Home inFocus Israel: Flourishing Under Fire (Summer 2021) Lebanon’s Crisis and Its Impact on Israel

Lebanon’s Crisis and Its Impact on Israel

Yochanan Visser Summer 2021
Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. (Photo: khamenei.ir)

Editor’s Note: Since the Port of Beirut explosion in 2020, Lebanese the currency has lost 90 per cent of its value, inflation has driven more than half the population below the poverty line, the country has defaulted on its debts, and banks have all but cut clients off from their dollar deposits. Scenes of shoppers brawling over scarce goods, protesters burning tires to block roads, and hundreds of shuttered businesses are commonplace. And Israel is Lebanon’s neighbor.

The unprecedented economic, political, and social crisis in Lebanon seems to worsen every day and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab gives the impression it has no clue what to do to tackle the country’s myriad problems.

Lebanon is “in the heart of great danger” and needs friendly countries to save it, Diab said in June in a televised address to the nation. “Either you save it (Lebanon) now before it’s too late or else no regrets will help… I call on political powers to present concessions, and those will be small no matter how big they may seem. Only that will alleviate the suffering of the Lebanese and stop this frightening path.” 

Diab has been leading the caretaker government since his cabinet resigned in the aftermath of the Beirut port blast on August 4, 2020. The giant explosion devastated large swathes of the Lebanese capital and killed hundreds of people while injuring thousands. To get an idea just how dire the current situation is, you only have to read an interview with Michel Aboud the President of Caritas Lebanon.

Aboud reported a chronic shortage of medicines and medical equipment in Lebanon. “We can always find a piece of bread – that is not lacking – but not having medicine is terrible. Hospitals can’t pay doctors or operate equipment. We are in a critical situation, and we don’t want to die while waiting for a solution to our problems.”

Aboud’s statement about “always finding a piece of bread” must be taken with a grain of salt.

Less than a year ago a food crisis began in the Cedar country, once a hub of prosperity in the Middle East that attracted many tourists and businessmen. The existing food crisis was greatly exacerbated after the government raised the price of bread for the first time in a decade in July 2020. In one fell swoop, bread prices rose 33 percent, causing a run on supermarkets as people tried to stock up on essential food items.

The food crisis led Al-Makhazen Coop, the largest food retailer in Lebanon, to close its branches in Beirut.

The crisis worsened further in June 2021, with many petrol stations running out of fuel. This lack of fuel, in turn, caused electricity blackouts. Lebanese residents tried to obtain generators but without fuel, if was pointless. Diab then turned to the Iraqi government and asked for help – which he received when Bagdad agreed to deliver a portion of the needed fuel. 

This exposed the real problem in Lebanon. Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is the defacto leader of Lebanon and without his consent nothing happens or will change in the country. Hezbollah’s dominance is a huge problem, but the Lebanese government and military don’t have the means, or in many cases the will, to act against the heavily armed Iranian proxy. 

Nasrallah intervened in the energy crisis and announced that he would request the necessary oil shipments from the Iranian regime. 

Israel’s Concerns & International Diplomacy

Israel is increasingly concerned that Hezbollah and Iran will use Lebanon’s massive economic and social crisis to take over the country completely and then prepare for a massive multi-front attack on the Jewish state. The expanding internal crisis accounts for the Israeli government’s recent diplomatic offensive in Europe and in Russia.

In March, outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Aviv Kochavi, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), arrived in Europe to speak with European leaders about the growing threat from Iran through Hezbollah.

They spoke with German President Frank Walter Steinmeier and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The Israeli delegation was also in France, where Rivlin and Kochavi spoke with President Emmanuel Macron. France has a historic role in Lebanon as its colonial ruler, and French governments have maintained close ties with Beirut. Macron has spent months trying to mediate between the parties to establish a stable government in the crisis-ridden country. However, he now gives the impression that he has given up his effort to find a solution. 

While Rivlin and Kochavi were in Germany, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi flew to Moscow to discuss the same subject with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. 

The Russian Foreign Minister had received a high Hezbollah delegation two days before he met with Ashkenazi. He spoke with Mohammed Raad, leader of the Hezbollah bloc in the Lebanese parliament, and urged him to agree to the formation of a new government under the leadership of Sa’ad Hariri, who had previously served as Lebanon’s Prime Minister. But it is Raad’s Hezbollah bloc that has been blocking the formation of a government since the port explosion.

Hezbollah and its Shiite allies have held up the formation of a technocratic government led by Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, because they do not want to lose control. They continue their obstructionism to this day, putting up new obstacles to undermine any progress made in political discussions. The situation remains stuck now over Shiite opposition to a proposal to appoint two Christian politicians to ministerial posts in the new cabinet.

Influential Lebanese leaders outside the government have tried to resolve the deadlock by organizing meetings with members of the political parties, but their efforts have been in vain thus far.

Undermining Regional Stability

Hezbollah’s manipulation of this enormous crisis is designed to gain total dominance, threatening not only the Lebanese people and Israel, but also regional stability. This is the conclusion drawn not only by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs but also by the United Nations (UN), which published a comprehensive report on the situation. The report plainly states that Iran is continuing its destructive role in the region by providing financial support to Hezbollah as well as through weapons and training of Hezbollah terrorists.

