Makovsky: Mideast Conflict a Test for Olmert, Lebanese Government

Mideast expert David Makovsky says the widening conflict in the Middle East poses a huge challenge for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and tests the viability of the Lebanese government.

July 13, 2006 12:29 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of its Project on the Middle East Peace Process, says the widening conflict in the Middle East is a huge test for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "A new prime minister in Israel feels he is being tested by two terror groups, Hezbollah and Hamas, because he does not have the military credentials," he says.

Makovsky also says the actions of Hezbollah raise questions about Syria’s continued role in Lebanese affairs and the ability of the Lebanese government to assert control in the country’s south.

Today Hezbollah attacked an Israeli border station on the Israel-Lebanon border. In response, Israel sent troops into Lebanon for the first time since 2000. What are the implications of this attack?

Well, it can’t be looked at in isolation. It needs to be seen as coming really on the heels of the Hamas kidnapping of the soldier in Kerem Shalom, right on the Egyptian-Gaza-Israel border a couple weeks ago, which creates a two-pronged situation that Israel did not have to be in during the intifada—the 2000 to 2004 period, when Israel had already pulled out of Lebanon in May [2000]. It is definitely an escalation. I don’t believe the Israelis want to stay on the ground in Lebanon. They have learned the hard way how difficult it is to be on the ground in Lebanon. They were there for eighteen years and I don’t think they have any intention of staying, but at the same time there is a national ethos in a country—where there is a three-year mandatory draft—that part of its resilience is its ability to tell parents that if their soldiers are abducted, Israel will turn heaven and earth to get them back.

We don’t know enough about whether these two attacks are coordinated by Syrians, where [Khalid] Meshal [highest-ranking leader of Hamas] has said that he—in Damascus for Hamas—had [ordered] the Hamas attack. But all of his Hezbollah weaponry comes through Syria. So did the Syrians somehow try to coordinate this? Were the Iranians, who view Hezbollah as their proxy even though Hezbollah is on Israel’s northern border, the invisible hand here? Or do you say, "Look, these things are totally coincidental and might be related to a belief that any time you get a soldier maybe you can try to get some prisoners in return, which makes you domestically popular." We don’t know.

And, of course, Israel did a very ill-informed move a couple years ago when Ariel Sharon released hundreds of prisoners to get back one Israeli named [Elhanan] Tenenbaum [Israeli reservist who was kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000]. Doesn’t that encourage Hezbollah to try it again? Or does it encourage Hamas? That is the dilemma Israeli leaders, particularly Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert, face today.

Olmert is one of the first Israeli prime ministers without military experience, is that right?

That is the key point to remember in this whole story. Usually in Israel, the prime minister or the defense minister is a general. This is the first time in a very long time that [the prime minister] is neither. Both of these people, both Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, I think they believe they are being tested by these two groups who say "Hey, Sharon is gone, let’s go to work." And there is a skeptical Israeli public that wants to say, "How are these two guys going to emerge from this crisis?" This is their baptism by fire. Olmert is trying to hit back on both fronts, to show, "Just because I am not a general, don’t think that I am soft."

Olmert said Israel was treating the attack in Lebanon as an act of war by the Lebanese government. How much control does the Lebanese government have over the actions of Hezbollah?

This is part of the problem, frankly. The Syrians, even though they were forced to leave Lebanon, have maintained their veto—so to speak—from afar and [are] insisting that the Lebanese army not do like any other normal country and deploy its military throughout the country. The Lebanese army has not been able to deploy in the south—Hezbollah is there. In the twisted world of the Middle East, the Syrians believe that if they can keep Hezbollah on Israel’s border, that pressure point will force Israel to yield the Golan Heights. The fact that it has not worked, of course, has not deterred the Syrians from thinking this, and they have used their considerable clout—even though they are not occupying the country directly anymore—to ensure that the Lebanese army not deploy in the southern part of the country. But the Israelis believe—if Hezbollah is not a normal state actor—there is such a thing called the government of Lebanon. Hezbollah, I should say, is not only in the Lebanese parliament but has even been in the cabinet. So Israel is saying the government of Lebanon is responsible.

But how much control do they have? Will they be able to call back or call off the attacks by Hezbollah if, as you say, so much of their actions are directed by Syria?

Well, that is one of the $64,000 questions in this whole crisis, whether they will be successful. Until now, they have yet to deploy in the south. We’ve heard they have set up road blocks at certain times, but this is the first big crisis in southern Lebanon since the Syrians left.

Now Syria has their intelligence officials all around, but the fact that they don’t have troops in the country, formally, does that mean the Lebanese army can flex their muscles? Or, do you say, "Look, it doesn’t matter. [Emile] Lahoud is still the president of Lebanon, he’s a Syrian puppet." That was the backdrop to the whole [Rafik] Hariri assassination [in February 2005], after all, the death of the [former] prime minister of Lebanon who didn’t want the president of Lebanon, who he saw as a Syrian puppet, to maintain office. So long as Lahoud’s there, some would say, nothing’s going to change [because] Syria controls the country from afar.

