Israel should heed lessons from Lebanon
1982 West Beirut, Lebanon (Alamy)
For the last decade, all the energy in Middle East peacemaking has gone into encouraging the negotiation of bilateral agreements between Israel and Arab states.
The Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. Deals with Morocco and Sudan followed. President Joe Biden was reportedly close to securing an Israel-Saudi Arabia accord. None of these agreements paid any attention to the Palestinian question.
The appalling attack by Hamas in Southern Israel on 7 October and the ensuing Israeli military operation in Gaza brought this issue back to the top of the agenda.
Driving an adversary from power without a viable plan on what comes next does not lead to greater security
The Palestinian problem has run as a thread through my 40 years as a British diplomat. My first posting in 1974 was to the UN General Assembly in New York. That was the year after the Yom Kippur war and the highlight was the appearance of Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), at the General Assembly. I have a vivid memory of him declaring that he had come with an olive branch and a gun.
The simmering tensions between Israel and the PLO (then headquartered in Beirut) exploded with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. At that point I was the Arab-Israel desk officer in the Foreign Office. The attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London in June 1982 was the pretext defence minister Ariel Sharon had been looking for to destroy the PLO’s military infrastructure and drive them out of Lebanon.
Israeli forces mounted a full-scale invasion. For seven weeks, they laid siege to west Beirut, cutting off food, water and power. This was a major international crisis and replaced the recently won victory in the Falklands as the centre of attention in Parliament.
The 1982 war has been much in my mind watching events unfold in Gaza. No parallels between international crises are ever exact, but there are some lessons from Lebanon for those making policy on the present crisis.
Sharon’s military operation seemed at first to achieve an outcome which could reshape the Middle East. The United States negotiated a deal under which the PLO leaders and some 14,000 fighters left Lebanon for Tunis, and the Israelis lifted their siege. Then it all fell apart. The president-elect of Lebanon Bashir Gemayel, militia leader and Israeli ally, was assassinated. In retaliation, supporters of Gemayel massacred Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Israel occupied Southern Lebanon until 1985. They withdrew leaving a power vacuum which allowed Syria to tighten its grip on the country, and Hezbollah with Iranian backing to take root. Forty years on from these events, Hezbollah has become a far more potent threat to Israel’s security than Hamas.
There is a simple message here, and one which the US and United Kingdom later learned so painfully in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Military interventions cannot achieve political objectives. Driving an adversary from power without a viable plan on what comes next does not lead to greater security.
Israeli spokesmen have said little about what plans they have for Gaza when the fighting stops. The emphasis has been on destroying Hamas and then constructing a more impenetrable border with a buffer zone.
In the short term, Israel needs a strategy for stability in Gaza. Once the fighting is over, there will be immediate needs for humanitarian aid and reconstruction, and for an interim authority capable of maintaining order. The Gulf Arab states should take a leading role in this.
This crisis is also a stark reminder of the need to resume the search for a settlement of the underlying dispute. The principles for such a solution were adopted in the 1980 Venice Declaration of the European Council: “The right to existence and to security of all the states in the region, including Israel, and justice for all the peoples, which implies the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” Those principles have never felt more relevant, or more difficult to achieve.
Lord Ricketts, crossbench peer, former British diplomat and author of Hard Choices
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