Israel and Lebanon: A Path to Peace, Led By Trump

Israeli infantry simulating combat with Hezbollah
An Israeli infantry soldier from the Kfir Brigade takes part in a drill in urban warfare simulating a combat mission with Lebanon's Hezbollah at the Israeli army base of Elyakim in northern Israel on July 11, 2013. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty

Tensions are building along one of the few stable borders in the Middle East as Lebanon and Israel trade threats on their way toward open conflict. Most Lebanese and Israelis want to avoid war at all costs, but the Islamic Republic of Iran, via its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, are determined to turn this border into the next regional flashpoint.

Many Western observers are convinced that Hezbollah cannot be disarmed without war. But a robust diplomatic effort that leverages friendly elements in Lebanese society, as well as existing international law, can succeed not only in disarming Hezbollah but also opening up a path to peace with Israel. The Trump Administration should lead the way.

Hezbollah is the most powerful non-state actor in the world, serving as the westernmost projection of Iranian power in the region. Hezbollah exists, in theory, to resist Israel: its manifesto describes the Jewish state as an "eternal threat to Lebanon." More ominously, its army has spent the last five years honing its skills against Sunni opponents of the Assad regime, drawing upon an annual military budget well over a billion dollars and an arsenal of about 150,000 missiles. Also concerning, Hezbollah yields disproportionate, although not total, political power over Lebanon.

That doesn't mean that the Lebanese people welcome this kind of foreign domination. Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, one of the country's most influential public figures and an ally of Saudi Arabia, has in fact been one of Iran's most vocal opponents. "Iran wants to expand its influence in the Middle East," he wrote in a September 2016 New York Times op-ed, "by sowing discord, promoting terrorism and sectarian hatred, and destabilizing the region through proxies, while pretending to be bystanders." With regard to Lebanon, Hariri accused Hezbollah of imposing a "devastating gridlock on the country's government in order to blackmail the citizenry into accepting its demands."

Hariri went even further, and surprised many, in April 2017 when he visited Lebanon's border with Israel and called for a U.N.-negotiated permanent ceasefire between the two countries. It was a courageous move by a man who, like most Lebanese, is desperate to preserve the Arab world's most pluralistic nation—and only democracy—from the horrors of civil war. Unfortunately Hariri's plea has thus far fallen on deaf ears.

It isn't just Hariri and the Lebanese Sunnis who oppose Iranian interference. So too do most Lebanese Christians who make up about 40 percent of the country's population. Here, however, the politics are more difficult. Since the 1980s, the Christians have been without foreign allies and have been forced to affiliate with Sunni and Shia parties, and even Hezbollah, to survive the country's harsh sectarian climate. Lebanese President Michel Aoun recently alarmed U.S. policymakers by implying that Hezbollah may be used to protect Lebanon's territorial integrity. But the Lebanese Christian population has no love for Iran and its proxies. They just don't have a choice.

More outspoken has been Lebanon's most powerful Christian, the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi, who has become more strident in his public statements against Hezbollah. In an interview with Sky News Arabic in March, Patriarch Al-Rahi openly criticized Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war and accused its leaders of working to divide Lebanese society.

Many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians, who together comprise about 70 percent of the population, want to see Hezbollah disarmed and Iran pushed out. Even a number of Lebanese Shia, quieter in their displeasure with Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, want to see the group's influence significantly curbed. Their desires coincide with those of Israel, the Sunni states, and the U.S. They also coincide with the stated demands of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) that calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah and the restoration of sovereignty to the government of Lebanon.

The problem is that Hezbollah's opponents inside Lebanon receive little backing from forces outside Lebanon. Neither Aoun nor the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are powerful enough to disarm Hezbollah on their own. It is likely, however, that dedicated assistance from allies outside the country would embolden them and bring their opposition to Iranian influence to new levels.

Currently, the United States supplies arms and training to the LAF, but in order to strengthen the state, that assistance needs to be substantially increased. The LAF is the most stabilizing force in the country and remains neutral in the country's sectarian squabbles, making it a natural starting point for the level of support and engagement needed for Lebanon.

Indeed, the strategy to disarm Hezbollah, weaken Iran, and initiate peace talks between Beirut and Jerusalem must begin with local alliance building. But the Trump administration must first recognize Lebanon for what it really is: the potential centerpiece of a broader Middle Eastern strategy focused on countering Iranian hegemony and stabilizing nearby conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.

Another natural starting point is U.N. Resolution 1701, a binding declaration of international law. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley should call on the U.N. secretary general to take an active role in the implementation of U.N. 1701, and not leave it to a Lebanese government that is too weak to implement it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should appoint a special envoy to oversee the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1701, and encourage our allies to do the same.

The U.S. should also strengthen cooperation with the LAF—not weaken it, as some have suggested—by expanding the U.S. advisory presence to ensure the integrity and independence of the LAF. Finally, the U.S. should encourage the U.N. to take up Prime Minister Hariri on his brave call for permanent ceasefire negotiations with Israel by hosting peace talks between Israel and Lebanon, whether public or private.

The normalization of relations between Israel and Lebanon—perhaps something Ehud Barak thought possible after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000—may yet be a long way off. But Hariri's call was a bold one. One suspects that many of Lebanon's Sunnis, Christians, and Shiites pray that the US and the international community respond. It would be the ultimate end-run around Iran's ambitions in the region.

Robert Nicholson is the Executive Director of The Philos Project and Philippe Nassif is the Executive Director of In Defense of Christians.

Israel and Lebanon: A Path to Peace, Led By Trump | Opinion