The UN report further describes the situation in southern Lebanon and criticized Hezbollah for the continued violation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended The Second Lebanon War in 2006, and called on the (non-existent) Lebanese government to take measures that will allow the UNIFIL peacekeeping force to do its job. According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Hezbollah constantly hinders UNIFIL in the performance of its duties under Resolution 1701:

I call upon the Government of Lebanon to take all actions necessary to ensure the full implementation of the relevant provisions of the Taif Accords and of resolutions 1559 (2004) and 1680 (2006), which require the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon so that there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than those of the Lebanese State.

The terror organization uses the pseudo environmental protection organization “Green Without Borders” to block UNIFIL investigations into Hezbollah’s illegal activities on the border with Israel. IDF intelligence officers believe Iran and Nasrallah will further exploit the situation in Lebanon to carry out their plan to eventually transform Lebanon into a base from which to attack Israel.

The understanding that Iran and Hezbollah may find no serious international pushback to their attempt to take over Lebanon – and that the catastrophic situation there could end in a scenario like the one that occurred in Syria – was the reason for Rivlin, Kochavi, and Ashkenazi’s trips to Europe and Russia. 

As Lebanon continues to slide toward disaster, Iran and Hezbollah make their intention to control the country even more clear and their threats against anyone pushing for reform in Lebanon more obvious. In a recent speech from his bunker, Nasrallah even threatened the Lebanese citizens who have long protested the dire economic situation. It was, therefore, no coincidence that a number of IDF intelligence officers recently published an article in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

The officers wrote that the IDF knows everything about Nasrallah, and that the Hezbollah leader knows this. The article was clearly intended as a warning to Nasrallah: Do not go too far! According to a description of the article, Nasrallah is “obsessed with reading Israeli media coverage, with his image in Israel and in Lebanon in general and with maintaining extraordinary levels of micromanagement and control of the Lebanese state.”

The Hamas War 

The recent war in southern Israel also showed that Iran, via its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, pulled the strings. Hamas receives $30 million from Iran every month while Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) openly admits that it is a de facto branch of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Both terror organizations in Gaza received sophisticated weapons from Iran and their operatives are trained by Iranian officers in the local production of rockets and missiles. In fact, there was a so-called “war room” in Beirut during the conflict where IRGC officers together with Hezbollah and Hamas operatives coordinated the battle against Israel.

Hezbollah was indeed careful not to go too far by opening a second front in northern Israel, but it was involved in the war effort by shipping weapons and ammunition to Hamas and by provoking Israel via Iranian-backed Palestinian factions in Lebanon and, Syria. Those militias were responsible for the three times that rockets were fired at northern Israel during the eleven-day war.

Hezbollah operatives, furthermore, led the demonstrations against the IDF near Metullah in northeast Israel. During these clashes, the Israeli army killed one Hezbollah terrorist.

Lebanese Frustration

The Iranians and Hezbollah are exploiting the crisis by doing nothing to alleviate the dire situation at home and by blocking the formation of a government that could be able to work to put things in order. Such a government is essential to receiving foreign aid and obtaining a gigantic IMF loan, which in turn might “save Lebanon,” as Diab put it.

The Lebanese people, meanwhile, are fed up with the total collapse of their country and have taken to the streets again. In June, protesters in various parts of the country blocked roads even amid fears that the Lebanese Army (LAF) would use force or even live fire to reopen the more important intersections. They are becoming more desperate by the day but have no one to turn to.

This leads us to the question where the United States is in this whole drama.

The American Role

The Trump Administration had wanted to up the pressure on Hezbollah and Iran and so put more sanctions on members of Hezbollah. So far, the Biden Administration has not lifted these sanctions. However, the Biden State Department also expressed the view that it wants to maintain “cordial ties” with Lebanon and appears to have given Europe the lead on how to deal with the Lebanese crisis and “fix” the failed state.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been in Europe, where he discussed what to do with Lebanon as long as it has no functioning government. Massive foreign aid is made conditional by both Europe and the U.S. on political and economic reforms – something that will not happen anytime soon.

But while aid appears to be off the table for now and sanctions remain, the Biden Administration has allowed the sale of seven fast patrol boats to Lebanon to go forward. The official explanation for this sale is that it will allow the Lebanese government to “stop smugglers.” 

It should be understood that the smuggling of goods and medicines is an industry for Hezbollah and that Washington expects that these fast patrol boats will be manned by members of the Lebanese Army (LAF) in opposition to Hezbollah. The LAF, however, cannot be seen as a reliable partner for the United States, as its members have a long history of corruption and collaboration with Hezbollah.

A recent report by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, furthermore, showed that the LAF has no less than 400 generals who upon retirement “receive a one-time six-figure pension payout, as well as a monthly stipend and a car, driver, and free gas in perpetuity.”

Former Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker, who wrote the report, noted that:

Watching Lebanon’s continued deterioration is difficult, but the decline is clearly attributable to what the World Bank recently described as ‘the disastrous deliberate policy inaction’ of Lebanese political elites. Washington and its partners should therefore continue using carrots and sticks to press these elites into putting their country first, while maintaining the international insistence on reform as a prerequisite for a bailout.”

In the meantime, Hezbollah gains ground, the Lebanese people suffer, and Israel worries.

Yochanan Visser is Middle East analyst for several Israeli and Dutch news outlets, including Israel Today and Israel National News.