Will Israel Attack Lebanon? Will the US Allow It?
The thorniest problem for American and Israeli policy-makers when it comes to Lebanon is the same: how to deal with Hezbollah. While American policy is by necessity equivocal, as it tries to maintain whatever influence it has on Lebanon’s affairs, Israeli policy is explicitly bellicose. But both are equally committed to weakening and ultimately eliminating Hezbollah’s stubborn resistance to US-Israeli efforts at regional domination.
Since 2006, the US has spent more than $600 million to buttress the military and police capability of a Lebanese government it wants to woo away from Hezbollah -- and, by extension, Iran -- and has spent another $500 million on domestic programs specifically aimed at undercutting Hezbollah and the latter’s influence on Lebanese politics.  Meanwhile, Israel uses its military might directly, openly flouting Lebanon’s sovereignty with overflights and land incursions, and regularly issues doomsday threats to both Hezbollah and a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah. Lebanon is thus at the receiving end of both American cajoling and Israeli bullying -– all because of Hezbollah.
If Israel were to act reasonably, from the perspective of its own long-term interests, it would act far more cautiously in its face-off with Hezbollah (and Iran and other perceived threats). It would curb its bluster and belligerence, if only to project an image of moderation to the rest of the world. And it would be extremely careful to safeguard its special relationship with the US, so far unshaken, from which it has derived enormous power and benefits.
But Israel is now led by a government which is crudely racist and paranoid, crying wolf to the world and at the same time supremely contemptuous of outside opinion, and nearly oblivious to damages its actions may cause to its own and Washington’s long-term interests. Israel’s propensity for violence against neighboring Arabs is not new, but its recklessness seems to have increased over the years in inverse proportion to its decreasing ability to achieve its aims. 
This explains the increasing eruptions in recent months, and more so in recent weeks, not only along Israel’s northern border (e.g., the deadly clash between Israeli and Lebanese troops on August 3) , but also within the occupied Palestinian territories (e.g., the skirmishes in and around the Gaza Strip) and even far from Palestinian shores (e.g., the assault on the Freedom Flotilla in international waters on May 31).
With internal tensions in Lebanon likely to follow the UN-sponsored tribunal’s impending indictments for the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Israeli officials may delude themselves into believing that now is the time for a new round against Hezbollah. This is something they have been promising the world since the July-August 2006 war. But this time, they insist, their assault will be far more devastating, it will be the Dahiya Doctrine extended to all of Lebanon. 
According to a recent report by former US diplomat D.C. Kurtzer, more widely cited in the Lebanese and Middle Eastern press than in the West, this is not just saber rattling: Chances are that Israel will attack Lebanon within the next year and a half and the US will be caught flatfooted.  In fact, the wilder and more ominous speculation in the US has been about, not an attack on Lebanon, but Israel’s presumed determination to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. This is speculation with a purpose, namely, to goad the US into taking the lead for war with Iran. Otherwise, it is claimed, Israel will be left with no choice other than to confront on its own the “existential threat” posed by the regime in Tehran. 
There is however a huge difference between the two cases: Israel can go it alone on tiny and nearby Lebanon, but not on distant Iran without direct US participation.
Though reason dictates that Israel should not rush into another military adventure, reckless Israeli leaders may still act against reason and start a war on Lebanon. They may justify the war as a preventive necessity to weaken the Axis of Resistance, by hitting at its nearest member (Hezbollah) on their northern border. And they may want such a war simply to re-assert a deterrent credibility they are obsessively in fear of losing.
How will the US react to an Israeli attack on Lebanon? Inasmuch as the US is still courting a Lebanese government it wants on its side, the US should be adverse to a separate Israeli attack on Hezbollah and Lebanon. Such an attack would kill any prospect of drawing Lebanon into the US fold and only add to Washington’s many woes in the Middle East.
But there is more to it than merely destroying Lebanon in order to uproot Hezbollah. From an American perspective, an assault on Hezbollah cannot be separated from a decision to attack Iran. The price of the first (losing Lebanon) can only be justified by the necessity of pursuing the second (punishing Iran for its intransigence). With its forces overstretched from Iraq to Afghanistan and elsewhere, and domestic support for its far-flung wars quickly dwindling, the US is not ready for a confrontation with Iran nor, therefore, should it want one with Hezbollah now.
This, of course, assumes American policy-makers will act wisely, out of a better appreciation of their own and the West’s global interests -– an appreciation in far shorter supply among Israeli policy-makers now. Will the US prevent Israel from playing with fire? It is difficult to predict with certainty, partly because the Obama administration has shown diminishing resolve to rein in Israeli excesses. 
