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Lebanon is poised precariously between peace and war

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The writer is author of ‘Black Wave’, distinguished fellow at Columbia University’s Institute of Global Politics and an FT contributing editor

Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, made a startlingly frank admission of powerlessness on January 3, in a television interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. A day earlier, a suspected Israeli missile strike had killed a senior leader of Hamas in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a bastion of Hizbollah.

It was the first such strike on Beirut since the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah. Panic spread in the country as the Lebanese worried Hizbollah’s retaliation would provoke all-out war. Asked whether the Shia militant group and political party could be restrained, Bou Habib replied: “The decision is theirs; we hope they don’t commit themselves to a larger war.”

Decisions of war and peace have long been out of the hands of the Lebanese state, going back as far as 1969, when Lebanon signed the Cairo accords, which gave Palestinian guerrilla fighters based there the latitude to use its territory to strike Israel. That would eventually lead to the devastating 1982 Israeli invasion of the country, the departure of Palestinian fighters and leaders, the creation of Hizbollah and the 17-year-long Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.

After the civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon’s fate in effect lay in the hands of its masters in Syria, an ally of Iran. Then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad often used Hizbollah to negotiate with Israel by fire via Lebanon. Today, Damascus is a vassal of Tehran, while Hizbollah has grown into a powerful, heavily armed regional paramilitary force, working closely with Iran.

A day after Bou Habib’s interview, Hizbollah’s answer came. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned Israel that if it launched a war against Lebanon, Hizbollah would fight back hard. In other words, a strike against a Hamas leader in the heart of a Hizbollah-controlled area in the Lebanese capital did not yet qualify as a declaration of war. Nasrallah also opened the door to dialogue to bring an end to three months of cross-border clashes.

On cue, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, sent a letter to the UN signalling his country’s readiness to implement UN resolution 1701, which stipulates that only government and UN forces be present along Lebanon’s border with Israel. It also requires Israel to refrain from incursions into Lebanese airspace and territory.

But the question of who decides war and peace is not the only conundrum facing Lebanon. Timing is another. Nasrallah said dialogue would only be possible after the end of the war in Gaza. Mikati then repeated that line. Israel has made clear it will no longer tolerate the threat posed by Hizbollah on its northern border, but Washington has repeatedly cautioned the Israelis against launching a wider offensive against Lebanon.

In December, Israeli officials warned that the window for a diplomatic solution was six to eight weeks. Will that coincide with a decrease in the intensity of Israel’s campaign in Gaza sufficient to allow Nasrallah credibly to tell his followers that the war is over and dialogue can proceed?

Adding to the complexity is the fact Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year. Declaring war may not be within the remit of the Lebanese state, but signing off on peace, or at least a durable cessation of hostilities, will require constitutionally mandated, legitimate leadership.

Lebanon is a small country with a bankrupt economy that carries no weight as a regional player. Yet in a country that has always been a proxy battleground, the posts of president and prime minister are subject to intense bargaining. Regional powers such as Iran or Saudi Arabia use this to project influence or protect their interests, while Lebanon’s political leaders play along, waiting to see which way the regional winds are blowing.

Suleiman Franjieh, scion of a prominent Christian family from the north and friend of Bashar al-Assad, was the declared presidential candidate of those aligned with Iran long before the war in Gaza. They will now push again for their candidate, arguing he can bring quiet to the border if he is elected. The opposition had previously nominated Jihad Azour, a senior official at the IMF and former finance minister. But a third, undeclared candidate is Lebanon’s army chief, Joseph Aoun, a likely favourite of Washington. His election would indicate that a wider regional settlement is in the offing once the war in Gaza winds down.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese, feeling powerless, are left asking the same question every day: “Shoo, fi harb?” So, is there war?

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