An Israeli reserve soldier on a tank at the border with Lebanon, August 8, 2006. (MaanImages/Moti Milrod)
While it is certainly true that Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has long called for Israel’s “disappearance,” it is important to remember, especially now as the wheels of international diplomacy finally seem to turn, that Nasrallah and leading Hizbullah figures at one point accepted that a regional peace agreement involving Syria, Lebanon and Israel would end Hezbollah’s state of belligerency in the region.
Indeed, several months prior to Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000, Nasrallah publicly announced, in a leading Arab magazine, that if Syria struck a deal with Israel which ensured a full Israeli withdrawal from all Lebanese territory, “Hizbullah would relocate in the South, but [would] not have any form of security force, since it is a resistance movement whose goal is the liberation of land and not an alternative to the government.” In a subsequent interview, Nasrallah added, “We are convinced that the signing of a peace agreement will be a victory for the resistance and the rationale of resistance.”
Of course, his comments in support of the Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli peace process that was to reach its climax in Geneva in March 2000, represented a pragmatic reading of domestic and regional power dynamics. Amid a general air of accommodation created by Mohammed Khatami’s 1997 presidential win in Iran, the Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ayatollah Mohajerani had proclaimed in 1998 that, “if Israel withdraws from South Lebanon with guarantees for fixed and secure borders, there will be no further need for Hizbullah’s resistance operation there.” In an even more definitive statement in June 1999, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Walid al-Muoalim, made it clear that “Hizbullah’s [leadership] understands that every agreement accepted by Syria, Israel, and Lebanon will obligate it as well.”
With such a mutual understanding between its two powerful overseers -Syria at the time still had almost 30,000 troops in Lebanon - Hizbullah really had little choice but to accept that its stated goal of “liberating Jerusalem” might have to remain purely rhetorical in perpetuity. However, this was a position that various Party leaders had already signaled they could accept, all the more so since any Syrian-led peace deal involving the return of the occupied Golan Heights and an end to Israel’s “security zone” in South Lebanon would also have brought a full prisoner exchange, an end to Israeli over flights of Lebanon and a full disclosure of Israeli-planted landmines. In fact, Hizbullah’s main spiritual reference in Lebanon, Sayyid Muhammad Fadlallah, said as early as the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference -the ostensible beginning of the peace process - that, “If the [Arab] regimes must make peace [with Israel], the populace ought not to follow suit, should not purchase Israeli products and should not receive any Israeli tourists.” Normalization was therefore to be resisted, in theory forever; but perpetual violence did not have to be a part of that equation. Nine years later, Nasrallah would echo Fadlallah’s sentiment, saying Hizbullah would consider, “liberation of the territories [by means of a peace agreement] a victory, while [still] confronting the normalization of relations with Israel.”
The point for both Fadlallah and Nasrallah was that a Lebanese peace agreement that included Syria - since, as both argued, Lebanon was too weak on its own to wrest acceptable terms from Israel - could be accommodated within a symbolic culture of resistance. But to compel friendship, “normalization,” or, as former US negotiator Dennis Ross has termed it, “moral legitimacy” vis-a-vis Israel would simply squeeze out all resistance, leaving nothing but humiliation to account for 18 years of perceived Israeli injustices in Lebanon.
Given this, it is thus misleading to isolate a 1999 statement by Nasrallah, as Tim Russert did recently on Meet the Press, where the Hizbullah leader said: “There is no solution to the conflict in this region except with the disappearance of Israel. … Peace settlements will not change reality, which is that Israel is the enemy and that it will never be a neighbor or a nation.” Citing this statement alone as prima facia proof that Hizbullah would never accept peace elides how Hizbullah’s thinking would change over the next critical 12 months. It also misses how Hizbullah might turn violent resistance into non-violent protest - that is, without provoking an open-ended war in Lebanon and possibly beyond.
Of course, the overarching issue left unaddressed is one that is at the heart of the current conflict: if a successful conclusion in March 2000 to years of negotiations between Syria, the US and Israel would have ended the Hizbullah military threat, why then did the “Syrian track” collapse?
One particularly frank response was provided recently, just days after the events of July 12, by Uri Sagi, who headed the IDF Intelligence Corps in the early 1990s and who often led Israeli negotiations with Syria. As he put it to his Haaretz interviewer, “The United States did not stand by its word to [Syrian President Hafez] Assad and [Israeli Premier Ehud] Barak got cold feet at the last minute.”
Sagi’s assessment is directed at what has become a classic demonstration of Israeli intransigence and shortsightedness. As a part of his last, best offer to return the Golan Heights seized from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war, Barak refused to give Assad sovereignty over the northeast corner of Lake Tiberius, a major source of freshwater in an increasingly parched region. Syrians could visit the lake as “tourists” but not as citizens in their own land, Barak maintained, since Israeli sovereignty would extend at points hundreds of meters deep from the shoreline.
Shaking his head, an exasperated, dying Assad would tell President Clinton in Geneva upon hearing the offer: The Israelis “do not want peace.”
Sadly, it now seems as though Assad may have been right û not necessarily in the morality of his claim, a point of considerable debate, but in its practical import.
Israel may have succeeded in maintaining full control over all of Lake Tiberius, not to mention all of the Golan, but it certainly lost its best opportunity for meaningfully containing the growing threat which Hizbullah had already come to represent in March of 2000.
Six years on, that tradeoff is one which Israelis and Lebanese are now paying a heavy price for.
Nicholas Noe is the founder of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com, a news translation service covering the Arabic and Persian media. He is currently editing a collection of translated speeches by Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.