How far away is the next Israel-Lebanon war?
This is a question that has been discussed for years, arguably since the last open conflict in 2006 ended in an Israeli withdrawal and an expanded UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) mandate to keep the peace in the southern part of the country. That conflict may have ended but its after-effects linger. Long after the cluster munitions fired from both sides settled into the earth, many of them remain unexploded and continue to kill civilians. Long after the withdrawal, the near-universal consensus that Israel was not the clear ‘winner’ it intended to be and the Winograd Commission’s findings were published, Israeli embarrassment at not having been able to ‘win’ simmers and the conflict festers.
Most commentators believe that a new conflict (though the two countries are still technically at war) is a matter of when not if. Note this interesting discussion on the Qifa Nabki blog (an excellent point of reference for Lebanon, for the uninitiated) with Nicholas Noe, founder of The Middle East Wire,
The roots of the conflict are broad. Hizbullah is only gaining in power and prominence in Lebanon. It has a ready supply of arms, funding and is gaining legitimacy across the sectarian divide in Lebanon. Many Lebanese perceive Hizbullah as the dominant military power in Lebanon and the only power capable of defending Lebanon against Israeli aggression. Israel, particularly its right-wing-stacked political climate, cannot cope with a resurgent, popular and increasingly assertive Islamist opposition on its Northern border. This, along with its less than impressive display in 2006, are a cause for embarrassment among Israeli war hawks.
Factor in the continued aggressive moves by Israel in Lebanon and you already have a veritable powder keg. For example, Israel continues to operate manned overflights in Lebanese air space, in violation of UNSCR resolution 1701 and international law generally. Or take Israel’s continued occupation of several disputed areas on the border between Lebanon and the (equally occupied) Golan Heights.
Recent news is only set to aggravate tensions. Clashes have broken out along the border between UNIFIL and local villagers, reportedly unhappy with military exercises being performed and the perceived ‘pressure’ on Hizbullah from the international community over an alleged Scud rockets transfer (that is far from proven) and its ongoing arms buildup.
More threateningly, ongoing exploration of the Tamar and Leviathan gasfields has become a real cause for concern since it was estimated that they may contain up to 35 years of Israel’s current consumption of natural gas and may even make it a net exporter. The territoriality of the fields is disputed by Lebanon which says that they may also be part of its own natural waters. This was followed by Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau’s comments to Bloomberg last week that Israel would use force if necessary to defend its right to develop and produce the fields. [via FP’s Oil & Glory]
The reality is that Israel’s infrastructure advantage means that they are far better positioned to develop and explore these fields than Lebanon. Also, the Western backed coalition, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, that holds a tenuous grip on power in Lebanon, is unlikely to do anything real to challenge Israel on its hegemony over the gasfields. Hizbullah, which dominates the country’s opposition bloc, is likely to make a real issue of this.
Given that squabbles over natural resources are a perfect pretext for countries to go to war, it’s difficult to see how this news makes war even remotely avoidable. As Nicholas Noe puts it to Qifa Nabki, linked above, the only foreseeable thing that could stop this are “some bold moves by the Obama administration in the next year.” Given the Administration’s recent history in the region and its many policy failures to date, this eventuality seems rather unlikely indeed.