Lebanon Stands at the Abyss
JNS.org – For months, Lebanon has been enduring a dire economic situation. Its middle class has been wiped out. The country finds itself in extreme poverty, with the former middle class making up part of the 50% of Lebanese who have fallen into poverty in the last year. Today, Lebanon experiences shortages in every aspect of life: empty gasoline stations, barely a few hours of electricity a day, no baby formula, cancellation of night landings at the Beirut International Airport for lack of electricity on the runways, and no medical supplies, forcing hospitals to refuse admissions and close clinics. Physicians are leaving the country by the hundreds, as are all those who can afford to flee.
With formidable inflation accompanied by an almost 100% depreciation of the Lebanese lira in relation to the US dollar, the army has been raising funds by providing tourists with $150 10-minute rides on army helicopters! Campaigns to raise money from donor countries brought little assistance, other than 150 tons of fish from Senegal, which was distributed solely to the presidential guard.
Oil products imported by Lebanon’s government find their way to Syria where they are sold, and the monies land in the coffers of Hezbollah. Medicines are imported by Hezbollah from Syria and Iran and sold on the black market without any quality control or supervision. Hezbollah enjoys the porous borders, sending pomegranates to Saudi Arabia filled with amphetamines and other drugs.
Lebanon’s central bank is out of reserves, which prevents the importation of goods and subsidization of basic food products. Lebanese are allowed, under very severe restrictions, to draw US dollars from their bank accounts. Withdrawals are limited to $100 per week.
Lebanon has reached the precipice, and at present there is no safety net to prevent the fall.
The only political body able to float above this dangerous wave is Hezbollah, because of the financial backing it receives from Iran. Its institutions have transformed into a parallel state that provides food, medicine, hospitals, education, and gasoline for its followers. With undisputable powers in the Lebanese political system, Hezbollah, since August 2020, has managed to block all attempts by prime minister-designate Saad Hariri to form a government. Hezbollah is preparing for a takeover of the political system.
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz proposed the extension of humanitarian assistance to Lebanon on July 6, 2021. “As an Israeli, as a Jew, and as a human being, my heart aches seeing the images of people going hungry on the streets of Lebanon,” said Gantz.
No answer has come from across the border.
It is obvious that Israel cannot offer a major assistance package to Lebanon. Doing so is beyond its capabilities. However, as it did in Lebanon in the 1970s and at the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Israel can open the “Good Fence,” nicknamed the “Fatma Gate,” near Metula and offer medical assistance through a field hospital and allow humanitarian goods to flow into Lebanon through the conduit of UNIFIL. In addition to the public relations value of such a move, it would also allow Israel to revive its historic contact with the population of South Lebanon, who may dare to challenge Hezbollah and accept Israeli assistance because of the dire economic and humanitarian circumstances.
Israel is not enough
The solution is not to be found in a small gesture presented by Lebanon’s southern neighbor. Lebanon is facing (especially in its northern part) a state of insurgency and civil war. Militias have taken to the streets, and the army has been chased from the streets of Tripoli. All over Lebanon, roadblocks have been established, and demonstrations and angry protests express the Lebanese despair and powerlessness to survive this unprecedented crisis. Lebanon’s body politic has proven to be incapable of finding a solution.
The Lebanese confessional (consociational) political formula has failed: first created in 1958, amended after 15 years of civil war in 1990, and today obsolete. The system must be refurbished, renovated, replaced by something new, innovative, and adapted to the reality of the 21st century. Lebanese politicians, who are, in fact, chiefs of ethnic and religious tribes, have to leave the political scene and allow a massive reform in the body politic.
If Lebanon is to be saved before it sinks in an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, the international community must step in. Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, appealed to the international community and the United Nations on July 6 to do just that. The powers of the present Lebanese government and president should be commandeered and replaced with the power vested in a UN Security Council resolution for a High Commissioner to rule Lebanon for a set period. This will allow the establishment of a different technocratic government and system of governance and enable the world community to extend economic and financial assistance.
This High Commissioner would be assisted by a massive military presence that would impose — at the price of a military confrontation — the disarmament of all militias, first and foremost Hezbollah. Without the neutralization of the Hezbollah military machine, it is doubtful that such a reform can be implemented.
Such a precedent occurred in Kosovo, where peace finally was established after the military intervention of NATO forces. For those who doubt the capability to confront Hezbollah, one has to remember that Hezbollah is not the Taliban, and Lebanon, with all due respect, is not Iraq or Afghanistan. All in all, it is a land of 10,452 square kilometers, half the size of Israel, Wales, or New Hampshire.
IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly foreign policy adviser to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.