Nicholas Noe is the co-founder of Mideastwire.com and the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. He’s also the author of “Re-Imagining the Lebanon Track” (a Century Foundation white paper [pdf]) and a frequent commentator on Hizbullah and Lebanese political affairs.
Despite the fact that he has made his views clear in a variety of publications (from The New York Times to Tablet Magazine), he kindly agreed to rehash them with the QN readership in an exclusive interview.
This topic always tends to generate lots of debate, and I hope you won’t hold back this time either with your remarks, observations, and criticisms in the comment section. Perhaps Nick will sign up to address some of them in a second installment next week.
PS: If you haven’t yet checked out the Mideastwire blog, I highly recommend that you subscribe to the RSS feed, as it provides lots of translated content from various Arab news outlets on a daily basis for free.
QN: On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely would you say it is that there will be another Israel-Lebanon war within the next two years? What would precipitate such a development?
NN: Two years is a very long time so I would say we are at the higher edge of probability of another war in that time frame (I personally think it will be hard for Israel to go to war before the Iron Dome is fully operational by the end of this year, thanks to the Obama emergency appropriation of $200 million last month). The only thing I see stopping this is some bold moves by the Obama administration in the next year because absent that, the other actors seem far less able and/or willing to take the necessary risks to prevent conflict.
What could spark it off? Its not worth speculating on specifics simply because there are, right now, so many different ways another conflict could be sparked off. The key danger is that for both Israel and Hizbullah specifically (the latter being but one part of the Resistance Axis), there are just so many ways by which they could get into another conflict with the relatively supportive national consensus both need. (If you believe Hizbullah would want to get involved should Israel hit the Iranian nuclear program, then Hizbullah only needs to shoot down one of the many manned overflights by the IAF in violation of UNSCR 1701 and international law generally – as but one of several scenarios – and M14 and other opponents domestically would not be able to say much after the heavy Israeli response and the full commitment by Hizbullah.)
QN: In a variety of publications, you’ve argued that the West needs to approach Hizbullah differently than it currently does. In brief, what are the outlines of this approach? (Imagine you were stuck in an elevator with Defense Secretary Robert Gates for one minute, and he asked you to tell him whether and how the U.S. should engage with Hizbullah. What would you say?)
NN: A new approach – it would probably look a lot like the “Team Red” exercise revealed yesterday by Mark Perry at Foreign Policy magazine! The contours are known: Only the Lebanese generally and the Shia specifically can integrate Hizbullah fully under the control of the Lebanese state. This would take as a first step:
1) removing the immediate possible flashpoints that ANYONE could use to spark a war – get the Israelis to shove the Shebba and Ghajar and Kfar Shouba hills over to the Syrian Ledger and off the OCCUPATION Ledger;
2) Stop these ridiculous manned overflights and replace them immediately with drones – recognizing that a) we now know from leaked documents to Haaretz that the overflights are mostly to scare the Europeans and Lebanese government into restraining Hizbullah and are not mainly about intel gathering and b) Israel now has one of the best spy satellites in the sky and could be enhanced further in its gathering capabilities by US cooperation etc.
3) Begin a UNIFIL/UN inspired process to expand and publicize the Tripartite Committee arrangement that already exists (i.e. Hizbullah and Israel are actually in proximity talks already on the border every time an incident happens!) This could look like another public commitement by Hizbullah (with a credible monitoring process – perhaps by expanding Tripartite to include Qatar? Turkey? Egypt? Germany?) to the terms of the April Understanding of 1996 that proved, even according to Israeli accounts, so successful in mitigating conflict. Remember – on the first day of the July 2006 war, Nasrallah called for returning to the terms of the April Understanding! I.e. let’s have both sides get into a process where the Dahiye Doctrine AND the Tel Aviv Doctrine are publicly walked away from.
