Of the more than 50 international peacekeeping forces established or authorized by the United Nations since its inception, half a dozen have patrolled Israel’s borders with its Arab neighbors. Before another international force comes into existence and is deployed in southern Lebanon, it might be helpful to inquire what has made for the handful of successful international monitoring operations between Israelis and Arabs — and what explains the failure of others.
Undoubtedly, there are multifold nuances of mandate and composition that influenced the fate of many such forces. But one dimension stands out: successful monitoring forces on Israel’s borders have come into existence as a result of clear understandings between Israel and the neighboring Arab country in question — a shared commitment regarding the nature of their peace or cease-fire agreement, and a proven capacity to enforce it.
In effect, international forces have succeeded when they were not needed — when they were the third-party “icing on the cake” for an otherwise successful bilateral agreement that could have, at least in theory, managed without them.
Two currently functioning international forces prove the point. In Sinai, the Multinational Force and Observers, which was formed without a U.N. mandate because the Soviet Union and many Arab states objected to Egypt’s peace with Israel back in 1979, monitors complex geographical demilitarization arrangements on both sides of the border. Egypt and Israel each pay a third of its maintenance, and both have rejected repeated requests by the United States, the guiding force behind the Multinational Force and Observers, to disband it. This, even though Egyptian-Israeli anti-terrorism cooperation in and around Sinai has increased lately, and there is essentially no danger of another war breaking out between the two countries.
On the Golan Heights, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force patrols a demilitarized strip that defines the cease-fire lines agreed by Israel and Syria back in the mid-1970s, as well as additional force limitation zones that stretch west into the Jordan Valley in Israel and east toward Damascus in Syria. All attempts by Syria and Israel to make peace have failed, and Syrian sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are currently fighting full-scale wars with Israel, is a sore point for Jerusalem. But both countries scrupulously maintain their cease-fire obligations. Ostensibly, the disengagement force has little to do. Yet its presence offers an additional layer of insurance against accidental or even deliberate escalation.
This brings us to southern Lebanon. There is an international peacekeeping force there, too: the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, in place for nearly three decades. Even U.N. officials quietly acknowledge that it is worthless. Lately, the French commander of Unifil told the French daily Le Monde, “We have a mandate that permits us to act only to protect ourselves.”
Unifil’s problem is that it is not icing on the cake of a stable agreement; rather, there is no cake at all. The international force sits in Lebanon at the leave of the Lebanese government, which itself has been incapable of extending its sovereign authority to the south, as well as to other parts of the country, for around four decades.
Unifil liaises with the Lebanese army, an ineffectual force ridden by the same ethnic factionalism that so badly divides the country. The Lebanese army, incidentally, is made up of about 50% Shiite Muslims — Hezbollah’s natural constituency — and many of its senior officers are pro-Syrian appointees of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president, Emil Lahoud. One of the options that might be weighed by the government in Beirut by way of “disarming” Hezbollah is to merge it as a unit into the army, conceivably to be deployed in the Shi’ite south.
Israel, the neighboring country affected by the mayhem in Lebanon, never has been a party to Unifil’s terms of reference. Nor have the guerrilla/terrorist groups — first the Palestine Liberation Organization, then Hezbollah — that have occupied the geopolitical black hole of southern Lebanon. Because those movements fought Israel while being essentially accountable to no one, Israel found itself repeatedly drawn into friction with Unifil’s forces during the 18 years of occupation of Lebanon prior to May 2000, when the Israeli military pulled out.
Now the Israeli military is back, and the U.N. is preparing to authorize a new international force for the south. This time, Israel — one half of the potential “cake” — is encouraging the establishment of such a force. It has learned through repeated and extended traumas that the Israeli military must endeavor to never again occupy hostile enemy lands. It accepts that any sort of international force in southern Lebanon is better than a vacuum.
As for the other half of the cake, the government of Lebanon is as weak as ever, and Hezbollah, a proxy of Iran that seeks Israel’s destruction, hardly can be relied on to play a constructive political role. Recall that, back in 1983, its murderous suicide attacks chased an American and French stabilization force out of Lebanon.
The new international force, we are told, will emerge under chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, have “teeth” and be large enough — at least 10,000 soldiers — to compensate effectively for all these drawbacks. It will escort the Lebanese army south, help Lebanon disarm Hezbollah and prevent the illicit smuggling of arms from Syria. It will in effect be a peacemaking as well as a peacekeeping force.
Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the following equation, one that somehow must be resolved before a cease-fire can hold and an international force can even begin to deploy: Israel will not withdraw from the south until it is replaced by such a force; Hezbollah refuses to agree to a cease-fire until Israel leaves the south, and the countries contributing to an international force, even one with teeth, will not agree to its deployment until there is a stable cease-fire.
This cake is not yet even in the oven.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.