Israel not worried by Syria-Lebanon alliance

14:08, December 21, 2009      

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by David Harris

The headline from two days of talks between top Syrian and Lebanese officials, as far as Israel is concerned, is that Beirut seemingly wants to realign itself with Damascus in order to reduce the Israeli threat.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was hosted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the weekend, the first time Hariri visited Syria since his father was assassinated less than five years ago. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for involving in the murder, however Damascus denies it had anything to do with it.

The visit is the latest stage in the rapprochement between the Levant neighbors, having exchanged ambassadors for the first time in some 60 years earlier this year.

However, Israeli analysts believe so far there should not be much making Israel worried in concern with the recent developments on the relations between the two countries, both are regarded as long-time enemies of Israelis.

INSEPARABLE NEIGHBORS

It has also been almost five years since Syrian forces left Lebanon after a 29-year military present. Pro-Western analysts in Lebanon argue that Syria still has a major influence over affairs of state in Beirut, particularly via Hezbollah and other allies.

Israeli experts agree with the idea. "The idea that Lebanon is free from Syria and its government is pro-American is just not serious," said Eyal Zisser, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The very fact that Hariri, who was the head of the anti-Syrian camp, paid his visit to Damascus is the proof of this, Zisser added.

The opinion is shared by Guy Bechor, who heads the Middle East Studies Division at Israel's Interdisciplinary Center. "It shows Lebanese politics can't function without Syria," Bechor said.

It also points to an inherent fear of Syria on Lebanon's part, he added.

Both Bechor and Zisser dismissed as incorrect a suggestion by a reporter for Israel Radio that Syria needs Lebanon more than Lebanon needs Syria. The journalist suggested on Sunday morning that Syria needs to show the international community it is back on good terms with Lebanon, in order to continue its return to the fold of the international community, particularly with Western nations.

Bechor and Zisser agree that it will not harm Syria's standing, but that, despite many of its actions, Syria is already well on its way back into the club of nations, particularly in the Middle East.

Either way, there appears to be a newfound closeness between Hariri and al-Assad, something that Hariri believes will stand the Arab world in better stead in face of the Israeli threat.

ISRAEL SEES NO CHANGE

The two Arab leaders discussed Israel during their three-hour session on Saturday, according to Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian minister and senior adviser of al-Assad.

"The discussions also dealt with the Arab situation, the challenges facing Syria and Lebanon due to the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, the importance of coordination between Syria, Lebanon and the Arab countries as well as the Arab solidarity to close the Arab ranks and restore the legitimate rights," she told reporters.

In Zisser's opinion, Hariri is not taken particularly seriously by Israel. The Israeli government is far more concerned by the comments and actions of Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

There is no Israeli threat, even if Hariri spoke of one, said Bechor.

"There's no reason for Israel to attack Lebanon, unless it attacks Israel first," he said.

The only thing that unites the region, including Iran, is Israel, and so leaders throw out the Israel subject from time to time to show a commonality between Arab states, Bechor suggested. "It's used to bridge enormous divisions," he said.

Israel would like to see negotiations with Lebanon, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, top officials in Beirut have made clear that will not be happening anytime soon.

Israeli analysts believe Lebanon will not enter peace talks with Israel until Syria has successfully concluded a dialogue with Israel, resulting in the handover to Syria of the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel during the 1967 War.

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

The real reason for Hariri's trip is that he is building on Syria to ensure his own political survival, said Zisser. The Shiites in Lebanon, headed by Hezbollah, are becoming increasingly strong and Hariri needs to ensure his own position by building a close bond with Syria, which is seen as being one of Hezbollah's backers, alongside Iran.

Bechor offers a different view on Hariri's domestic agenda and Syrian influence. In his opinion, even though Hezbollah sits in the Lebanese government, its power is not that great as it does not have a veto over ministerial decisions and as a result the moderate, more pro-Western line will win the day.

Lebanon is receiving the U.S. weaponry and helicopters because of its anti-Hezbollah and more so its anti-Syria stance, said Bechor. Commercial flights may soon resume between Lebanon and North America. Therefore, he is somewhat perplexed by Hariri's weekend visit to Damascus.

However, he sees all the machinations as being inter-Lebanese and inter-Arab and as a result not of any real concern for Israel.

Hezbollah's reaction to the Hariri visit has been upbeat. It was "a positive step that promotes a calm and relaxing climate," the organization's leader Hassan Nasrallah was quoted as saying by Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV. However, Hezbollah added that it would monitor events closely.

Lebanon remains, as it always has been, a deeply divided society and any apparent political maneuver is examined closely by all parties, fearing that a jump in one direction or another could knock the delicate balance of political life firmly off kilter.

Source: Xinhua
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