelis have every reason to worry about the relentlessly anti-Israeli militant group Hezbollah seizing power across in Lebanon, just across Israel's northern border. But the Middle East is a complex place: There's a real possibility that Hezbollah's rise will shift the dynamics of the region in Israel's favor, if only slightly.

The fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government in Lebanon, and Hezbollah's subsequent success in putting together a ruling coalition, have raised much concern in the Israeli government and in a number of the country's most prominent publications.

"Israelis should become accustomed to the idea that we have a shared border with Iran in the north," warned Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. An article in Yisrael Hayom, Israel's largest daily, said that events in Lebanon showed that the country on its way to becoming "Hezbollahstan."

An Israeli government official told the Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, "The concern that Lebanon is on the fast track to becoming an Iranian satellite under Hezbollah control has widespread strategic implications."

Such concerns are understandable. Events on the ground show that Hezbollah is now the strongest military and political organization in Lebanon.

However, this new crisis presents a long-term opportunity for Israel.

Hezbollah's take-over in Lebanon, almost certainly backed by Tehran, could bring part of the Sunni-majority Middle East to Israel's side. Although the new Hezbollah coalition includes Sunnis as well as Christians, many Lebanese Sunni groups and their backers in Saudi Arabia will worry that Hezbollah's rise could make Iran even more influential in Lebanon than it already is.

Although the Sunni-majority countries of the Middle East have little love for Israel, they share Israel's desire to thwart Iranian influence, especially in Lebanon. With notoriously sectarian Hezbollah in power, Sunni Arab regimes will be tempted to join in Israel's efforts to undermine Iran and Hezbollah. Israel has long worked against Hezbollah. Now, if Israel can sell Arab regimes on the idea that isolating Hezbollah-led Lebanon will be worth the distasteful prospect of cooperating with Israel, it will have help.

Of course, Arab regimes would only help in Israel's anti-Hezbollah efforts for self-interested, tactical, and probably short-term reasons. Neither Israelis nor Arabs are going to forget the deep cultural and political antagonisms dividing them overnight, nor is the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah a solution to Israeli-Arab disputes. But nothing unites people like the threat of a common enemy, and a little cooperation could help ease tensions and open up more possibilities for trust-building, if only in the short-term. It's not going to bring peace and harmony to the Middle East, but it could be an excuse to take a very small step in the right direction.

Hezbollah's new found power may actually chasten it in the short term, especially with regards to high-risk aggression against Israel. With Iran's increasingly fragile economy buckling under sanctions, the Iranian leadership may push Hezbollah to use its leadership position at least somewhat responsibly and to avoid all-out war against Israel.

This will probably mean discouraging Hezbollah from embarking on adventurous policies as in 2006, when Hezbollah provoked a massive Israeli response after it tried to kidnap soldiers inside Israel's borders.

According to Lebanese officials, between 2006 and 2009, Iran forked over $1 billion for reconstruction in Lebanon, mostly in Shiite areas targeted by Israeli attacks, in order to boost its own position as well as that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. With sanctions hitting his country hard, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is under more economic pressure than ever before. He is unlikely to risk another massive reconstruction tab in Lebanon. The most likely foreseeable scenario under which Khamenei might allow Hezbollah to attack Israel is in retaliation for an attack against Iran's nuclear installations. Until then, hostile words from Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah are all that Iran is likely to permit. If Israel - perhaps with the help of Arab regimes - can keep economic pressure on Iran and Lebanon, and can maintain a credible and significant military deterrence, Hezbollah might reasonably be contained.

One of the more effective ways in which Israel could very effectively undermine Iran and Hezbollah's holds on Lebanon is by resuming peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria. Of course, succeeding in those talks is among the tallest orders in the Middle East. But if Israel were to resume efforts to resolve a principle source of tension between Israeli and Arab governments, not to mention of anti-Israeli sentiment among Arab publics, the barriers to Israeli-Arab cooperation would be greatly reduced. This would also help make Hezbollah look less like anti-Israeli freedom fighters and more like anti-Sunni sectarians. It would be a nightmare for Khamenei and Nasrallah if Israel could convince the region that it is a force for moderation and peace. In Sunni Arab publics and regimes, Iran and Hezbollah would look more like adversaries than ever. Israel, in turn, could position itself as an ally.

Of course, Arab-Sunni cooperation is far from guaranteed, and not even the threat of an Iran-controlled, Hezbollah-led Lebanon could make Israelis and Sunni Arabs forget their decades of conflict. But, at a time when Israel would like to isolate Iran and could stand to be less isolated itself, the possibility or cooperating against Hezbollah could be an important opportunity.

Photo by Dror Artzi/AFP/Getty