Despite the topsy-turvy machinations of Lebanon’s elections May 6, the country’s voters awaited a more decisive verdict two days later from U.S. President Donald Trump. The Lebanese had no say in Trump’s election, but his decision to abrogate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran may seal their fate. In a confusing poll with a low turnout, voters gave a whopping number of seats to Iran’s Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, and its affiliated parties. To Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, Lebanon is little more than a venue for larger rivalries.
Lebanon, for all the headlines its troubles have earned it since 1975, is a small country without oil or mineral deposits. The weakness of small states often means that their elections don’t matter until people vote the wrong way and someone steps in, as President Woodrow Wilson did when invading Mexico in 1914 to “teach them to elect good men.” The Palestinians of Gaza learned the same lesson when they and Palestinians in the West Bank voted for Hamas on Jan. 25, 2006. The United States was so enraged that it backed a putsch by Hamas’ rival, Fatah, in Gaza in 2007 and, when that failed, supported Israel’s intensified blockade and several invasions of the territory beginning with Operation Cast Lead in 2008. (To understand what happened to Gaza, read a new book by Norman Finkelstein, Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, from the University of California Press.)
Lebanon’s parliament, its 128 seats equally divided by law between Christians and Muslims, won’t convene until June 20, but many Lebanese dread Israeli bombardment or invasion before then. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett did little to allay their apprehensions when he tweeted after the election, “The State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.” Nor, for that matter, did Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offer reassurance in declaring Beirut “a capital of the resistance.” Most people in Lebanon don’t want to resist anything apart from their own politicians, as measured by the fact that 51 percent of the country’s registered voters boycotted an election that promised no prospect of ending endemic corruption or restoring a reliable electricity supply.
A Harbinger of Chaos
Lebanon’s elections have always been problematic, often presaging war. In 1952, when President Bechara el-Khoury attempted to extend his mandate into a second term, street demonstrations broke out and he stood down. His successor, Camille Chamoun, employed CIA funds to rig the parliamentary elections of 1957 that removed two of the country’s most popular parliamentarians, Sunni leader Saeb Salam and Druze magnate Kamal Jumblatt. Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Parker later said defeating Salam in Beirut was “like getting Tip O’Neill defeated in Massachusetts.” The same could be said of removing Jumblatt from his sectarian heartland in the Chouf Mountains. The big trouble didn’t come until the next year, when Chamoun, like el-Khoury, sought a second term. A civil war, modest compared with the one that lasted from 1975 to 1990, erupted and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower sent in the Marines to restore order.
After parliamentary elections in 1968, Israel carried out its first major raid on Lebanon, in which Israeli commandos blew up four civilian airliners on the tarmac at Beirut’s airport. Operation Gift was retaliation for the hijacking by Palestinians of an El Al flight from Athens the previous July. In holding Lebanon responsible for Palestinian actions, Israel set a pattern that hastened the civil war. The weak Lebanese government at the time had less control over the Palestine Liberation Organization than its successors have had over Hezbollah. By the time the 1976 presidential elections took place, the country was in chaos as war raged between Christians and their rivals among the Palestinians and Sunnis.
It was no coincidence that Israel’s major invasion of Lebanon took place in another election year, 1982, when it compelled parliament to choose as president its favored candidate, Maronite Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was assassinated before his inauguration, and his brother, Amin, took over. As the war intensified, the brutality of the Israeli occupation in south Lebanon, combined with the rising power of Shiite fundamentalist Iran, led to the creation of Hezbollah. Hezbollah expelled the Israelis from Lebanon in 2000, but it — unlike the other militias that accepted the 1989 Taif Accord to end the civil war — retained its arms and became the most powerful force in the country. It projected its power to assist Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the war in Syria, where Israel has frequently attacked it to no avail.
Politics as Usual
Now that Trump has decided to take on the Iranians over the nuclear deal, and Iran will probably fire back by reconsidering its nuclear options, conflict in one form or another is inevitable. It could take the form of escalated Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, which Russia would counter by providing more effective anti-aircraft systems. Or it could mean a direct Israeli attack on Iran or on Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon. Either option would bring Hezbollah missiles — which unlike those of Hamas in Gaza are 21st-century weapons — raining on Israeli military sites and population centers. Israel doubtless would respond by destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure more thoroughly than it did in its ill-fated invasion of 2006. An analyst in Israel wrote to me after the Lebanese elections, “It seems the electoral result is encouraging the Israeli right to insist that an attack on the whole of Lebanese infrastructure is now justified.”
To Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other enemies of Iran, such a conflict might seem attractive. To the Lebanese, it would be a catastrophe brought about in part by the election that gave Hezbollah a larger share of parliament. For the civilians of both Israel and Lebanon, whatever their leaders may believe, the suffering would be monumental. Much of the responsibility will lie at the feet of the Trump administration for not heeding the advice of its European allies to work with Iran to retain nuclear inspections and ease sanctions.
Mark Twain wrote in Tom Sawyer Abroad, “I asked Tom if countries always apologized when they had done wrong, and he says: ‘Yes; the little ones does.'” The obvious corollary is the big ones doesn’t.