Note: This is the first installment in a series of three.
“The Bush administration parking a flotilla from its US 6th fleet off the coast of Lebanon was made necessary, it claims, to demonstrate Washington’s ‘commitment to stability in the region’. This provocation, aimed at Hezbollah and also Syria, is the equivalent of a Sicilian fish wrapped in newspaper with a white rose—left on a doorstep: “This is business. It is not personal. Here is an offer you cannot refuse“.
– Italian officer seconded to UNIFIL outside his Tebnine HQ, South Lebanon
Recent US back channel feelers to Dahiyeh, where Hezbollah’s decision makers are sometimes present, reflect US calculations that given current trends in the Middle East, Hezbollah will play a major regional role.
According to US Senate Intelligence Committee sources, the efforts to date have run tepid and less ‘qualitative’ than informal Iran-USA contacts. US diplomat Thomas Pickering has revealed that he has been a participant in secret Iran-US ‘back channel’ discussions for the past five years. The subjects discussed include Iran’s nuclear program, the broader relationship between the two and US relations with Hezbollah. Other participants include former US diplomat William Luers and MIT nuclear expert Jim Walsh. While “unofficial”, the discussions, organized by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the UN Association of the USA, are thought to be useful.
Dismissive of Republican Presidential candidate John McCain’s pledge to “drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon”, serious US officials want to engage the Lebanese Resistance partly because they are concerned with Israel remaining a Jewish state in the region.
The Bush administration no longer believes there is a viable military option – American, Israeli or combined – for destroying Hezbollah. The Party is deeply embedded in much of Lebanon and has broad support in the region. Recent reports indicate that some of its administrative staff is moving offices into Sunni areas including Tripoli and north Lebanon and that more Sunni, Christians and Druze are joining the Lebanese Resistance under Hezbollah leadership.
Even if there had been a US military option against Hezbollah, the war in Iraq has effectively eliminated it. American military strength has been exhausted in Iraq and Afghanistan and it has inadequate force to devote to a particularly dangerous third front. This is perhaps the greatest damage done by the Bush adventure in Iraq, where after five years there is no end in sight. The United States may be in Iraq for years to come with Israel ending up a victim of the Iraq adventure it instigated.
Doubts about Israel’s future
CIA and Israeli demographers such as Sergio Della-Pergola estimate that in the next 10 years Jews will be less that 45 per cent of the population in Palestine i.e. between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. This sets up the South African Apartheid model of a minority occupying population ruling the indigenous majority.
According to an Israeli academic who has studied Israel’s 60 year history and the growing conflict between Zionism and Judaism relative to Israel’s future prospects:
“We should have taken Uganda when Britain offered it to our Zionist leadership in 1903. Ben Gurion’s plan took over Palestine in stages. Given the growing strength of the Palestinian Resistance, it is likely to be taken back in the same piecemeal fashion. Every Jew in Israel knows it may cease to exist and have considered what is best for their children — more Israelis are moving to the US where currently over 500,000 are living”
Many US policy makers and Israelis are realizing that the safest place for Jews is in the US and that Israel is the least safe place as it continues to lose international legitimacy. A survey commissioned for the Israeli Interdisciplinary Centre found that 14 per cent of Jews in Israel would likely leave the country if a hostile state acquired nuclear arms.
US intelligence assessments of Israel include pessimistic conclusions based on sentiments by Israeli Jews to the effect that ‘We don’t really believe in this country’s existence anymore and will never be accepted in this region. Americans accept the Jews so why do we need Israel which has been squandering not only the lives of our children but increasingly undermining global respect for Judaism.’
The experienced observer, Robert Fisk, of the UK Independent recently reflected these sentiments to Rachel Cooke of the London Observer. As Cooke writes, “When Fisk first arrived in Beirut, he believed that Israel would survive. Now he is not so sure. The Israeli press is, he says, self-delusional. The army is ’shabby, a rabble; they don’t always obey orders, and they don’t always turn up’. In South Lebanon in 2006, they got ‘chucked out by Hizbollah,’. He wonders whether, if Israel’s borders were really threatened – ‘as opposed to false threats’ … Israel’s best bet (for survival) will be to go back to its international borders”.
Others have reminded Fisk that the real Zionist vision does not recognize any maps. It is a vision of a state without borders – a state that expands at all times according to its demographic, military and political power.
Can Hezbollah save Israel?
Edward Abington, Jr, the US consul general in Arab East Jerusalem during the Clinton administration, said he returned to Washington “convinced more than ever that the two-state solution is dead as a doornail”. Abington, noting that 40 per cent of the West Bank is closed to Palestinians, claims that, “There is absolutely no willingness on the part of the IDF to change the situation on the ground from the stranglehold they now have.”