Then – convening a Doha Two conference that would have Arab states funding a credible Lebanese army that could credibly defend Lebanese population centers etc. i.e. having the US accept a new QME between Israel and the actual STATE of Lebanon or, in other words, not vetoing arms transfers for SAMs, as but one example, that are deployed to defend the major Lebanese cities. (This is very hard because, of course, last year the US congress in all its wisdom mandated that there can be NO alteration in the QME between Israel and its Arab neighbors!)
Then – the US and EU and Arab allies fully supporting and pushing for a re-jiggering of the confessional system that integrates the Shiites more fully into the “legit” Lebanese state. This means working on the Grand Lebanese bargain which is now fairly clear: the Shiites cannot have their own private army, but the other sects cannot have exclusive hold to power positions in the state (army head, PM etc). What really needs to happen here is simple: expand on the FPM’s original 2006 deal with Hizbullah which for the first time set a horizon and terms on the weapons of the resistance. This needs to be laid out as part of a domestic grand bargain.
That all said – the problem with these steps is that I don’t think they ALONE will convince the Israelis or DC anymore that this is all worth the risks (although I would argue the risks of the current “non” approach are still far greater) – they could have worked and been convincing in 2005 when the Bush folks were on the cusp of gradually and peacefully integrating Hizbullah into the state, and perhaps in 2008 when Obama took office – if the actors had had the ability to see beyond their ideological constructs.
But now, with Hizbullah and the Resistance Axis so strong (or, with them at least believing they are so much stronger now) it would certainly take a peace deal with Israel and Syria to make this Lebanon track process credible in the Beltway(s) I think…. Remember in 2000 the Lebanon and Syrian tracks were one – but the US and Israel missed the boat.
The US and Israel seem to be hewing towards the maximalist position as always, though – which means, obtusely, that since there is clearly not 100% certainty that a peace deal between Syria and Israel would immediately disarm Hizbullah, then it’s a non starter.
QN: Can we speak of a common agenda behind the Resistance Axis, or is this just a convenient label that unites very different players?
NN: There is a common agenda – but of course it masks all the wedges and difference that really do exist. One sees that even in the simple exchanges that one has with the Resistance Axis actors themselves; i.e. this is not something that is very well concealed.
BUT the key problem is that these differences (these potential “wedges” to use US electoral-speak) have all been and are still being sublimated as a result of action and non actions by the opposed actors who just keep on delivering more reasons for the Resistance Axis to gel and strengthen. What is happening with Turkey is only one particularly glaring example of this ridiculous situation where “great” powers keep on shooting themselves in the foot.
Of course, the US has mostly been doing that for 60 plus years in the Middle East – the problem is that the bill is starting to come due and we don’t seem to have the credit to keep the party going much longer.
QN: Suppose Israel were to offer to withdraw from Ghajar and Shebaa and end its overflights over Lebanon in exchange for a peace treaty (provided that Hizbullah recognized Israel and agreed to turn over its arms to the Lebanese Army.) Do you think Hizbullah would agree to such a Lebanon-specific deal? Or is a larger agreement over the Golan a prerequisite?
NN: The way you sketched out the terms of the deal means that Hizbullah SAYS no and, far more importantly, is NOT compelled to say YES by its own constituency or the Lebanese in general.
I would argue that the real balance of power has shifted to such a degree that at this point that we (the US, Israel and its allies) would have to probably give up more now to fatally undermine the Resistance Axis’s rationale, desire and ability to exercise violence against our interests.
The bet that Nasrallah is making though – and I think he is right (though I wish he was not) is that as a Settlement Axis, we are probably not capabable of making such conessions – even though I think there are many convincing reasons why a policy of preemptive concessions would work to our interests, broadly defined.
For some time the US and Israel have been the preponderant powers in the region and, for us, the world. Have we learned the lessons of the decline of historic powers? That an enormously preponderant state can and should use its power sometimes to strategically concede to lesser powers – and that this action might be a sign of strength rather than, as the neocons still argue, weakness?