Can France bring stability to Lebanon in crisis?

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Emmanuel Macron, image via Wikipedia BESA Center Perspectives Paper n ° 1746, September 14, 2020

SUMMARY: France’s long-standing diplomatic involvement in Lebanon aimed to promote Lebanese stability, sovereignty and democracy, but it failed to achieve any of these goals. As long as Paris continues to view Hezbollah as an integral part of the democratic life of Lebanon and denies that it is a terrorist organization controlling Lebanon with a private army, its ability to stabilize Lebanon will remain weak to zero.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon on September 1, 2020, officially to mark the centenary of the country’s independence, but also to follow up on his spontaneous visit shortly after the disastrous explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4. Macron has promised an economic and medical emergency. assistance, held the Lebanese government accountable for Lebanon’s woes and called for a new pact between the government and its people. On his second visit, he presented a binding roadmap for reforms.

Macron’s visits have raised hopes that change will finally come to pull Lebanon out of its dire political and economic woes – all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and catastrophic port explosion. There are frequent mass protests against government corruption and a popular desire for change. However, none of France’s long-standing efforts to alleviate Lebanon’s chronic illnesses have been effective.

France has a long history of diplomatic, political, economic, cultural and even military involvement in Lebanon and has long professed a desire to resolve the instability resulting from the deep communal divisions in Lebanon. Paris generally presents its intensive diplomatic involvement in Lebanon as stemming mainly from the emotional and historical attachment of the French to Lebanon and its people. France has also highlighted its interest in Lebanon as part of its broader geopolitical perceptions of the Middle East, as it believes instability in the region affects French security.

France has often stated that its objectives in Lebanon are to establish and maintain its stability, to support its sovereignty and to prevent any external interference in its internal functioning. To achieve these objectives and help Lebanon overcome its endemic malaise, Paris has taken various measures: encourage and promote Lebanese internal dialogue through international and intra-Lebanese conferences, send French leaders to the country on frequent visits, mobilize the international economic aid and attempt to strengthen the Lebanese army so that it becomes a national military force with sufficient strength to counter the Hezbollah army. France has also maintained close ties with the Arab League and with the leaders of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt as it tries to find solutions to the Lebanese political crises.

At the same time, France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), has mobilized more and more on the international diplomatic front in an attempt to stabilize Lebanon. France played a key role with the United States in formulating UNSCR 1559 in September 2004, which concerned the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and a close friend of the French president. Jacques Chirac. France was the main driver of international pressure on this issue, which ultimately led to the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanese territory.

A significant milestone in France’s diplomatic involvement occurred during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, which erupted following Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli towns and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded by launching massive ground and air attacks against Hezbollah military targets as well as against Lebanese infrastructure. France condemned the Hezbollah attack but also decried the Israeli reaction as disproportionate and demanded a ceasefire.

France, along with the United States, played an influential role in formulating UNSCR 1701, which called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, a total ban on Hezbollah military involvement. in the buffer zone of southern Lebanon, at the entry of the Lebanese army into southern Lebanon, and the creation of the expanded force of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) to prevent arms smuggling by Hezbollah in the southern part of Lebanon. The mandate of UNIFIL II did not include the task of disarming Hezbollah as it was stipulated that this process should be carried out with the internal political consent of Lebanon. This discrepancy reflected France’s rather unrealistic assumption that the only solution to Hezbollah’s disarmament problem was to transform it from a military organization into a political movement.

Hezbollah has violated Resolution 1701 on several occasions. Israel regularly complains about the rearmament of Hezbollah, the clandestine shipments of advanced weapons from Iran, the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, the stockpiling of weapons among the Lebanese civilian population and the use of civilian houses along the border of the “blue line”. Hezbollah outposts. Hezbollah’s constant violations of Resolution 1701 have produced only occasional expressions of mild condemnation from France, and these are always followed by a call for Israel to hold back.

