There is a famous account of a conversation between the Bashar al-Assad and the late Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri when the Syrian president irately threatened, “If you and [French President Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.” Walid Jumblatt, a well respected Lebanese Druze activist present at that moment recollected later, “I knew that it was his condemnation of death.” The assassination of Hariri in 2005, by means of a car bomb, was only one of many Syrian encroachments on Lebanese sovereignty; the al-Assad regime has been scrupulous in eradicating progressive voices in Lebanese society and has supported anarchy and terrorism to maintain its control over the politics of the Levant.
In the aftermath of the attack, a movement in Lebanon began known as the Cedar Revolution. In the ranks of the nonviolent uprising Lebanon’s pluralism was well represented; the Lebanese people’s demands bore fruit. First, the UN mandated the withdrawal of thousands of Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon since the Lebanese Civil War. Then in 2005, after nearly a half century, Syria was strong-armed into recognizing the independence and sovereignty of the Lebanese people. This commitment was made halfheartedly and its implementation has been one of many mockeries to the UN’s conviction.
Hariri’s assassination was a hackneyed attempt by Syria’s regime to intimidate Lebanon’s pro-West community. During Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980’s, Israel provided military support to the Christian Phalangist forces of Bashir Gemayel, facing off against loosely united Palestinian and Muslim militias (one commander was a young Yasser Arafat, later the head of the PLO). Violent clashes reigned in South Lebanon and Beirut for a few years, but Gemayal’s forces, the sworn enemies of Syria, triumphed in one of the most devastating civil wars of the 20th century.
At Gemayel’s inauguration a bomb exploded killing him and many in his entourage.This blast, like the one that killed Hariri, had enigmatic roots. However, the successive deployment of Syrian forces into Lebanon, the rise of Hezbollah, and the authoritarian muzzle that has since stifled Lebanese liberalism indicates that the Syria, then under Hafez al-Assad, was instrumental in the plot.
Although the Hariri dynasty was survived by Rafik’s son, Said Hariri, his government collapsed in the months before the Arab Spring; Hezbollah has been the power broker in Lebanon since. The “Party of God” has been the main benefactor of Syrian weapon shipments; in return Hezbollah’s platform has been to resist democracy in Lebanon, suppress diversity and pluralism and terrorize Israel. However, the trickle of weapons into Lebanon has subsided in the seventeen months since civil war broke out in Syria.
Israel should move to strengthen relations with Lebanon’s left while Hezbollah is weakened by Syria’s civil war. Israel can make extraordinary headway in eliminating the terrorist group because its main benefactors, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian regime, have been unable to supply them with the vital reinforcements. In any case, an Israeli attack on Iran would necessitate a simultaneous ground operation to counter Hezbollah’s retaliatory aerial bombardment on Iran’s behalf. An incursion might not win the hearts and mights of Lebanese, but life without the extremist views of their oppressors might rekindle the spirit of progressivism that marked the days of Rafik Hariri.
Hariri was hardly friend of Israel, but he was a visionary with a plan for restoring Beirut to its potential as the premier Middle East metropolis. His unrealized “Horizon 2000″ project was crafted with the intention of bolstering the city’s infrastructure. Hariri’s popularity was a product of the trust of the Lebanese people–he could bring them from purgatory to prominence. His record was rife with corruption, but that was moot– he preached skyscrapers, not jihad. Lebanon’s voters responded with their support, electing him Prime Minister twice.
A Lebanon without Hezbollah might not seek ties with Israel immediately, but if “Horizon 2000″ stirred the imagination of the Lebanese people, perhaps Israel’s free-market and entrepreneurial spirit can too? If the people of Lebanon show they are willing to replant the seeds of the Cedar Revolution, Israel can improve its standing in the Levant by offering to till the fields.