Israel’s announcement of a willingness for peace talks with Lebanon is one of the early fruits of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to the region and her unexpected visit to Lebanon. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent visit to Lebanon and upcoming visit to Israel is also crucial here. In the wake of the recent Doha agreement, the US is keen to bolster the position of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the March 14 movement of which he is a part. The Cedar Revolution, and the Saniora government which resulted from it, is considered by the US administration to be one of its most significant diplomatic achievements in the region. Doha stipulated the creation of a new cabinet in Lebanon that would include opposition (i.e., Hizbullah and allied) representation.
The US is evidently concerned about preserving the standing of Saniora and March 14 in the ongoing Lebanese political standoff. This concern, it is understood, is shared by Sarkozy, who is considered a moving force behind the current initiative. The government of Israel is apparently willing to adopt a newly conciliatory stance on the Shaba farms in order to play its role within this process. Rice, in Beirut, expressed her concern at Hizbullah’s prominence in Lebanon and said that the administration intended to address the “real reasons and underlying causes” of this. When asked to define these, she said, according to a report in the Beirut Daily Star, that the issue of the Shaba farms must be resolved “within the context of [UN Security Council] Resolution 1701 rather than Resolution 425.” Resolution 425 appeared to close the issue of the Shaba farms, since the UN Security Council ruled that Israel was in full accordance with this resolution after its May 2000 withdrawal to the international Blue Line border between Israel and Lebanon. Resolution 1310, adopted in 2000, confirmed this. Resolution 1701, meanwhile, adopted after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, implicitly reopened the matter by taking “due note” of Saniora’s seven-point plan, which asks for the Shaba farms to be placed under UN jurisdiction. The resolution also calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon.
The US administration wants to bolster Saniora and simultaneously remove the rationale for Hizbullah’s continued bearing of arms. Hizbullah currently uses the Shaba farms as its central rallying cry; hence, the apparent idea is to induce Israel to cede the farms, probably to UN control. This, it is expected, will simultaneously remove Hizbullah’s reason for maintaining its armed capacity – and enable Saniora to pose as the “liberator” of Shaba. The idea is likely to backfire. First of all, while Hizbullah has declared itself opposed to the idea of placing the Shaba farms under UN jurisdiction, this will not prevent it from declaring any Israeli withdrawal as its own achievement, a delayed result of the shock and fear – and subsequent flexibility – induced in Israel by the 2006 war.
There is no reason to assume that this version will be any less credible than that offered by Saniora. This is particularly so because the call for the “return” of the Shaba farms is associated with Hizbullah and was picked up by other elements in Lebanon only later. Also, Hizbullah will claim that Israeli concessions on this issue are proof positive of the successful application of violence against Israel, since the international community declared the matter closed in 2000 and then reopened it as a result of the war of 2006. (This claim is factually accurate.) Such a path is also unlikely to lead to Hizbullah’s disarmament. Hizbullah is, after all, both a local Lebanese actor and a client and creation of Iran. There were those after May 2000 who assumed that once Israel had abandoned the security zone, the former aspect of Hizbullah’s identity would take precedence over the latter. This, of course did not take place. Should Shaba be ceded, Hizbullah already has a list of subsequent “grievances” against Israel that will be used to justify further “resistance.” These include the seven Shi’a villages that existed in the Galilee prior to 1948, and the large Palestinian refugee presence in Lebanon.
The movement has indeed already issued a statement saying that “anyone who believes that placing [the] Shaba farms under UN mandate will mean eliminating the rationale behind our resistance is mistaken.” The US and France want to strengthen their partner in Lebanon, who recently suffered a military humiliation. They want to show that aligning with the West brings results, while the allies of Iran are the forces determined to prevent tranquillity. For the reasons cited above, reopening the issue of the Shaba farms is unlikely to produce these desired results. Rather, the impression given is more likely to be one of confusion, disunity and lack of resolution among pro-Western forces in the region.