An Unlikely Alliance in the Levant

The discovery of an Israeli espionage device in the mountains of Beirut brings Hezbollah and the Lebanese government closer together.

If ever there was a time in Lebanon’s history when the entire country walks day by day on eggshells, it’s in the closing weeks of the year 2010.

The most immediate concern to anyone who has a stake in Lebanon is the final ruling of the United Nations backed tribunal on the murder of Rafiq Hariri.

Yet however important this story is to Lebanon’s fragile political situation, it has been overshadowed by a brand new headline this week — one that will only add fuel to a fire that is Lebanese politics.

According to Lebanese government sources and international media, two “Israeli spying devices” were discovered in the mountains surrounding Beirut.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that significant a story. The Israelis have been spying on the Lebanese, Syrians and Hezbollah for years now. And it’s entirely reasonable for the Israelis to do so. All three, in one way or another, have had trouble with Israel in the past. And as is obvious thanks to WikiLeaks, espionage is not unique to the Israelis either. Indeed, every country does their fair share of spying. Washington, for one, continues to spy on the Russians, decades after the Soviet Union faded into irrelevance.

What distinguishes this story from other instances of espionage is the extremely high level of cooperation that occurred between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, two power centers that usually view one another with the utmost suspicion. The BBC, and the Lebanese army itself, confirm that the Israeli devices were first discovered by Hezbollah, who then alerted the formal authorities about the cameras.

Perhaps I’m reading into this story a little too deeply, but the fact that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government worked together relatively well during this entire episode demonstrates how questionable (if inaccurate) American and Israeli calculations are toward Lebanon’s domestic political environment. The traditional view held by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington DC is that Hezbollah and the government of Saad Hariri (the son of the slain Rafiq Hariri) are mutually exclusive antagonists. In other words, what is good for Hezbollah is bad for Hariri and vice versa.

It is this narrative that has inspired most American policy toward Lebanon over the past four years. Hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid have poured into Lebanon’s armed forces based on exactly that premise, with another $100 million to go in the current fiscal year. So the reasoning goes, if Lebanon’s military is stronger and more effective, Hezbollah will lose a valuable amount of its military deterrence.

In reality however, it at least appears from this single event that the Hezbollah-Beirut relationship may be more complicated and multifaceted than what Washington has been assuming all along.

And yet in a strange way, this Israeli spy fiasco could be interpreted with a sigh of relief. Hezbollah and the Hariri government could be starting a long process of rapprochement, a development that the United States should and must applaud if it is sincerely interested in promoting Lebanese stability. Granted, this is only one example of the Lebanese government and the Iranian backed militia helping each other out. People who have been studying Lebanon a lot more than I have are more inclined to categorize this event as a mere exception, especially considering Hezbollah’s overarching objective: an Islamic government in Lebanon.

But let’s not lose hope yet. Sometimes the first move in mending a relationship, be it personal or strategic, is a grudging acceptance by both sides that it’s time the feud run its course. Is the Lebanese government and Hezbollah willing to let go of their feud? And if so, are the United States and their partners willing to accept it?