President Macron is friendlier to Israel than his predecessors were. In July 2017, during a visit to Paris by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron went so far as to declare at a joint press conference that he shared Israel’s concerns over the arming of Hezbollah in the south. from Lebanon.

However, at the same time, Macron continued the French tradition of appeasing Hezbollah. For example, following the discovery in December 2018 and January 2019 of six terrorist attack tunnels built by Hezbollah that penetrated deep into the northern territory of Israel, Israel filed a complaint with the Security Council of Israel. ‘UN. France condemned the tunneling and recognized it as a violation of resolution 1701, but maintained its traditional position of “impartial mediator” and again called for Israeli restraint.

France’s hope of preventing another war that would further undermine Lebanon’s stability led to a disturbing move at the UNSC in September 2019, following the firing of anti-tank missiles by Hezbollah at IDF vehicles patrolling the area. the interior of Israel and subsequent Israeli bombardment of Hezbollah targets in the south of the country. Lebanon. Hezbollah’s attack came after the Israeli airstrikes in Syria on August 24, 2019 that thwarted a massive Iranian drone attack on Israel. After these skirmishes, France proposed a UNSC declaration condemning any violation of the “blue line” and calling on both parties to maintain restraint. The United States blocked the French proposal, arguing that it had not specifically condemned Hezbollah and also objecting that this language equates Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense with the offensive actions of a group terrorist. Days later, in September 2019, Macron, in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu, called for Israeli restraint in his reaction to Hezbollah’s attacks so as not to further undermine Lebanon’s stability.

Macron appears to be aware of Israel’s oft-stated stance that it holds Lebanon responsible for any attack. However, France’s policy of appeasement, as manifested in its diplomatic involvement in the UNSC, has the unfortunate result of encouraging rather than discouraging Hezbollah from continuing terrorist activities against Israel. This undermines any chance of achieving stability in Lebanon, and it works to the advantage of the Iranian boss of Hezbollah.

Another central problem with France’s policy towards Hezbollah is its persistent opposition to the designation of Hezbollah’s political wing as a terrorist organization. France has so far prevented EU member states from making this designation and imposing sanctions accordingly, as the EU had previously done with the military wing of Hezbollah.

France justifies its opposition by saying that Hezbollah is a political party that participates in the democratic political life of Lebanon. By using this argument, Paris unfortunately contributed to the false image of Hezbollah as a legitimate political entity. In addition, France continues to promote the unrealistic illusion that Hezbollah will at some point be disarmed, either by the Lebanese army or by its political institutions. This mission is impossible to accomplish, as both are completely controlled by Hezbollah.

The verdict finally rendered on August 18, 2020, after 15 years of investigation, by the Special Tribunal in The Hague for Lebanon into the assassination of Hariri is also relevant. The verdict said the guilt could only be attributed to a member of Hezbollah and gave no answer as to who orchestrated the murder. The French Foreign Ministry congratulated The Hague on this verdict, presenting it as an important step in the fight against the perpetrators of terrorist acts. Sadly, France ignored the fact that the verdict raised important questions regarding the acquittal of the other three Hezbollah militants.

Either way, Hezbollah said the Hague ruling was irrelevant and would not hand over the Hezbollah member who was convicted. Hezbollah also categorically rejected Macron’s proposal to create an international commission of inquiry into the explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah nevertheless accepted the reforms proposed by Macron, because they do not address the issue of his military presence in Lebanon. Hezbollah clearly has no intention of relinquishing its military force.

As long as France persists in treating Hezbollah’s political wing as a legitimate actor in Lebanese politics, even when Hezbollah knowingly sacrifices the stability of Lebanon by stockpiling arms among Lebanese civilians and continuing its attacks against Israel, it its efforts are unlikely to contribute much to the stabilization of Lebanon.

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Dr Tsilla Hershco is a Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a Spiegel Fellow at the Institute for Holocaust Studies at Bar-Ilan University. She is the author of the book Those who walk in the dark will see the light: Jewish resistance in France, the Holocaust and the resurrection: 1949-1940.

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