For several reasons, some domestic and some not, the US has recently contributed to a substantial build-up of Israel’s offensive arsenal, perhaps suggesting to the overconfident Israeli leaders that their American patron is not overly concerned about an attack on Lebanon. Can it be any worse than in July-August 2006, they may think, when no Arab state lifted a finger and the Bush administration cheered them on to the carnage? And they may think they will be able to ride out the international opprobrium once more, if they have thought that far. But just as in 2006, from the moment American interests are seriously harmed, the US will step in and order Israel to stop -– and Israel will comply. 
Will the pro-Israel lobby bear any responsibility for such an attack?  Its direct responsibility will be nil, but its after-the-fact reaction will be true to form: blind justification, however outlandish (“they want to kill all the Jews”), of Israel’s actions. Israel uses its lobby as a pliant instrument to promote its policies in the US, not as an advisory council. Nor is the pro-Israel lobby the decisive factor in formulating American policies in regard to Israel or shaping American reaction to an Israeli attack on Lebanon.
To take but one example, President Obama’s budget request to Congress for FY2011 included a record-breaking $3 billion in military aid to Israel, notwithstanding his pledge in his most recent State of the Union address to “go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work.”  The powerful defense industry in the US, and its deep connections with its counterpart in Israel, is not subject to measures to reduce public spending and budget deficits. Its profit-driven interests outweigh political differences on other less-determining issues, such as the diverging American and Israeli views on the settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and it does not need the pro-Israel lobby to make its case. 
What can be done to prevent such an attack? No guarantee can be made to the Lebanese from any side, least of all from their own dysfunctional government, that such an attack will not happen. But a lot can be done to minimize its possibility, short of preventing it entirely. What can be done in the United States -– Israel’s chief enabler -– is to work for a popular mobilization, in alliance with the far broader and more effective movement for Palestinian rights, to influence US policy. The constant goal is to overcome the dominant propaganda that absolves, conceals, and permits the worst excesses of US-Israeli deeds in the Middle East.
Just as important is what Lebanese can do themselves. Many Lebanese have legitimate grievances against several of Hezbollah’s domestic policies. But despite these grievances, it is incumbent on them to rally behind Hezbollah’s right to bear arms and to work for a broad movement to resist aggression in general, in order to dissuade would-be invaders from the idea that an attack on Lebanon would be a cakewalk.
This article is the footnoted and slightly expanded English version of an article to appear in the Beirut periodical al-Adab of September-October 2010.
Assaf Kfoury is an Arab-American political activist and Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East. He is also an IOA Advisory Board member.
1. J. D. Feltman and D. Benjamin, “Assessing the Strength of Hizballah,” Testimony before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, June 8, 2010. Feltman has been Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs since August 2009, before which he was US Ambassador to Lebanon (2004-2008). Others have reported amounts exceeding the $600 million and $500 million mentioned by Feltman and Benjamin. See, for example, P. Richter and A. Sandels in “Iran says it will make up for the cutoff of US aid to Lebanon,” Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2010, and BBC, “Lebanon opens bank account for donations to equip army,” August 14, 2010. The two latter articles mention $720 million just in US military aid since 2006. The Feltman-Benjamin document is very informative about the means the US has used in Lebanon, the Middle East and the world at large, to cut off Hezbollah’s support and sources of funding. It is astounding (and revealing about the priorities of an imperialist mindset) to read about the lengths to which the world’s sole hyper-power would go to eliminate a popular movement in a small country of 4 million people.
2. Others have tried to understand why it is that reckless Israeli politicians are allowed to blunder on with little or no accountability. A long-time observer of Middle Eastern affairs offers the following explanation: “In societies with a siege mentality [such as Israel’s], errors cannot be admitted, making it more likely that they will be repeated” (Patrick Cockburn, “How Not to Invade,” London Review of Books, 5 August 2010, pp 26-27). He goes on to write that “what’s striking about Israel’s involvement in Lebanon is the way in which it kept repeating its mistakes. [...] Its response to political and military frustration has usually been to use more violence, not less.” As a result, he concludes, Israel’s “leaders remain frighteningly incapable of calculating their own best interests.”
3. Accounts of the August 3 clash at the Israeli-Lebanese border were markedly different in the Lebanese press from those in the US press. According to Lebanese reports, the Israeli officer in charge at the border ignored a request from the UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) to stop cutting a view-obstructing tree until further consultation. He had no reason to be unduly concerned by his opposites’ response: The UNIFIL is no match to the Israeli army and the Lebanese military had never put up a serious fight against Israeli air and land incursions. The surprise on all sides this time was that the Lebanese army unit at the border, though vastly out-gunned, chose to take a stand (Juan Cole, “Israeli and Lebanese Armies Trade Fire,” Informed Comment, August 4, 2010). The explanation from the Israeli side, reproduced in the US press, was that “the incident was instigated by a Lebanese army brigade commander who is a Shiite and a Hezbollah supporter” (Ronen Bergman, “Hezbollah and the Lebanon Dilemna,” The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2010). Not reported in the US press was that two of the three Lebanese killed were Christian. According to the same WSJ article, were it not for the pressure from the US and France, Israel would have launched a massive retaliation; Israeli military leaders were urging and ready “to implement contingency plans to bomb Lebanese army camps, Hezbollah strongholds and Beirut’s power stations.”