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared pessimistic as she told a House Foreign Affairs Committee several months ago that she is concerned that “we will lose the window for a two-state solution”.
Some in the Bush administration believe that history is on Hezbollah’s side given the swelling Lebanese resistance trend over the region including Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan (the latter two with growing and serious Islamist problems with Hosni Mubarak looking fearfully over his shoulder at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent organization. Jordan’s King Abdullah, likewise, cannot ignore the rise of the Islamists in his own mostly Palestinian population), Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They recommend engagement with Hezbollah, viewed as pragmatic and in many ways the most secular movement in Lebanon, since trying to weaken or destroy Hezbollah is not working. Pressure to engage with Hezbollah will likely increase following Jimmy Carter’s meetings with Hamas and perhaps Hezbollah representatives.
US feelers to Hezbollah to ‘let bygones be bygones’ have a long history. Yet in the past, when Hezbollah rejected US feelers which sometimes firmed into offers, the movement would experience the tightening of US pressure such as the terrorism lists, searching for Hezbollah financial assets, trying to incite Lebanese ‘warlords’ or al Qaeda type jihadist salafists against it, as well as sundry threats and assassination attempts.
The Khomeini Paradigm
A forerunner of the recent US-Israeli feelers to Hezbollah can be found back in the days of the Imam Khomeini-led Iranian Revolution. The Israeli Mossad, the CIA, and the Shah’s intelligence service, Savak, worked closely to end the Iranian revolt from its earliest beginnings. In June of 1963 a crowd of unarmed Iranian men, women and children peacefully demonstrating in Tehran were attacked by government forces and more than 5,000 were killed.
This demonstration of savagery shocked the Kennedy administration, and revealed the weakness of the Shah’s tyranny which eventually led to its collapse. Over time, the US government realized that the Iranian Resistance could not be defeated and made Khomeini an offer it was said at the time, “he won’t be able to refuse”. The offer included that the Shah would be summarily stripped of all his political power if Khomeini would allow him to become “just a figurehead like Queen Elizabeth of England”.
Khomeini rejected the offer and argued that such a ‘compromise’ would “keep the US-Israeli hegemonic knife in Iran’s body” and it would grow until the Shah’s tyranny returned.
Similarly, the past quarter century in Lebanon has seen the US and Israel offer (demand) the May 17th capitulation treaty before it would even consider a partial Israeli withdrawal from any of the 801 villages it occupied in 1982. Due to the persistence of the Lebanese Resistance, Israel suffered a series of retreats while offering first a treaty, then ’security arrangements’ downgraded to ’security negotiations’, then ‘an offer of security guarantees’ and now that Hezbollah just disarm and leave them alone.
US overtures to Hezbollah began following the March 8, 1985 US-organized Bir Abed Massacre (see below). The ‘offers’ continued subsequent to Hezbollah’s success in expelling Israel from 55 per cent of South Lebanon (and 168 villages) on April 30, 1985, the end date of a three month process whereby Israel was forced out of Sidon, Tyre, Nabataea, some Western Bekaa villages and other areas. More feelers were sent to Dahiyeh after Israel was driven from its ‘permanent security zone’ on May 24, 2000, and yet again following the 9/11 attack organized by Hezbollah’s mortal enemy, Al Qaeda, which along with Israel, initially hoped Hezbollah would be blamed. Hezbollah’s continuing resistance activities in October 2000 at Shebaa Farms, and recently the results of the July 2006 defeat of Israel, led to other feelers.
The March 8, 1985 Bir Abed Massacre and a US Offer
An initial US offer to Hezbollah followed a massive US terrorist attack in Lebanon and its aftermath is instructive regarding the occasional American disposition to achieve a modus operandi or perhaps vivendi with Hezbollah.
In December of 1984, the Reagan administration was furious with the March 5, 1984 cancellation of the May 17th Agreement, which required the US to conduct 35 negotiation sessions just to fulfill Israeli conditions and controls regarding the treaty. Israel and the White House blamed the yet to be publicly announced Hezbollah, as well as Syrian President Hafez al Assad, for the collapse of the Israel-Lebanon ‘Agreement’. Suspicions also existed that this ‘new religious group’, one of more than 30 civil war era militias operating in Lebanon at the time (fascinating political posters from 30 of these groups are now on exhibition at Planet Discovery Hall in Beirut as part of the April 13 anniversary of the 1975-90 civil war) may have been involved in actions against the US.
(CIA agent Robert Baer, now a contributor to Time Magazine, was given the job of finding out who bombed the US Embassy on April 18, 1983. During his March 2008 visit to Lebanon, Baer reminded reporters that his final report delivered to the White House more than 20 years ago concluded there was no proof to charge anyone, including Imad Mughniyeh, with either the April Embassy or the October 1983 Marine barracks attack. His conclusions are just as valid today, he advised interlocutors at the Beirut Vendome Hotel last month).
