Exclusive: Should Israel distinguish between Hezbollah and Lebanon?

“I think by putting pressure on Lebanon, we’ll put pressure on Hezbollah,” Prof. Eyal Zisser said. 

By David Isaac, World Israel News

When confronting Hezbollah, Israel has followed a policy of distinguishing between the Iran-backed terror group and the Lebanese state. However, for over 10 years Hezbollah has been part of Lebanon’s government. Hezbollah currently holds 12 seats in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament.

Hezbollah has been called “a state within a state” and in many instances calls the shots. On Wednesday, Axios reported that the U.S. is threatening to veto funding to the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon because Hezbollah is controlling what it can and cannot do.

Eyal Zisser, vice rector, Tel Aviv University, and professor for Middle Eastern Studies, has written and pondered the question of Lebanon for decades. He recently spoke with World Israel News about the issue.

Q: On the day of the explosion in Lebanon, you had a hard-hitting piece in the daily paper Israel Hayom calling for an end to Israel’s policy of separating Hezbollah from Lebanon. Help our readers understand – why is treating Hezbollah and Lebanon as separate an “artificial distinction” in your words?

“Israeli policy was always – in regard to Syria, Jordan – that the regime is fully responsible. Israel is not after any small group. It’s after the regime. The regime has the responsibility. In the Syrian case it works. The regime keeps the border quiet. In the Jordanian case it works when King Hussein decides he wants to keep the border quiet. In the Lebanese case in the ’70s it didn’t work because Israel applied pressure and the Lebanese system collapsed. The result was that Israel said ‘Maybe with Lebanon there’s no use putting any pressure.’ This is on the one hand.

On the other hand, there was always the argument that many Lebanese do not like Hezbollah and we should encourage them. This was also the policy of the Americans, the French: ‘Eventually, with the help of those Lebanese,we can push Hezbollah back so there’s no use turning them against you and putting pressure on them because anyhow they are against Hezbollah so we should make them stronger.’ But in reality it’s not the case because Hezbollah became part of the Lebanese government and part of the Lebanese system. All those Lebanese who say they are against Hezbollah actually work with it and cooperate with it, and I think by putting pressure on Lebanon, we’ll put pressure on Hezbollah.”

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Q: Why then is Israel’s government eager to keep making the distinction between Lebanon and Hezbollah?

“First of all, it’s maybe because of American and Western pressure and because, you know, it’s hard for the government, for the defense establishment to realize that the reality has changed.”

Q: When did the reality change?

“I think in the last 20 years. Hezbollah joined the government. They became established. They became a political and social power. They integrated into the Lebanese system. They allied themselves with other Lebanese sectors.”

Q: Do you think Israel’s position is changing? Israel warned Lebanon that if Hezbollah attacks, Lebanese infrastructure will be targeted. IDF’s Chief of Staff recently called for plans to be drawn up to target key Lebanese sites.

“Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Q: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many Israeli politicians offered aid. Should Israel have extended aid to Lebanon?

“It’s a humanitarian issue. There was a catastrophe. I don’t see anything bad in offering aid to civilians. It’s not a conflict between Israelis and Lebanese. It’s Hezbollah, and the Lebanese aren’t strong enough to resist. It’s not as if Israel has any interest in turning it into a deadly, endless war with the Lebanese.”

Q: You said before the Beirut explosion that Hezbollah is at its lowest point ever and Israel should exploit the group’s current weakness to impose on it new rules of the game. What specifically should Israel do to counter Hezbollah?

“Hezbollah imposed a rule that whenever one of its soldiers, or members, is killed in Syria, it will retaliate along the border with Lebanon. It’s unacceptable. Israel is a superpower and if it decides it cannot allow Hezbollah to rearm, if Hezbollah retaliates that’s something Israel shouldn’t accept.”

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Q: Who is on top? You say Hezbollah is at its lowest point but it seems to be the one dictating the rules.

“It’s poker and eventually someone needs to make the move, and Israel hesitates. I spent my whole life on Lebanon but the prime minister has other problems.”

Q: If you held the poker hand, what would you specifically do now?

“To make it very clear to Hezbollah that if by mistake some member of its group is killed in Syria, Israel cannot accept an attack on its soil from Lebanon.”

Q: What is Israel getting right in its fight against Hezbollah?

“Israel is following Hezbollah very carefully. It’s ensuring that the border is quiet. It’s deterring Hezbollah…. Israeli deterrence works.”

Q: You’ve written that Israel should consider the Lebanese Army as a legitimate target. Would that lead to a wider war with Lebanon?

“No, I don’t think so. First of all, even in Syria we don’t attack the palace of Bashar [al-Assad]. We don’t attack the headquarters of the Syrian Army. We speak about positions along the border. It’s something very limited. It’s a poker game.”

Q: Does past experience support your view that Lebanon should be targeted? In the Second Lebanon War Israel did target some Lebanese infrastructure. What was the impact on the Lebanese government?

“No, not at all. Not even one Lebanese infrastructure.”

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Q: My understanding is they targeted roads.

“Yes, the roads but the idea was they were not after Lebanon, they were after Hezbollah that tried to use them to move the bodies of the Israeli soldiers or bring ammunition, so the idea was not to [hit] Lebanon.”

Q: In Beirut, protests after the blast blamed Hezbollah. Nasrallah has denied Hezbollah had anything to do with the stored material that blew up at the port. Do you think Hezbollah was responsible?

“I really don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see if Hezbollah has stores of weapons there. I really don’t know.”

Q: You wrote that the sight of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hanging in effigy shouldn’t be downplayed and that it may signal the beginning of the end for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“It’s a long process, clearly not today, tomorrow.”

Q: Is Lebanon capable of detaching itself from Hezbollah? What would it take in your opinion?

“The Shiites themselves will have to decide that Hezbollah is not leading them anywhere.”

Q: What did most Lebanese think of Hezbollah and Nasrallah before the explosion?

“Many Lebanese are not happy with Hezbollah but what they can do?”

Q: The Lebanese government has resigned but you’ve written that because “Lebanon is an ethnic and clan-based country, divided and splintered,” new elections will lead to the same results as before. What will it take to break the cycle?

“It’s a society divided into ethnic groups. You can’t change such a country just like that. I doubt whether it can happen in our lifetime.”