Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 10, 2020) - The Beirut explosion


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Was the massive Beirut explosion of August 4 a game-changer? A regional grand strategic event?

A. Almost certainly. The explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut harbor last week will have long-lasting strategic consequences for Lebanon, for the Levant region and for Israel.

Q. Let’s start with Israel. The apocalyptic explosion in Beirut caught Israel in the midst of a health, economic and political crisis, a mindless descent toward yet another round of elections, and even minor border confrontations with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Did the explosion change any of this?

A. Not in the short term, if only because the explosion caught Lebanon in the midst of a nearly identical but far worse set of crises that both countries are busy trying to work their way through. Even before the explosion Lebanon, the most Byzantine of Arab countries, was proving ungovernable. Electricity and water supply in Beirut was reduced to a few hours a day. Corruption was rampant. The banks were failing: the Lebanese lira lost more than 80 percent of its value against the dollar in less than a year, and people could not withdraw their savings. Hezbollah’s ‘state-within-a-state’ was crippling the country much as Arafat’s “Fatehland” did in the 1970s. Now the situation is national dysfunctionality on turbo. The Lebanon Center for Policy Studies summed it up nicely: “Putting aside the trigger—be it an explosion or an attack—the mere storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate next to a major urban area for a period of seven years is a testament to a colossal failure in administrative and political governance.”

Lebanon before last week’s explosion was a failed state and its southern neighbor Israel a dreamland by comparison. Now half of Beirut is destroyed or damaged and 200,000 Beirut residents are homeless. Just last week this Q & A warned a future President Joe Biden that Lebanon would force its way onto his Middle East agenda.

Yet many Israelis identified with the Lebanese tragedy at least in part because the two countries are so similar. Perhaps it is more correct to say, sadly, that Israel has in recent years become increasingly like Lebanon: corrupt, tribalized, featuring an uber-wealthy upper class and huge income gaps. Both countries are increasingly dominated by religious extremists--Hezbollah in Lebanon, the ultra-Orthodox and National Orthodox settlers in Israel--whose agenda is antithetical to the original national narrative.

In recent months, both Beirut and Jerusalem have witnessed parallel mass demonstrations against corruption in high places and growing impoverishment in the shadow of covid-19. Both countries are liable now to hold yet more elections, in both cases due to corruption. In Lebanon the entire system is corrupt. In Israel a lone leader, Netanyahu, who is officially on trial for corruption, is dragging the entire country toward a fourth round designed solely to save his skin.

Lebanon is also the only neighboring Arab country whose capital has been occupied by Israel, back in 1982-83. Many Israelis who are today in their prime spent military service there. It was no accident that the Tel Aviv municipality headquarters was lit up for a night last week with the Lebanese flag. This symbolized not just empathy and compassion, but also a rather unique species of identification with Lebanese.

Q. Do Lebanese see it this way?

A. Lebanese have understandably mixed feelings toward Israel, which invaded and occupied parts of the country for 18 years after 1982. The 1982 and 2006 wars took a toll on Lebanese lives and infrastructure. Israel’s response, ‘just stop harboring and abetting our enemies--first Fateh, then Syria, now Hezbollah--and we’ll leave you alone’, does not resonate with most Lebanese. In part, attitudes toward Israel depend on Lebanese ethnic-tribal identity: Druze and some Christian sects are more favorably disposed.

Once, in 1982, Israel allied itself with a portion of Lebanon’s Christians and invaded. The outcome was disastrous for both Lebanese and Israelis. These days, Israel Air Force planes regularly overfly the country on their way to attacking targets in Syria. Lebanese understandably resent this.

The Israeli media had no difficulty last week recruiting Lebanese journalists along with men and women in the street to broadcast to Israel via satellite link and tell Israelis what happened in Beirut. Not all these Lebanese had a warm spot in their hearts for Israel, but all recognized its relevance. Here is “Hassanein”, a Beirut-based academic, writing in Yediot Aharonot this Sunday, balancing realpolitik with gut emotions:

I want to say a few things to you in Israel. We don’t like the Lebanese flag displayed at the Tel Aviv municipality. We don’t want [your] help, neither food nor medicine. We have enough. The entire world has joined up to help us. At the same time we have no bitter accounts to settle with you. We oppose Israeli planes flying freely over Lebanon. You are not our friends and certainly not our allies. You are a neighbor with whom we have problems. If and when we succeed in getting rid of Hezbollah, we’ll speak a different language. . . . Stay out of the picture. Don’t send aid, we won’t accept it.

