BEIRUT — In late August, the United Nations Security Council unanimously renewed its peacekeeping operation in southern Lebanon, called Unifil. The less confrontational tone around the negotiation of Resolution 2433, contrasting with the heated debate on the renewal a year ago, can be read as a positive sign for Lebanon and the UN. It represents a successful compromise between an aggressive United States-Israeli posture toward Hezbollah and the realities on the ground in Unifil’s area of operation in southern Lebanon.
However, framed in the larger context of President Donald Trump’s unpredictable Middle East actions and unabashed pro-Israel credentials — as well as his angry rhetoric against UN inefficiency — the toning down of the 2018 renewal may also be understood as a temporary refocusing of Trump’s gaze elsewhere on behalf of Israel. As such, the terms over next year’s renewal of the UN mission in Lebanon remain far from certain.
The 2017 and 2018 renewals differ markedly from the calm discussions and sedate resolution texts of the preceding decade of Unifil, when, after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, the Security Council passed Resolution 1701 to beef up the mission’s mandate and numbers. Before 2017, the renewals had been largely consistent in their core political intent: preserving stability and maintaining the peace. They had also repeated the same 11 or 12 operating paragraphs nearly verbatim.
For the 2017 resolution, however, senior Unifil personnel held their breath until the last moment before the Security Council vote: they literally did not know what the final resolution would look like. Trump’s new but inexperienced US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, had just returned from a summer visit to the Israeli border and was grandstanding.
Haley faithfully relayed the familiar Israeli military and political talking points about Hezbollah’s alleged massive weapons stockpiling in southern Lebanon. She warned that “clouds of war are gathering” and that “terrorist” Hezbollah is “preparing for war.” Haley had rejected an invitation to cross over to Lebanon to be briefed by Unifil and Lebanese officials there. She also did not want to learn what Unifil understood very well: Hezbollah was part and parcel of the Lebanese state and society and enjoyed overwhelming support among the civilian population in southern Lebanon.
Moreover, the experienced Unifil force commander and head of the mission, Maj. Gen. Michael Beary of Ireland, had made it clear to Haley that despite Israeli and US assertions, Unifil had found no evidence of any Hezbollah arms build-up in its area of operation. This finding was not new: Unifil has never found such evidence either on land or in territorial waters, though it routinely investigates Israeli (and other Western) “intelligence” tips.
Unifil staff members have told me bemusedly that they feel pressured to find weapons that even Israel — with its constant high-tech surveillance — cannot find.
For this reason, General Beary was gently trying to warn Haley: please do not rock the boat. All parties to the conflict wanted to avoid any misunderstandings, or spillovers from the Syrian war, that might inadvertently lead to conflict in Lebanon. In response, Haley accused General Beary — and by extension Unifil and the UN Secretariat — of being “blind” and having an “embarrassing lack of understanding of what’s going on” regarding Hezbollah’s weapons.
Haley’s zeal to seize the spotlight and rail against the “status quo,” as she called it, coupled with the uncertainty of Trump’s Middle East strategy and loud US threats to slash the UN’s budget, rendered the majority of Security Council members wary of confrontation. Yet they were also cognizant of the precarious situation in southern Lebanon and the inherent limits of Unifil’s mandated mission to support the Lebanese Armed Forces and to preserve peace along the border.
A compromise of sorts was reached, resulting in Resolution 2373 (2017) and its successor, Resolution 2433 (2018), doubling the number of operating paragraphs from pre-2017 resolutions and reflecting more bellicose language concerning Unifil’s mission to find and disarm Hezbollah’s arms by taking “all necessary action.” However, everyone —though perhaps not Haley — understood that forcibly disarming Hezbollah was out of the question and plainly not part of Unifil’s mandate.
Of the many new operating paragraphs in the two recent renewals, two main expectations for Unifil stand out. The first focuses on its role overseeing Lebanon’s armed forces of deployment in southern Lebanon at an “accelerated” pace. Unifil was now tasked with following up on Lebanon’s declared intention to deploy a “model regiment” and to develop Lebanon’s navy, so that Unifil’s maritime task force could eventually be disbanded and defunded. The addition of timelines and benchmarks for the tasks was designed to add pressure on Unifil.
The second expectation reflected a clear concession to Israeli demands: Unifil was “requested” (read: demanded) to increase its “visible presence” in southern Lebanon. The idea was that Unifil had to show it was doing more, even though it was understood that the result would likely be the same: no Hezbollah weapons found.
This demand effectively translated in two main actions: increasing the number and duration of patrols and being more aggressive in accessing particular sites blocked by villagers who were automatically, though usually incorrectly, assumed to be protecting Hezbollah weapons caches.
As senior Unifil staff members knew, the overall goal of the 2017 and 2018 mandate renewals was to keep Unifil’s action under the microscope so that the US could potentially find an excuse to either condemn the mission or to justify further budget cuts. Not on the US agenda were Lebanon’s primary, longstanding demands that Israel halt its daily violations of Lebanese sovereignty by land, sea and air and withdraw from occupied Lebanese territory.
Reading the 2017 and 2018 resolutions in tandem, we can conclude that the toning down of the bellicose rhetoric this year from last year is certainly a positive signal, perhaps indicating the US understands the realities on the ground; and that Unifil and Lebanon are now less of an immediate target for Trump and Israel. Haley was not even present during the 2018 deliberations in the Council, having sent the US mission’s political coordinator instead.
Yet if one reads Haley’s 2017 posturing less about Unifil and more about a bigger, more visibly and ideologically pro-Israeli, anti-Iranian (as Hezbollah is still viewed simplistically as Iran’s proxy) position by the inner Trump circle that controls his Middle East policy, there may be more cause for concern.
In this case, we need to consider Trump’s overall actions, with the focus on Unifil being just one part of a more significant whole that haphazardly manufactures one crisis after another in the Middle East without warning or apparent rationale regarding US interests.
To wit, the recent inflammatory decisions by Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions there and against Hezbollah; recognize Jerusalem (including the occupied east) as Israel’s capital despite universal condemnation; comprehensively defund Unrwa, the Palestine refugee agency that has supported education and health programs for seven decades; and threaten recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, occupied since 1967.
Viewed in this more holistic light, it is not difficult to conclude that Haley’s 2017 renewal performance on behalf of Israel — demanding Unifil use its “power” and “have the will to do its job” — might be taken up again in the near future. Israel, after all, has a long history of preparing its justification ahead of time for its regular assaults on Lebanon in the last four decades.
Hezbollah is ready for an Israeli attack, even confident given Israel’s demoralizing defeat in Lebanon during the 2006 war. However, a war today between Israel and Hezbollah — which is unlikely, to be sure — will no longer be confined to southern Lebanon: the entire region would be drawn into such devastation.
Let us hope that Unifil will be allowed to do its job maintaining the delicate peace in southern Lebanon and heading off potential misunderstandings; and that the new Unifil mandate renewal’s calmer tone reflects an international will to keep the peace and prepare for an even calmer renewal discussion in 2019.