Israel's new government, whatever form it ultimately takes, can move toward ending one war right now without firing a shot. At a stroke, Israel only has to offer to withdraw from a mere 5,000 acres of scrub that U.N. mediator Terje Roed-Larsen once called "a worthless piece of land." In this sequence of events, Israel's war with Hezbollah, which has brought it nothing but grief since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, would be over. And there would be a bonus for Israel: Iran would lose the strategic threat of thousands of Hezbollah rockets pointed at Israeli cities.
Deft diplomacy could then dismantle, one by one, other areas of confrontation between Iran and its adversaries — among them Iran's nuclear program, the Yemen war and U.S. sanctions against Iran — that threaten to engulf the United States in a regional war.
Let me explain.
A Remote Area, Once of Little Interest
The area that Israel occupies at the edge of its frontiers with Lebanon and Syria includes 14 smallholdings that Nicholas Blanford, in his excellent book Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, described as "a small, remote, almost uninhabited mountainside of weathered limestone, dense thickets of evergreen oak, and a few long-abandoned stone hovels, known collectively as the Shebaa Farms." Lebanon and Syria disputed ownership of the terrain when Syria obtained its independence from France in 1946. French maps of the region were not particularly helpful. A 1932 map placed Shebaa Farms on the Lebanese side of the line, while one in 1946 awarded it to Syria.
When Syrian troops occupied the farms, Lebanon was too weak to resist. It was a remote area of little interest to politicians in Beirut, and Syria permitted Lebanese farmers to cultivate their land as if there were no border. The modus vivendi worked until 1967, when Israel occupied the Syrian-held area along with the Syrian Golan Heights adjoining it and cut farmers off from their farms. There the matter rested until 1989, when Lebanon's 15-year civil war concluded with an agreement among Lebanon's warlords signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The Taif accords required all Lebanese militias to disarm and restore Lebanon's national army as the country's sole armed force. However, the accords permitted Hezbollah to retain its weapons while Israel continued to occupy southern Lebanon. Israel, harassed for years by Hezbollah's guerrilla tactics, left Lebanon in May 2000. Hezbollah won the war. Under the Taif accords, it should have turned over its heavy weapons to the Lebanese army, as the other militias had done. But it didn't.
Until Israel returned Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, Hezbollah would be an army as well as a political party.
The pretext was Shebaa Farms. Urged on by Syria, Lebanon claimed the land had been Lebanese territory all along and should be returned to it. Until Israel returned Shebaa, Hezbollah would be an army as well as a political party. Israel stated that the area's future depended on negotiations with Syria, which controlled Shebaa at the time Israel moved in. The United Nations supported Israel's interpretation. When Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in the hope of negotiating the release of Hezbollah captives in Israel in July 2006, it drew all of Lebanon against its will into a ferocious Israeli invasion that destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and left thousands homeless. Hezbollah's arsenal nonetheless gave it a distinct advantage in Lebanese politics, as it proved when its fighters poured onto the streets in 2008 to prevent the dismissal of an ally as Beirut airport's security director.
Legal Question, Political Issue
The legal question is, do Shebaa Farms belong to Lebanon or Syria? No one is certain. The borders should have been clarified in San Remo, a seaside resort of fading elegance on the Italian Riviera, in April 1920. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, along with representatives of the First World War's other victorious Allies, convened in San Remo at the Castello Devachan to formalize earlier treaties and agreements to place the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire under colonial tutelage. The delegates also parceled out the share each of them would take of Middle East oil — a more significant issue for them than the exact demarcation between Syria and Lebanon, two territories given to France. It was left to France alone to demarcate the line, and its determination was too vague to be helpful.
More than a legal issue, though, is a political one. Is Shebaa, which may belong to Lebanon or Syria but even by Israel's admission not to Israel, worth prolonging the state of tension along the Lebanese-Israeli border? If Israel makes an "offer" to withdraw from Shebaa, it forces Hezbollah to declare itself. Are its weapons intended only to liberate disputed territory from Israeli occupation? Is its real purpose to defend the regime of President Bashar al Assad in Syria, to retain the upper hand in Lebanon, or to serve Iran as its Gurkha force throughout the Middle East? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's capable leader who has outsmarted all his adversaries, has often insisted that Hezbollah will not disarm while Israeli forces occupy Lebanese territory. Yet he also said, at the end of Israel's destructive if futile invasion in the summer of 2006, "We do not wish to keep our weapons forever."
Israel has nothing to lose. If Nasrallah rejects the offer, Israel need not withdraw. Nasrallah's rejection would prove to the world that the real purpose of Hezbollah's armed wing is not to "liberate" Lebanese territory but to serve as Iran's armed enforcer in Lebanon. His credibility would suffer, as rival Lebanese parties demand that he abide by the Taif accords and disarm. A Nasrallah acceptance, however, would make imaginable a de facto peace between Lebanon and Israel that would benefit both countries. It would also conceivably open the door to diplomacy to deal with the Saudi-Iranian catastrophe in Yemen and to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear program. It's a win-win scenario for the Israelis and not at all a bad one for the United States, which could avoid dragging its own young soldiers into another Middle Eastern war.
Editor's Note: This contributor perspective has been amended to correct the spelling of Nicholas Blanford's name.