Q. But are there military and security ramifications for Israel?

A. First and foremost, there is a Haifa factor. Haifa with its huge chemical-industrial complex is a frequent target for threats by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The Beirut disaster signaled to Israelis just how vulnerable Haifa and its residents are. On the other hand, with Beirut harbor crippled and Lebanon importing most of its foodstuffs, Haifa harbor, which is less than an hour’s drive south of the border, could help. If the Lebanese were interested.

Then there is the Hezbollah-Iran factor. While Hezbollah complicity in the Beirut explosion has not been proven, the Iranian-proxy Lebanese Shiite movement has been known to store large quantities of ammonium nitrate as far afield as London, Cyprus and Thailand, for use in terrorist attacks. Hezbollah is deeply involved in controlling the port of Beirut. And it hides tens of thousands of rockets in southern Lebanese villages where they constitute a constant safety hazard even in peacetime. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah is a primary focus of widespread public protests in the streets of Beirut.

In recent weeks, the IDF and Hezbollah had been shadow-boxing along the border, including the Syrian-Israeli Golan border, due to the spillover from Israel’s ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran and its proxies in Syria. That campaign is a strategic imperative for Israel. The current situation in Beirut is likely now to force Hezbollah to maintain a low military profile.

Q. And turning to the region?

A. Lebanon can now be said, without qualification, to join its other neighbor, Syria, as failed Levant states. Just as the rich western world will not offer financial aid to Damascus until it proves it can behave responsibly and humanely as a sovereign, so Beirut will receive little or nothing beyond emergency aid until it can show that incoming funds are no longer siphoned off by corrupt politicians, warlords and tribal chieftains. Even wealthy Lebanese expatriate communities in the US and Latin America, who are more numerous than the six or seven million in Lebanon itself (nobody knows how many; ethnic divisions render a census too sensitive), will hesitate to invest under these circumstances.

In contrast, more and more Lebanese are now likely to seek to emigrate. That will leave Israel surrounded by basket cases to the north (Syria, now Lebanon) and southwest (the Gaza Strip): an unhealthy juxtaposition.

Nevertheless, Lebanon remains a strategic prize. Witness how its colonial ruler between the two world wars, France, sent President Macron to Beirut within about a day of the disaster, to be followed by its only aircraft carrier. Next to arrive and tour the ruins of half the Beirut metropolis were the pre-WWI colonial rulers, the Ottomans, in the person of the Turkish vice president and foreign minister. Both former patrons of Lebanon promised aid.

At both the military and diplomatic levels, France and Turkey have lately confronted one another angrily across the eastern Mediterranean, in Libya and in the energy-rich waters off Greek islands. Each has a historic “claim” to some sort of strategic presence in Lebanon. Macron even spoke in Beirut of some sort of French “obligations”.

Then there is Iran, Hezbollah’s Shiite patron: the Islamic republic Nasrallah swears allegiance to. It has neither obligations nor an historic claim. But through Hezbollah it is very much a factor.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Lebanon apparently does not need or want Israeli assistance right now. Accordingly, Israel would be well advised to behave as it did with the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, and avoid intervention. That includes not taking advantage of the country’s trauma to strike at Hezbollah. Lebanon’s second neighbor, Syria, is as dysfunctional as Lebanon and around a million of its citizens are currently refugees in Lebanon.

Yet Lebanon--or more precisely, given that the country does not function, Lebanese--are sometime soon likely or liable to feel the economic shock waves of the Beirut explosion and could come south to Israel out of pure desperation. Over the past year, Sudanese refugees and itinerant job-seekers have tried to climb the border fence from Lebanon into Israel because they were penniless and hungry. Imagine grassroots Lebanese in the same dilemma.

Lebanon after the Beirut explosion should be understood as a warning to Israelis as to just how low a fragmented, corrupt and increasingly tribalized Jewish homeland could still conceivably sink.

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