More Vision with less UN Force in Lebanon

07/18/2000
There maybe a silver lining in the delay by the United Nations in handling Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Developments on the ground may prove that more could be done by parties in the region with less by the United Nations.

Despite the rhetoric, consider the facts. In an emotionally charged politically volatile fully armed neighborhood, not a single person was killed on any side throughout a surprise operation. Abandoned armaments originally photographed in festive takeover scenes were quietly retrieved by the Lebanese army. Soldiers of the pro-Israeli "South Lebanon Army" - were discreetly taken into government custody, awaiting regular judicial process. Despite a few provocative or "provocateurs" incidents, along the border fence Israeli soldiers seemed to banter with their curious onlookers. All sides exercised utmost restraint. Lebanese army checkposts were firmly set at the entrance of the vulnerable region to allow entry only for those living there. . Lebanese customs and police officials set up an office in Marjeyoun, former command capital of the former security zone and all other areas of the South.

Instead of the headlines, read the small print. Major General Gaby Ashkenazi of Israeli North Command pondered on meeting his adversaries: " I saw these people from four to five meters away. I looked at him, he looked at me. I am holding my weapon, and nothing happened. If he fired I would have fired. He didn't fire. And that's the reality we have to adjust to." On the other side, a young Lebanese broadcaster seeing through his country's border for the first time exclaimed: "look. There are people - I mean people - walking there. Israelis. It's really amazing."

In the midst of political maneuvering, listen closely to some of the key players. Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud visited border villages to welcome them back into "national unity". Meeting in church he reassured bewildered inhabitants that to him Rumaish, a village in the enclave was as dear as his hometown Baabdat. They knew that he meant it. Across the border, seeking a "vision of a common future", Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was addressing him through a speech to the Knesset: "Israel is not an enemy of Lebanonů let us talk peace." Similarly, Syria's Foreign Minister Faruk Al-Sharaa was repeating that "Syria is against escalation". And Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was in the former pro-Israeli stronghold of Bint Jbeil, where he could almost be heard without microphones, talking about the "cultured response of the resistance" and its political role in rebuilding a unified society. His Hizbollah party will participate in the Parliamentary elections scheduled for later this summer.

Clearly, Israel's withdrawal injected a new catalyst in the whole region. The passing away of Syrian President Hafez Assad, the steadfast regional leader for three decades imposes a period of evaluation (hopefully informed) while absorbing the initial political tremor. The nature and extent of relations between states could be explored and tested. There will always be time to read through political tealeaves and adapt accordingly. However, it will be generally accurate to assume that the current strategy of all parties in the Middle East tends towards peace. That could not be merely achieved by governments alone. Security could be imposed by governments. Any force however effective could occasionally prevent antagonists from getting at each other's throat. But peace is a growing habit with its growing pains. The price of peace is only paid by those who recognize its value.

Therein lies the nature of a new UN role. Despite a recent record of peacekeeping failures, the UN until the late eighties had won two Nobel prizes for Peace. There is now a potentially positive role for the UN in Lebanon. But it does not need to be fettered to one pre-ordained script. Harassed military peacekeeping is not the only option of soldiering for peace. The UN Charter lists a combination of valuable tools to promote peace and security. Among countries, like with people, the key to a perceived victory is knowing when to win; in perceived defeat it is knowing what not to lose. In addition to its other functions, the UN could provide a ladder to climb down from or a fig leaf to cover a political miscalculation. And, yes, it is always a convenient scapegoat.

The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has performed a popular job although it was not enabled to complete its full mandate for 22 years. Now that it may be achieved, there is talk of UNIFIL II with increased troops - and possibly an "amended" mandate, "with teeth". The question of their purpose will remain hanging. If it is to be a deterrent force in a perceived hostile environment, it will be tragically outmaneuvered - a punching bag sandwiched between forces more familiar with the terrain. France, the former colonial power, is being urged to lead the force. But the designated "matron saint" knows better than to jump into an empty pool. As no French politician could discuss Lebanon rationally, and vice-versa, a hurried oversized military participation may easily evolve into an emotional entanglement involving national politics of both countries. That is why the French are demanding specific 'peaceful guarantees'. In practical terms, that would mean a conducive atmosphere with the participation of Lebanon and Syria as well as Israel.

But if peace is "guaranteed" by the governments of the region, why would an expanded UNIFIL II be needed? It will be more difficult to assemble more expensive to operate and almost impossible to dismantle graciously. With a new dynamic in the field, why focus on what could be more of a futile barrier rather than a useful buffer. Why not start with something more ambitious yet less cumbersome. Why not try first a UNIFIL Lite or, better, a U.N. Plus? It would be more feasible, less costly and more effective. While representing the international will, its main task would be briefly to understand the realities of its environment, accentuate the positive elements, avert the negative and promote a sustainable investment in peace. A comprehensive vision of a flexible UN presence with a creative political approach, trimmed military oversight and liaison could be buttressed by a perspective for human development. To illustrate, a contentious point of delay is an insistence by certain influential countries (and some UN officials) that a substantive contingent of Lebanese army, not police, be sent to the South before further international deployment.

Part of the misunderstanding may relate to differing perceptions of security systems. Between the army and police, the Lebanese system has developed a well equipped paramilitary Internal Security Forces. They were initially drawn along the lines of the French gendarmerie entrusted with maintaining order, particularly in the countryside. Some of its units have already moved southward to ensure internal security. A credible blend of these forces and some selective army units could be deployed as required. The purpose according to the Security Council resolution will be to ensure the stabilizing presence of "the Lebanese authority" in the South. It is up to the Lebanese government to decide how best to do so - with a little help from its friends. To illustrate further, when UNIFIL was established in 1978, half a million Southern Lebanese who had fled returned to rebuild their villages following a comprehensive UN educational, media, health and social campaign pegged to a stable atmosphere of peaceful security. The presence of all UN system offices in one building in Beirut would facilitate a unified approach and quick action. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia could gear its intellectual studies into more urgent field cases. Ironically, the UN may need Lebanon now as much as that country may need the UN. It used to be said that Lebanon's strength was in its weakness.

That was a glib excuse. Lebanon's strength is in its unity. Through unity, the independence of 1945 was achieved. Without it, the country plunged into civil war. With persistent determination and personal example, newly elected President Emile Lahoud, who had rebuilt a cohesive army, inspired that popular unity again and achieved it. Working closely and responsibly with Syria helped consolidate that unity. Noticeably he managed to limit the overflow of Lebanese politicians visiting Damascus almost daily seeking favored interference on their personal behalf. . In fact, Lebanon is riding on a wave of Arab admiration and national euphoria. On the other hand, the UN is now fragmented in resources, approach and command. Yet the UN is the main source of international legitimacy and has a special place in everyone's heart. After a string of failures it needs a success. If handled well, as everyone hopes, Lebanon could be it. Since the signature of the Charter in San Francisco, the UN and Lebanon grew together, partners in every aspect of life. From the Israel Lebanese Mixed Armistice Commission, under the UN Truce Supervision Organization for which Dr. Ralphe Bunche received the Nobel Prize for Peace, to the Declaration of Human Rights which a Lebanese drafted as Rapporteur, to the pivotal role of Beirut - based UN agencies to UNIFIL, the Lebanese - half of whom lead international lives would require very little briefing on a new UN venture. A relevant practical and focused operation could help Lebanon and refresh the Middle East peace process. It could also display the UN's recently lost capacity for timely action. Otherwise, another catastrophe could be inflicted on an undeserving region.

Mr. Samir Sanbar, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information is a citizen of Lebanon.