The unpleasant fact for the Reagan administration was that Gunboat diplomacy had been defeated by car bombs in Lebanon. The Reagan administration and especially CIA Director William Casey were left hungry for revenge — against someone.
Casey won approval for NSDD-166, a secret directive that inaugurated a new era of direct infusions of advanced U.S. military technology into the Middle East, which was to become the greatest technology transfer of terrorist techniques in history.
By January of 1985, according to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in Veil, his book on Casey’s career, he worked out with the Saudis a plan to use a car bomb to eliminate an Israeli recommended ‘liability’. Lebanese agents led by a former British SAS officer and financed by $15 million arranged by Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar, were activated.
According to Woodward, Casey told his staff: “I’m going to solve the big problem by essentially getting tougher than or as tough as the terrorists in using their weapon, the car bomb.”
With its new authority, the CIA set up ‘counterterrorism units’ similar to those Bush authorized in 2007. Casey quickly funded the “Foreign Work and Analysis Unit” (FWAU) inside Lebanon which had the assassination of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah as its first priority. Others targeted for death were Lebanese former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss, Imad Mughniyeh and Walid Jumblatt, then supporting the PLO. The FWAU conducted a car bombing campaign in Muslim areas of Beirut and targeted the Cinema Salwa, Beirut’s Raouche Market, Sabra Street, the Abu Nawwas restaurant, and the Druze Social Centre, among others, killing at least 280 civilians and wounding nearly 1,150. This mayhem was designed to ignite further internal strife and to send the Lebanese Resistance a message and offer: ‘Support a new May 17 agreement with Israel and we can help you.’ When this ‘offer’ was unanswered, and on the Mossad’s recommendation to Casey, Fadlallah was targeted on March 8, 1985.
The Bir Abed Massacre was caused by an enormous car bomb outside Fadlallah’s home as he was conducting a religious studies class for women. Had a neighborhood woman not detained him with questions, Fadallah would have been at nearly the exact spot where the rigged vehicle exploded according to Hezbollah investigators.
The blast killed 83 people, mainly school girls, women and children, and wounded 283. The attempted assassination of Fadlallah, who is to this day Lebanon’s most respected senior Shi’ite cleric and social worker, enraged Lebanon, including Dahiyeh’s two century old Christian community, long beneficiaries of his social services and respectful of his calls for religious dialogue and tolerance. Six months later, on September 12, in what appeared to be a tit for tat operation, the supposedly impregnable perimeter defenses of the new U.S. embassy in eastern Beirut was attacked killing 23 employees and visitors.
Eleven local individuals confessed to various roles in the Bir Abed bombing. The terrorist attack was based on now admitted faulty Israeli supplied “intelligence”. Israel had advised the Reagan administration that Fadlallah was the founder, spiritual leader, and chief of operations for Hezbollah and was behind attacks on the US Embassy and the Marine barracks as well as the kidnappings of western hostages. Not one of the claims was true as the White House was later to learn. But at the time, CIA Director William Casey was beside himself that the US had, less than a year earlier, been forced out of Lebanon by what he told the President were “third rate rabble-rousers”.
President Reagan, by way of acknowledging the US error and American regrets, signed off on a reported nearly $20 million dollar secret “offer” to Sayeed Fadlallah, conveyed through a current Lebanese political leader, who was not at the time a member of Parliament, to help support the Senior cleric’s orphanages and social service centers. A US condition of the cash was that there was to be no paper trail. Fadallah rejected the offer stating he would not be part of a private arrangement which he could not disclose to his community.
Despite the Fadlallah fiasco, Casey remained an enthusiast for using urban terrorism to advance American goals. A year after the Bir Abed massacre, U.S. Special Forces experts started a five year program focusing on high-tech explosives and taught state-of-the-art sabotage techniques, distributed sabotage training manuals in different languages, offered instruction on how to make cheap electronic bomb detonators including the fabrication of ANFO (ammonium nitrate-fuel oil) and car bombs. Huge quantities of CIA-supplied plastic explosives as well as thousands of advanced E-cell delay detonators (some CIA knockoffs) still flow around the Middle East.
The US educational initiative, in contrast to Bekaa Valley ‘extension courses’ which did train motivated Lebanese anxious to resist the Israeli occupation, opened full scholarship bomb makers “Graduate Schools” and trained thousands of mujahidin and future al Qaeda cadres. Some of the ‘graduates’ drove the Soviets from Afghanistan. More recently, others supplied salafists for Nahr al Bared and Ein el Helwe and are today setting up networks in Lebanon.
The Bush administration has clearly lost control of this blowback and some officials think engaging Hezbollah offers a solution.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org