State Department officials have spent a lot of time in Lebanon recently. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the country two weeks ago, and Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield made an appearance last week. Among other issues, they are trying to mediate two Lebanese-Israeli disputes. The problem is that only one of these is a quasi-legitimate conflict; the other is a patently illegitimate Lebanese land grab. By treating that claim as legitimate, the State Department is not only encouraging aggression but proving, once again, that international guarantees to Israel are worthless.
The quasi-legitimate dispute relates to where the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon runs. As I noted back in 2011, Beirut is currently claiming maritime territory that it didn’t consider Lebanese as recently as 2007, when it signed (but ultimately didn’t ratify) a deal demarcating its maritime border with Cyprus. That makes the State Department’s proposal to award Lebanon 75 percent of this territory outrageous. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Israel and Lebanon have no agreed maritime border, and international law doesn’t provide an unequivocal answer as to where it should run. So State’s mediation is justifiable, even if its proposal isn’t.
The second dispute, however, is over Lebanon’s claim that Israel’s planned new border wall encroaches on Lebanese territory in 13 places. And on this, there should be no question whatsoever, because a recognized international border, known as the Blue Line, already exists and the UN has twice affirmed that Israel isn’t violating it.
The first time the UN affirmed realities on the ground was after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. Then, the UN Security Council unanimously confirmed that all the areas Beirut now claims were, in fact, on Israel’s side of the border. The second was earlier this month when the UN Interim Force in Lebanon reaffirmed that all the new construction is on Israel’s side of the border.
The latter, incidentally, is particularly noteworthy because UNIFIL usually sides with Beirut in any Lebanese-Israeli dispute, for the simple reason that its peacekeepers are located on Lebanese soil and therefore vulnerable to reprisals if it ruffles Lebanese feathers. Indeed, as reported by the Jerusalem Post just last week, members of UNIFIL’s French contingent recently told a French paper that they routinely refrain from doing the job they’re officially there to do—ensuring that Hezbollah conducts no military activity in southern Lebanon, as mandated by Security Council Resolution 1701 of 2006—for fear of clashes with the Lebanese Army.
Given the existence of both a recognized international border and unequivocal UN confirmation that Israel hasn’t violated it, the only proper response to Beirut’s protest over a new fence would be to politely tell it that it has no case whatsoever. The territory in question is unarguably Israel’s, and Israel is free to build whatever it pleases there. Instead, the State Department has treated Lebanon’s claim as legitimate. Tillerson demanded that Israel halt construction until it reaches an agreement with Lebanon on the border, while Satterfield proposed land swaps to satisfy Lebanon’s claims. In other words, State is asking Israel to cede land which the Security Council unanimously recognized as sovereign Israeli territory just because a thuggish neighbor covets it and has threatened war if its demands aren’t satisfied.
Needless to say, this is an excellent way to encourage aggression. If Lebanon can get Washington to pressure Israel to cede internationally recognized Israeli territory merely by claiming land to which it lacks any vestige of right and then threatening war if its demands aren’t met, why wouldn’t Lebanon—or any other country interested in grabbing Israeli land—keep repeating this tactic?
But it also makes a mockery of the international guarantee contained in that Security Council resolution from 2000. After all, it’s hard to imagine a stronger guarantee of the validity of Israel’s northern border than a unanimous Security Council resolution affirming it. Yet ever since that resolution was passed, Lebanon has made repeated demands for territory on the Israeli side of the border. Every single time, the State Department and the rest of the international community has treated Beirut’s demands as valid and pressed Israel to offer concessions to assuage them.
This began almost immediately when Lebanon laid claim to the Shaba Farms region in the early 2000s. The Blue Line border actually assigns Shaba to Syria, meaning it isn’t Lebanon’s to claim; any dispute over it would have to be resolved between Israel and Syria. But instead of telling Beirut to get lost, the Security Council asserted, in that same Resolution 1701 of 2006, that parts of the Lebanese border it unanimously affirmed just six years earlier were now “disputed or uncertain” and thus required a new UN demarcation. The Bush Administration subsequently pressured Israel (unsuccessfully) to turn Shaba over to Lebanon.
Today’s State Department has gone even further. Instead of demanding that Israel give Lebanon territory which the UN previously deemed Syrian, it’s now demanding that Israel give Lebanon territory which the UN previously affirmed as Israel’s own. In other words, it’s telling Israel that international affirmation of its borders is no protection against future demands by other countries for chunks of its territory; the U.S. government—and also, naturally, the rest of the international community—will support any claim whatsoever against Israel, even if it lacks any shred of validity.
Admittedly, it’s not news that international guarantees are useless; Israel has learned this lesson many times before. But you still have to wonder what State Department officials are thinking. After all, they’ve been trying for years to mediate peace deals between Israel and its neighbors, and all their proposals are based on Israel ceding strategically important land in exchange for international recognition of its borders and guarantees of their validity. Yet at the same time, they’ve been doing their utmost to prove that international recognition and guarantees are worthless. And then they wonder why Israelis don’t think the international guarantees they’re being offered are a good substitute for the defensible borders they would lose.
Originally published in Commentary on March 2, 2018