4. The Dahiya Doctrine is named after the Beirut suburb which was leveled during Israel’s attack on Lebanon in July-August 2006. Dahiya was selected for destruction because it was the location of many of Hezbollah’s party offices.
5. Daniel C. Kurtzer, “A Third Lebanon War,” Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 8, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2010. According to Kurtzer, “speculation that a third Lebanon war will occur in the next twelve to eighteen months has been steadily rising,” Israel is “the more likely” to initiate it, and “it is not clear that the [Obama] administration could muster strong arguments for a policy position calling for Israeli restraint or threatening diplomatic action against Israel in case of war.” Kurtzer served in different diplomatic capacities in the Middle East since 1976, most recently as US Ambassador to Cairo (1997-2001) and then to Tel Aviv (2001-2005).
6. A recent example of such pernicious speculation is Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Point of No Return,” The Atlantic, September 2010. With or without American participation, any attempt to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations would be pure folly.
7. The most glaring indication of President Obama’s faltering resolve -- if that was indeed resolve, not a venal politician’s way with words -- was his flip-flop on the Israeli settlements. In his much-hyped Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, Obama declared, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. [...] It is time for these settlements to stop” (Ian Black, “Barack Obama pledges new beginning between US and Muslims,” The Guardian, June 4, 2009). A year later, all the resolve Obama can muster is to call on the Palestinian Authority to move from “proximity talks” to “direct talks”, just as demanded by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, while Israel’s expansionist policies continue in full swing. The much-hyped ten-month moratorium on settlement-building, a pitiful sop to Obama, did not even seem to mark a slowdown in the overall movement to dispossess Palestinians; “while the bulldozers to build settlements have been idling, the bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes have been roaring: the rate of demolition in and around Jerusalem has doubled this year” (David Gardner, “A poisoned process holds little hope,” Financial Times, August 25, 2010). Statistics on the first eight months of the moratorium are in Peace Now’s August 2010 report, which concludes that “on the ground, there is almost no freeze or even a visible slowdown, despite the fact that legal construction starts have been frozen for 8 months. [...] The Government of Israel is not enforcing the moratorium.”
8. In July-August 2006, as long as the US held hope that the Israeli military would finish off Hezbollah in a matter of days, it repeatedly blocked the UN Security Council from adopting a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. It allowed the resolution to pass only when it became clear that Hezbollah was not caving in, Lebanon was being reduced to rubble, and American connections with allied Arab governments were coming under increasingly severe strains. The details are recounted by Phyllis Bennis, “The Lebanon War in the UN, the UN in the Lebanon War,” in The War on Lebanon: A Reader, edited by N. Hovsepian, Olive Branch Press, 2008.
9. Though the pro-Israel lobby is often identified with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), it includes other groups with considerable clout on American politics, such as the movement of Christian Zionists.
10. Josh Ruebner, “US Can’t Afford Military Aid to Israel,” Huffington Post, February 26, 2010.
11. There is no remotely comparable relationship between the US and any of its closest Arab allies. Thus, for example, the most advanced American weapons are routinely made available to the Israeli military, such as the recent batch of F-35 fighters (Greg Grant, “Israel Places Order For 20 F-35s, US Picks Up The Tab,” defensetech.org, August 16, 2010), while Saudi Arabia has to content itself with older-generation F-15 fighters that are configured without any long-range weapons systems in deference to Israel’s objections (Adam Entous, “US to Sell F-15s to Saudis, Fighter Jets in Proposed $30 Billion Deal Won’t Include Features Israel Opposes,” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2010). This repeats a familiar package deal, with multiple advantages for the defense industry: They get US taxpayers to pay for the most advanced weapons to Israel, which are then deployed for field trials against mostly defenseless opponents, and then -- under the pretense of “balanced” relations with all sides -- they can make a huge sale to Saudi Arabia of material they want to get rid of. Not only is Israel a nuclear-armed military outpost of the American empire, it is also a great asset to American business. It then stands to reason that, among major US newspapers, the one that beats the drums loudest in support of Israel is the Wall Street Journal, main mouthpiece of financial and big business circles. It does so with no prompting necessary from the pro-Israel lobby.