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Lebanon’s Plight/ Continued Iranian unrest

Jul 31, 2021 | AIJAC staff

Beirut in ruins after last year's massive blast caused by explosives stored at a Hezbollah-controlled warehouse at Beirut port - an apt metaphor for the state of Lebanon as a nation (Photo: Hussein Kassir / Shutterstock.com)
Beirut in ruins after last year's massive blast caused by explosives stored at a Hezbollah-controlled warehouse at Beirut port - an apt metaphor for the state of Lebanon as a nation (Photo: Hussein Kassir / Shutterstock.com)

Update from AIJAC

07/21 #05

 

This Update deals with the situation of effective state collapse in Lebanon, how the world should react, and the implications for Israel. Also, following up on last week’s Update on the unrest in Iran, it contains a report on the latest developments in those still expanding anti-regime demonstrations and the regime’s efforts to repress them.

We lead with Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanon specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discussing the selection this week of former Lebanese PM Najib Mikati to try to form a new government to resolve the acute political and economic crisis in Lebanon. She says Mikati is being backed by Hezbollah and its allies, and there is virtually no chance that he will implement the major reforms that Lebanon desperately needs if it is to recover. Ghaddar argues that, with Hezbollah and other Lebanese elites effectively deciding that they would prefer controlling Lebanon as a failed state to sorely needed reforms that could reduce their power and privileges, the only hope is for the international community to move swiftly to sanction Lebanon’s corrupt leaders. For her complete analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Next up are two noted Israeli strategic analysts, Orna Mizrachi and Yoram Schweitzer, looking at Lebanon’s plight from the perspective of Israeli security and foreign policy interests. They note that there are two opposing views on Lebanon’s collapse in Israel –  it is bad because it will facilitate Hezbollah and Iran consolidating their existing control of the country; or alternatively, it distracts and weakens Hezbollah, thus preventing it from taking hostile action against Israel. They counsel Israeli leaders to follow a two-pronged policy – seeking to encourage and facilitate Western aid to Lebanon to help support anti-Hezbollah forces, while also working to weaken and contain Hezbollah, especially by cutting off the military and economic support it gets from Iran. For more on why they think this is Jerusalem’s best approach and how it can be pursued,  CLICK HERE.

Meanwhile, an informed look at policy options regarding Lebanon for the US comes from David Schenker, a former senior official now at the Washington Institute (and recent AIJAC webinar guest), in recent testimony to the US Congress.

Finally, as noted above, we have an update on the state of the ongoing protests in Iran in an unsigned piece from Al-Monitor. In essence, anti-regime protests sparked by water shortages and that were originally mainly confined to the petroleum-rich, Arabic-speaking western province of Khuzestan, are now spreading across the country. This is occurring despite major repression from the regime, leading to at least 8 deaths, and reported efforts to shut down or limit the internet in parts of Iran. For all the important details,  CLICK HERE.

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A Mikati Government Will Not Save Lebanon

by Hanin Ghaddar

New Lebanese PM-designate Najib Mikati – who has been PM twice before and is close to Hezbollah – is almost certain to sidestep the serious reforms Lebanon desperately needs. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Washington Institute for Near East Policy Brief Analysis, Jul 28, 2021

Instead of resuming a shell game that the country’s beleaguered people no longer have the luxury to play, Europe and the United States should proceed with additional sanctions against corrupt leaders.

On July 26, ten days after the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, former premier Najib Mikati was chosen to form a new government in Lebanon. Claiming he enjoys international support from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, Mikati pledged that he will name a cabinet as soon as possible. Yet despite being nominated by President Michel Aoun and winning votes from 72 of parliament’s 128 members, he represents the same fundamental problem that plagued previous attempts to form a legitimate, effective government—namely, the political class persists in proposing options that represent their own elite interests rather than pursuing the serious institutional reforms the country and the people so desperately need.

Among those voting for Mikati were legislators affiliated with Hezbollah, Amal, and even Hariri’s Future Movement. The two main Christian factions—the “Lebanese Forces” party and its rival, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement—did not support him. So what has really changed, and why did Hezbollah and its allies back this particular outcome? The answer is obvious by now: they prefer controlling a failed state over allowing reforms that chip away at the power they gained in the 2018 parliamentary election.

Like the majority of the political class, Hezbollah and its allies seek to maintain the illusion that the country’s political process is still functional. Two main concerns are driving this approach: the looming EU sanctions on Lebanese leaders, and the prospects of a new round of mass protests at home. To delay this backlash at home and abroad, elites continue to stoke false hopes that an internal solution exists.

