Israel's Lebanon Border

In the wake of this summer’s war in the North, a new urgency has been added to the crucial question of the type of long-term border regime Israel wants to create with Lebanon. Both countries must move beyond the coping mechanisms of past years, which are no longer relevant.

Deborah Housen-Couriel, Jerusalem Report 10/30/06

The issue of Israel's territorial entity and specifically the nature of its borders remains a core strategic issue nearly 60 years after independence. The question of borders is at its most acute in Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority. Yet in the wake of this summer’s war in the North, a new urgency has been added to the crucial question of what kind of a long-term border regime Israel wants to create with Lebanon.

It is not the physical border that is the primary issue of dispute between the countries. Rather, two other issues that are significantly more complex require focused strategic planning by decisionmakers: Israel’s need for a new doctrine of deterrence in the North,and the persistent yet problematic presence of an international force there.

In recent years, the border regime with Lebanon has been characterized by the need for military deterrence: the Israeli army’s ability to ensure that groups such as the PLO, in the 1960s and 70s, and Hizballah since then, refrain from attacks across the border. When deterrence has broken down, as was the case last summer, Israel has been compelled to intervene militarily. Yet over time, the internal and external costs of such intervention are becoming more expensive and less tolerable for Israeli society.

Moreover, the situation at the Lebanese border following this summer’s war has changed fundamentally. The deterrence paradigm of the past is no longer relevant. Not only did Hizballah wage this war as a state-within- a state, it also acted as a proxy for other regional actors (Iran and Syria) and was deeply influenced by anti-Israel and globalized terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. This proxy dynamic is a reflection of a changed regional reality, in which non-state players may have as much of a role at the border as do more traditional state actors. Israel’s doctrine of deterrence thus needs to take into account a new strategic reality, in which it is dealing with enemies that are not necessarily at its physical border, or even one border away, but rather diffuse, non-state entities.

A second characteristic of this border regime adds to its problematic nature. No Israel-Lebanon border regime has been defined without an element of international intervention, usually by means of a Security Council resolution, followed by the establishment of an international commission or force as an enforcement mechanism, such as the 1978 resolution creating UNIFIL. Yet these international buffers have neither deterred military interventions nor bolstered Lebanon’s effective control over its territory. It is unlikely that the present international force will prove to be substantially different, regardless of recent efforts to enhance the mandate supplied to “UNIFIL II.” Israeli strategic expectations must anticipate the eventual erosion of the force, which has neither a sufficiently broad mandate nor the political will to solve or even manage the strategic issues involved.

How can Israel’s strategic planners best cope with these two challenges?

Border regimes in their widest sense consist not only of military understandings, but also of the legal and administrative arrangements that regulate the relations of two political entities. These arrangements range from the physical, as in the exchange of postal bags, to the abstract, as in the mutual obligation to report on an outbreak of avian flu. But for the arrangements to be most effective, the countries involved need to maintain a stable political relationship and to carefully develop ongoing mechanisms of interaction, which even during the best of times have been minimal between Israel and Lebanon.

Yet the aftermath of this summer’s war has called into question the fundamental assumptions that governed the end of past Israel-Lebanon conflicts.

Any sustainable border regime must eventually rely on direct contacts between the two governments rather than on international forces policing buffer zones; and on the eventual coopting of proxy, non-governmental elements in Lebanon such as Hizballah, rather than military deterrence alone. An important first step might be the convening of the contemporary equivalent of the Mixed Armistice Commission that was originally envisaged in 1949: This could allow the two governments to address common border issues under third party auspices.

A second step might be direct and indirect Israeli participation in the rebuilding of post-war Lebanon. A third step, to be taken at a time in the future when Syrian influence over the Lebanese government might be minimized, would be a direct political dialogue between the leaders of both countries on the substance of both the military and the non-military border regimes.

It is essential for both Israel and Lebanon to move beyond the coping mechanisms of past years, which are no longer relevant or effective. What is at stake for Israel is the stable border regime that Israel wants and that Lebanon may, eventually, be able to provide.

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