I think while the first blush is going to be focused on Lebanon, the Syrian issue is going to come more and more into focus. This will be the second time in two weeks that a group associated with Syria has abducted Israeli soldiers. Just to remind you, on June 28, the Israeli Air Force buzzed [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad’s summer home in Latakia, a port city in Syria. I’m told he was there at the time. Was this an answer of Assad’s, saying, "You think you can scare me? Watch this." Or is there going to be more Israeli action in Damascus?

Ultimately, I think all roads lead to Damascus, but I wouldn’t rule out the Iranian role. The Iranians give about $180 million to Hezbollah. They give some support to Hamas, although not as much, as Hamas has wanted to be independent of Iranian decision-making. But is this somehow linked to Iran’s standoff with the West over nukes, a way of diverting attention? We don’t know.

Is there a chance that Syria could be drawn into the conflict, given that Meshal is based in Damascus, and Assad is being accused of so much interference? Is there a chance that Israel could attack Syria?

I think Israel doesn’t want to start wars. I mean, it wanted to get out of Gaza, it got out of the West Bank—at least, most of the settlements in the West Bank—that’s why Olmert came to power. It would be the height of irony that a moderate comes to office, is tested by terror groups on all sides, and the next thing you know there’s an armed confrontation with Syria. I tend to believe Israel doesn’t want a war. But I can tell you the Syrians are not well-positioned for any conventional conflict. Ever since they lost their Soviet patron in the 1980s, they’ve got outdated equipment, don’t have spare parts, and really are in no position to fight a conventional war. Some would argue that actually raises the importance of a proxy group like Hezbollah, or support for Hamas and others, because then these become instruments of the state, when [the state] really doesn’t have that conventional capacity.

So if Israel would go to war—which, again, I am certainly not predicting—Syria couldn’t really successfully fight the Israelis. They like this remote-control approach much better. And the question for Israel is, at what point is it enough is enough?

Getting back to the hostage situation, it seems like Israel is expending a tremendous military effort, and risking many lives, to rescue these hostages. How much sense does it make to risk dozens of other lives to claim these few kidnapped soldiers?

The ethos of Israel was, tell these parents, you entrust your kids to the Israeli military for three years, and we’ll move heaven and earth if they’re ever abducted. The question is, at what point does that kind of public profile [make] these [soldiers] very valuable bargaining chips, because Israel considers them such? I wonder if one of the lasting questions of this affair, when it’s over, is to question that approach. But this has been true now for decades: the human drama of the abducted soldier. The question is, does it really give these terror groups a freebie to press Israel? Is this really counterproductive?

What do you think is the level of support among Palestinians for the military actions against Israel?

It’s been pretty high, if you look at the public numbers. The Palestinian approach is that [Israelis kill Palestinian civilians and] here, we went after a soldier. In their mind, they have a lot of prisoners [in Israeli jails]. Israelis would say, "These aren’t political prisoners—it’s not like, [Andrei] Sakharov or someone like that—these are people who blew up buses and cafes, and therefore they’re being held." But [Palestinians] think, "Well, this is great. The Israelis value human life in such a way that we’ll give them one, they’ll give us 1,000." So they think they’ve found a good card, and how this thing comes out will determine a lot whether their approach is going to be vindicated. Some wonder if Olmert’s going to do the "non-deal deal," where he’ll say no deal, but six months later some people will be released, and it’ll be somehow traced to this. Of course, he’ll want to give it to [Mahmoud] Abbas, the Palestinian president, and not to Hamas.

I happened to be in Israel two weeks ago, and talked to Olmert, and he said to me, "We were going to do a prisoner release before my summit meeting with Abbas, and I was even going to include Hamas prisoners. But now that they’ve turned this into a demand, I can’t give." That’s where he feels that for him to yield would be to yield to blackmail and to just invite further abductions in the future, as well as bolstering the domestic standing of these groups, Hamas and Hezbollah. That will be the message that goes out—"These guys deliver. They get their guys out of prison this way."—and their public standing will be sky-high. I believe Olmert will do whatever he can to avoid giving these two groups a windfall.

What do you think will happen?

I’ve learned never to predict these things, especially when we’ll know one way or another in the next week or so. But I can say Olmert’s political standing is this: if he does not emerge from this crisis strengthened, I am concerned that he will not have the political standing to continue with what he was elected for: the convergence plan, or however you want to call it, the Olmert initiative [to withdraw Jewish settlers from much of] the West Bank. That could easily be a casualty of this double crisis.

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