Another reason why certain parties pushed to nominate Mikati is so they can use the resultant government to manage the next parliamentary election in May 2022. Over the past two years, political elites have lost drastic amounts of public support, faced waves of protests, and watched opposition elements win various student and syndicate elections, so the outcome of next year’s vote has become their primary concern.

Thus, if Mikati is able to form a government, its mission will likely be to sidestep serious reforms, oversee the election of its hand-picked replacement, and otherwise preserve the status quo. This entails managing Lebanon’s slow-motion collapse, not reversing it. After all, Mikati is no outsider—a billionaire from Tripoli, he has always been part of the corrupt order, repeatedly using his political influence to grow his businesses and assets. Accusations against him include a 2019 charge that he illegally profited from housing loans due to deals he struck with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh. The case was not brought to trial, but the charge was never cleared either.

Moreover, Mikati has already served as prime minister twice: in 2005 and again in 2011-2013. In both cases, Hezbollah essentially imposed him on the country to serve its own interests. In January 2011, for example, he was chosen to paper over the militia’s Beirut coup—an infamous incident in which Hariri was purposefully humiliated by learning of his government’s collapse while he was in a meeting with President Obama. When Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and other factions sought to reinstate Hariri, Hezbollah dispatched additional armed members throughout the capital and outlying Druze communities. The literal and potential threat conveyed by these “Black Shirts” was clear, and Mikati was unanimously nominated soon thereafter.


When Mikati became PM in 2011, it was in the wake of an armed takeover of Beirut by Hezbollah gunmen, who essentially used intimidation to place him in office (Photo: Al Aan Arabic Television via Wikimedia Commons.). 

Given this heavy baggage of Hezbollah conditions, opposition criticism, and misplaced foreign expectations, any government formed by Mikati will ultimately be a waste of time. The international community should not wait and see if he succeeds or not, let alone whether his government will implement reforms. This game of buying time is one that Hezbollah and other elites have mastered over the years, most recently during Lebanon’s maritime border negotiations with Israel. The United States and Europe should not let Beirut use this tactic to delay punitive measures against those who perpetuate corruption or hinder reforms. Doing so would only play into Hezbollah’s hands and extend the humanitarian crisis indefinitely.

Accordingly, if the EU has decided to sanction Lebanese leaders, it needs to implement these sanctions as soon as possible. At the very least, such action would make clear to Mikati the risk of avoiding reforms. In parallel, Washington should continue using the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction additional corrupt leaders as a message of support to the Lebanese people.

Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.


Lebanon’s Collapse, and the Significance for Israel

Orna Mizrahi and Yoram Schweitzer

INSS Insight No. 1498, July 26, 2021


Hezbollah fighters in Tyre: The key debate in Israel regarding Lebanon is over whether Lebanon’s collapse is consolidating Hezbollah and Iranian control of the country, or instead distracting and weakening Hezbollah, preventing it from taking hostile action (Photo: crop media / Shutterstock.com)

 

The ongoing deterioration of Lebanon’s economy and the country’s political chaos have sharpened the dilemma of Israel’s new government as it formulates its policy on Lebanon. It appears that in any case, Israel should adopt a more proactive approach, rather than treating the negative consequences of events in Lebanon as preordained, especially in the extreme scenario of a total takeover by Hezbollah, which would turn the country into an Iranian sphere of influence, similar to Syria. Rescinding the sanctions against Iran following a possible return to the nuclear agreement by the United States may accelerate this scenario. At the same time, recent developments in Lebanon provide a potential opportunity for the IDF to deal a more substantial blow to Hezbollah’s military capabilities, and quash the attempts to forge a new “deterrence equation” that includes shooting from Lebanon in response to clashes on the Temple Mount and elsewhere in Jerusalem.

Saad Hariri’s return on July 15, 2021 of his mandate to form a government in Lebanon reflects the downward spiral in the country’s political system. Civilian distress has worsened, while the country experiences one of its worst-ever economic crises. Difficulties in earning a living have increased, and there is a severe shortage of basic consumer commodities: food, electricity, fuel, water, and medicine. Lebanon lacks the basic infrastructure that a country is supposed to provide for its people. The political system, which has been without a functioning government for a year, is almost completely paralyzed and is unable to take the decisions necessary to deal with the crisis. Lebanon’s security elements, headed by the Lebanese army, which is also suffering from the economic distress, cannot operate effectively. Hariri’s move likewise demonstrated once again the weakness and ineptitude of the rich and corrupt leadership of all of Lebanon’s communities, including Hezbollah. This leadership concentrates mainly on maintaining its power and status, while refusing to make concessions for the benefit of the Lebanese people as a whole.

