The surprise retreat of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon, which it had been occupying since March 1978, has modified the balance of imperialist forces in the Middle East.
The evolution of the balance of forces
For Israel, this retreat was unavoidable, even though it had actually been planned for 7 July. The occupation of southern Lebanon, which is strategically much less significant than the Golan Heights, had become a thorn in the side for the Israeli state. For months now the Israeli army had been under constant pressure from the pro-Iranian Shi’ite Hizbollah forces. This situation was aggravated by the increasing disintegration of the Christian-dominated Southern Lebanese Army, which was Israel’s only ally in the region. But at the same time the Israeli government has had to deal with the growing unpopularity of this war, which had more and more been seen as a dirty war and a total dead-end (1). This feeling is now quite widespread in the Israeli population, which has become more and more fed up with the useless sacrifice of its youth in almost daily ambushes (the situation is not unlike the involvement of the US in Vietnam 2ent of the US in Vietnam 25 years ago).
On the other hand, Israel’s retreat offers it a number of advantages. It will undoubtedly weaken the position of the Syrian bourgeoisie, which, a couple of weeks before losing its Supreme Leader Hafez-el-Assad to a heart attack, had already lost one of its principal cards in the Lebanon. This is because it had been Syria’s intention to use the Hizbollah guerrilla struggle against the Israeli army in southern Lebanon as a means of putting pressure on the forthcoming Israel-Syria talks about the Golan Heights.
Today, it’s Hizbollah which has the image of the great victor and ‘liberator’ of the populations of southern Lebanon, which it will now rule over in competition with the pro-Syrian Amal party. Freed from its confrontation with Israel and strengthened by its ‘victory’, Hizbollah may well start posing problems for its Syrian protector. In the longer term, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon could be put in question.
Thus, Israel’s retreat from the Lebanon is not the expression of any ‘new desire for peace’ on the part of this state. In capitalism, ‘acts of peace’ are simply a means by which the bourgeoisie defans by which the bourgeoisie defends its imperialist interests and prepares itself for new wars. Thus at the same moment that the Israeli army was withdrawing from Lebanon, the Hebrew state was hardening its stance towards the Palestinians. Israel’s refusal to free Palestinian prisoners has led to riots and disorders on the West Bank and the Gaza strip, reminiscent of the Intifada. This has given Israel the opportunity to suspend negotiations with Arafat’s ‘Palestinian Authority’ at a time when the talks were already getting bogged down over the status of Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian refugees, since Israel had refused to make any more concessions.
But Israel doesn’t have a monopoly on imperialist ambition and duplicity in this region. The French bourgeoisie is also up to its neck in it. Thus even before the decision to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon, the deterioration of the situation had obliged the UN Security Council to almost double the numbers of its FINUL force on the Israel-Syria border from 4500 to 8000. The redeployment of this force, which up to now has been made up of 9 contingents from countries of minor importance (except for France and Italy) expresses France’s aim to regain a real foothold in the Middle East. Not only will France now provide the biggwill France now provide the biggest portion of the new troops (increasing its contribution from 250 to 2000 men), it will also take most of FINUL’s positions of command. This strategy is fully in line with France’s efforts to return in force to the Middle East after being virtually ejected from the region ten years ago, when its ally Aoun was booted out of the Lebanon. Chirac also confirmed France’s desire to reassert its traditional influence over Lebanon and Syria (which were part of the French protectorate in the inter-war period) when he was the only leader of an important western state to attend Assad’s funeral. France is thus affirming itself as the direct imperialist rival to Uncle Sam in the Middle East.
British imperialism has long had an interest in this part of the world: Palestine after all was a British ‘protectorate’ and both in 1948, in Israel’s war of independence, and 1956, in the Suez crisis, Britain clashed with the US in attempting to defend its traditional role in the area. But it is also in competition with France in this region, which is one of the reasons why it generally aligns itself with the US over Middle East policy. For the moment Britain is maintaining a very quiet presence in the ‘peace process’, generally acting as Washington’s go-g as Washington’s go-between. But this does not mean it has renounced all efforts to have an independent influence in the current negotiations, as witness Robin Cook’s controversial tour of the area soon after the Blair government was elected.
As for the USA, its ‘peace policy’ is no less based on its own imperialist interests. What it is trying to enforce is a ‘Pax Americana’ which will allow it to pull all the regional protagonists under its umbrella, at a time when its hegemony over the Middle East is being questioned more and more openly, as has its overall world leadership since the disappearance of the imperialist blocs at the beginning of the 90s. This is why the US has been trying to re-launch the ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians and to take the initiative in the negotiations. This is a step towards restoring its control over Israeli policy, a process which began with the election of Barak instead of the less docile Netanyahu last year, despite the fragility of the new governing team and all the squabbling in the Knesset.
The USA has also been trying to renew its dialogue with Iran, via its support for the most ‘reformist’ factions of the Iranian bourgeoisie. The Americans know thatgeoisie. The Americans know that they have to move fast because they dispose of a reduced margin of manoeuvre in the region. This is why the White House is trying to profit from Syria’s current situation of fragility and weakness and increase the pressure on it, in the first place by re-launching the ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinian micro-state. For Washington, the urgency is all the greater in that the victory of Hizbollah’s ‘fighting forces’ could cast discredit on the ‘moderate’ faction led by Arafat, and increase the popularity, in all the Arab countries, of cliques who are in favour of armed struggle against Israel. Madeleine Albright’s trip to the Middle East has been followed by an ‘official invitation’ to Arafat to come to Washington along with emissaries of Israel. At the same time, in the wake of the failure of Clinton’s talks with representatives of Hafez-el-Hassad in March last year, the US is getting ready to renew negotiations on the Golan with the heir to the Syrian leadership, Bachar-el-Hassad, as soon as he is invested.
The situation is as explosive as ever
In this context, future negotiations and promises of peace are just a snare. Today Israel and its most intransigay Israel and its most intransigent enemy, Hizbollah, which represents the most fanatical wing of pro-Iranian Muslim fundamentalism, are now facing each other directly. The only buffer is provided by the UN forces, and UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has expressed loud and clear his very justified concern that they will serve as a "punch ball" to be struck from all sides. The situation is guaranteed to sharpen the rivalries between all the local imperialist powers (Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt), with the bigger imperialist powers lurking in the background. Despite all the hypocritical speeches, this explosive region of the globe is not heading towards peace but towards further and more dangerous imperialist conflicts.
(1) We should remember some of the massacres that resulted from previous ‘punitive expeditions’ by Israel in the Lebanon: Operation ‘Justice Done’ in July 1993, 132 deaths; Operation ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in April 1996, 175 deaths and 350 wounded.