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US’ Lebanon policy should not be guided by Israeli perspective

Lebanese army soldiers in the town of Ras Baalbek, Lebanon. (Reuters)
Lebanese army soldiers in the town of Ras Baalbek, Lebanon. (Reuters)
03 Dec 2019 03:12:30 GMT9
03 Dec 2019 03:12:30 GMT9

Israel, which has an important voice in Washington, is constantly trying to influence US policy toward Lebanon. The main problem is that Israel looks at its northern neighbor only in terms of Hezbollah. However, Lebanon is much more than that and this misguided view will lead to further instability, as it will erode US influence inside the country.

Unfortunately, Israel seeks to stop any aid to Lebanon as it is short-sighted by the view that the nation is a breeding ground for Hezbollah and that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) provide cover for the armed group. However, US experts on Lebanon know this is not the case and that the LAF are actually the only counterbalance to Hezbollah. Any weakening of the army will play into the hands of the Shiite Hezbollah militia, Sunni militants, Iran and Russia.

The pro-Israel groups try to make any US aid to Lebanon conditional on a confrontation between the LAF and Hezbollah. However, experts on Lebanon like former US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman know that such a precondition is a recipe for civil war. He clarified this point during his testimony to the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism last month.

Pro-Israel think tanks constantly promote the idea that the LAF are “colluding” with Hezbollah. Tony Badran, the Lebanon-born and raised scholar, and Jonathan Schanzer published an article in Mosaic, the pro-Israel outlet, saying that the LAF work “hand in hand” with Hezbollah. Building on this narrative, Israel has tried to block a $105 million State Department aid package to the LAF.

Since June, Israel’s allies in the US, including Christian evangelicals who are the core supporters of President Donald Trump, have lobbied Congress and the National Security Council to stop the aid to Lebanon. Sen. Ted Cruz introduced a bill over the summer requiring the army to disarm Hezbollah before the aid is released. When protests erupted in Lebanon in October and a few sporadic clashes occurred between protesters and members of the army, Cruz found it a good opportunity to renew his pitch.

However, the State Department and the Pentagon are well aware of the importance of the LAF. Less than two weeks after the White House announced that the military aid had been frozen, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters in Jerusalem that an Israeli request to withhold aid to the LAF had been rejected. “We consider the funding to the LAF to be a good investment,” he said.

Schenker’s statement coincided with the vision of Feltman, who said in his testimony that, when dealing with Lebanon and its armed forces, the US should think long term. This view contradicts the Israeli perspective that pushes for the US to deal with the armed forces in a transactional and conditional manner. Tel Aviv also views the current difficult situation in Lebanon and the LAF’s need for external support as an opportunity to pressure the armed forces to confront Hezbollah.

At the same hearing as Feltman, Hanin Ghaddar, Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in her recommendation that the LAF had “vacated” Shiite towns and areas. She added that the LAF should be present in those areas to allow the Shiite protesters to speak up against Hezbollah.

However, the situation is very delicate and, in this moment of high tension, such a confrontation would be a recipe for disaster. She also accused the military intelligence of human rights violations and recommended that they be deprived of the overall aid. Nevertheless, such a policy would not allow the armed forces to operate smoothly as one organization and could create a fracture that would ultimately benefit Hezbollah.

The US State Department, Congress and the Pentagon all have seasoned experts in regional politics who realize that the LAF are the only hope for Lebanon. The army has been protecting protesters. In more than 40 days of demonstrations, only one protester has been killed, whereas in countries like Iraq and Iran hundreds of peaceful protesters have been targeted and killed by the army and security forces.

Those numbers show that the Lebanese army has been respecting citizens’ right to protest peacefully. It has also been protecting them from belligerent factions who are trying to break the demonstrations by force.

However, the US policy depends on Trump’s whims. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Lebanon on the occasion of its independence day on Nov. 22, he did not offer any clarification on the release of the aid. This transactional manner of conducting foreign policy, heavily influenced by the narrow perspective of the domestic pro-Israel interest groups, will not allow the US to build any significant alliance with Lebanon.

It will also prevent Washington from building capital with Lebanon’s most important institution, and the only institution that enjoys popular legitimacy — its armed forces.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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