There is no solution on the horizon, and there are no prospects for external help: Western countries, which have despaired of a positive response to their demand for the formation of a government and implementation of reforms as a condition for aid, are considering the imposition of sanctions against the Lebanese leadership. Russia and China are willing to help, provided they are guaranteed a return on their investment. Nasrallah’s hope of aid from Iran has yet to be fulfilled, in part due to fear in Lebanon that accepting such aid will prevent any possibility of obtaining broad international support.

An examination of the possible scenarios for developments in Lebanon provides no grounds for optimism. The most likely scenario right now is a prolonged crisis along the current lines, continued decline into complete collapse, and even a split in the country or the outbreak of a third civil war. Another extreme scenario is a total takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah and the strengthening of Iran’s grip on the country.

How might continuation of the crisis in Lebanon affect Israel? There are two main approaches in Israel to this question:

  • The primary one is that a collapse of Lebanon is bad for Israel: This approach, which reflects the assumption that Israel has an interest in a stable pro-Western Lebanon, argues that despite Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon, it does not hold a complete monopoly on power. Any further decline in Lebanon’s internal situation will strengthen Hezbollah, and is therefore liable to change the political balance in Lebanon to Israel’s detriment, primarily in the longer term. Nasrallah’s vision of turning Lebanon into another Iranian protectorate and an integral part of the Shiite axis will be realized. Already early in Lebanon’s long economic-political crisis, Nasrallah argued that the Lebanese economy should be detached from the West, and should look east and develop ties with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. He explained that Lebanon’s collapse would lead it into the warm embrace of Iran, and that Lebanon would eventually become another Iranian outpost in the region, like Syria.
  • The collapse of Lebanon is good for Israel: Those who take this approach, especially those who claim that Lebanon is already controlled by Hezbollah, believe that if the internal crisis in the countries gets worse, Hezbollah will be overcome by ailments (including a state of collapse), find it difficult to give its full attention to the conflict with Israel, and adapt a more restrained attitude to it. According to this line of thinking, even if Hezbollah is eventually moved to seize power and becomes the official hegemon in Lebanon – a step that it has scrupulously avoided until now because of the advantages in the status quo for preserving its independent military power and behind-the-scenes political influence on events in the country through its allies – this scenario is likely to serve Israel’s interests, despite its disadvantages. Furthermore, in this scenario, which implies that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are one, Israel’s freedom of action and legitimacy for operations against Lebanon will be increased, especially in a military conflict or all-out war.

These different approaches on a collapsing Lebanon prompt different ideas on the policy that Israel should adopt. A belief that Lebanon’s falling into Hezbollah hands is positive supports a policy of non-intervention; furthermore, Israel’s ability to influence events in Lebanon is very limited. Advocates of this policy argue that Israel should refrain from intervening in Lebanese internal developments, and should certainly not help Lebanon, other than through direct or indirect humanitarian aid, because any other aid will strengthen Hezbollah. Israel should therefore continue focusing its efforts on weakening Hezbollah.

The other approach holds that there is no absolute identity between Lebanon and Hezbollah, and that Israel’s interest still lies in a stable pro-Western Lebanon. While Hezbollah is currently the strongest military and political power in Lebanon, not all Lebanese support the organization, and the severe crisis afflicting the country has increased criticism of Hezbollah because of its actions in the internal theater. Israel should therefore try to support efforts that seek a way of strengthening the power groups opposing Hezbollah whom it regards as positive in order to prevent a total Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon’s state institutions and its population, with Lebanon becoming an Iranian protectorate.

This policy, of course, does not mean abandoning the political and military efforts to weaken Hezbollah.The Israeli government should update its policy on Lebanon according to a long-term perspective, and should consider the consequences of the collapse of the Lebanese state for Israel in particular, and for the region in general. Israel should adopt a proactive approach that regards the current developments in Lebanon as providing an opportunity to influence the country’s future, rather than treating Hezbollah’s dominance as preordained, especially in the extreme scenario of a takeover of the country by Hezbollah. This is not a recommendation for direct intervention by Israel in Lebanon’s internal affairs, similar to previous attempts that failed, or provision of direct aid to Lebanon. Israel’s ability to provide aid is in any case limited, because most Lebanese perceive Israel as an enemy country. All of Israel’s offers to aid the Lebanese people, including the offer by Minister of Defense Benny Gantz on July 6 to send humanitarian aid via UNIFIL, were rejected out of hand.


A tweet offering aid to Lebanon from Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz. The offer was rejected out of hand. 

It is therefore necessary to formulate a policy that will support simultaneously Israel’s two main interests that can still be advanced: the security interest in dealing with the threat posed by Hezbollah, and the interest in a stable and pro-Western neighbor on Israel’s northern border.

In order to promote the interest of a pro-Western Lebanon free of dependence on Iran, Israel needs to spur its partners in the West. This refers mainly to the United States and France, who are involved in the efforts to provide aid to Lebanon, but also Israel’s new partners in the Gulf. Israel should urge them to be more active in providing immediate aid designated for the Lebanese people, while demanding close supervision of the transfer of the aid in order to prevent its falling into the hands of Hezbollah and its supporters.

At the same time, it is particularly important to coordinate with the United States the obstruction of the channels whereby Iran transfers aid to Hezbollah, if the sanctions against Iran are rescinded following an agreement on a return to the nuclear agreement. Continued strengthening of the Lebanese army is an important interest of Israel (without supplying it with weapons that are liable to jeopardize Israel’s security), which has demonstrated until now that it is the sole entity capable of preserving internal order in the country. It is also important to consider ideas for expanding the international presence/involvement by parties that are not members of the Shiite axis (the United States and France on the one hand, and Russia, China, and possibly Turkey on the other).


The Israel-Lebanon border: It is in Israel’s interests to have  a stable and pro-Western neighbour to its north. (Photo: David Dennis / Shutterstock.com)

These efforts should be pursued concurrently with the ongoing effort to weaken Hezbollah. This includes both political undertakings – condemning Hezbollah and consolidating its classification as a terrorist organization in the international theater – and military actions.

In the military sphere, the deployment for a possible conflict on the northern border must be continued. In tandem, it is necessary to consider whether the crisis in Lebanon offers Israel an opportunity to deal a more substantial blow to Hezbollah’s capabilities, and to act with more determination to defeat the effort by Hamas, Iran, and Hezbollah to forge a new “deterrence equation” against Israel that links clashes on the Temple Mount and elsewhere in Jerusalem to firing at Israeli territory from the north, as occurred during Operation Guardian of the Walls and in the shooting incident on July 20, following the violent clash on the Temple Mount two days earlier.

Orna Mizrahi is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, and previously served 26 years in the IDF (ret. Lt. Col.) and 12 years in the National Security Council (NSC) in the Prime Minister’s Office. Yoram Schweitzer is head of the INSS Program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict. He previously had a distinguished career in the Israeli intelligence community. 


Iran protests gain momentum despite deadly crackdown

The protests that rocked the oil-rich province of Khuzestan have spread to other areas despite the government’s iron-fist response and severe internet disruptions.

Al-Monitor, July 27, 2021


In a screen grab of a video shared on social media, Iranians march and chant anti-government slogans on a street in central Teheran, July 26, 2021, as the Khuzestan demonstrations spread across the country. (Photo: Voice of America).

On their 12th day, the rallies that initially began in the Iranian oil-rich but underdeveloped province of Khuzestan attracted growing solidarity from across the country.

Videos have gone viral of demonstrations in Tehran, Karaj, Kermanshah, Isfahan and Bushehr, where protesters have been chanting slogans against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with calls for an end to the clerical ruling establishment. The videos from the city of Kermanshah also showed tense clashes between the two sides with repeated shootings in the background.

In most of the rallies, the protesters also chanted, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my soul for Iran,” a slogan, that has resurfaced in almost all anti-government protests in Iran since the 2009 post-election unrest. It has served as sharp criticism against the Islamic Republic’s regional policies that have cost Iranian lives and Tehran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East.

According to an Amnesty International tally, at least eight people have been killed in the recent demonstrations that began with anger over mismanagement of water resources in Khuzestan. However, the region’s blistering unemployment, extreme poverty and the state’s political repression against the ethnic Arab population have also help stir up the growing outrage.

Top Iranian officials, including the supreme leader and President Hassan Rouhani, have given limited recognition to the protests in Khuzestan. In the latest, parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said there were “shortcomings and mismanagement” for which “I have no justification.”

Apart from the mass arrests at the site of the rallies, reports have circulated about night raids in which local activists are rounded up, bundled into security vehicles and taken to unknown locations. And on July 27, Iran’s police chief told reporters that “some of the riot leaders have been identified.” In past instances, such protesters have appeared before state TV cameras “confessing” to their links with the enemies of the Islamic Republic.


Protests in Khuzestan, Iran’s main oil-producing region, have continued on a daily basis for almost three weeks over severe water shortages, even as protests have also spread to the rest of the country (Screencapture/Twitter)

In response to the fast-growing protests, Iranian authorities have also severely slowed down internet connections in an attempt to block the release of user content material to foreign media outlets.

Reacting to the stifling environment, a group of 50 independent Iranian journalists, in a statement, condemned “the silencing of the legitimate protests in Khuzestan and the media, which are attempting to offer an accurate narrative of the agony.”

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