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July 19th, 2005
Future for Lebanon
Interview with Michael Elliott
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August 10, 2006: Editor of Time International, Michael Elliott, discusses Lebanon with Anchor, Daljit Dhaliwal.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Michael Elliot, welcome to WIDE ANGLE.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Thank you.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Just as things were beginning to look up for Lebanon, why did Hezbollah mount this cross-border raid, abduct Israeli soldiers, and provoke this kind of destruction upon its country?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, Lebanon exists in a rough neighborhood. And I think that’s one of the things that we’ve learned over the last 40 years, since civil war broke out in Lebanon in the 1970s in the aftermath of the Six Day War. So, although there was enormous optimism and goodwill generated by the Cedar Revolution a year ago, it behooves us all to remember that Lebanon is not a stable place. Hezbollah remained in the south of the country with enormous political support. With its own sense of what should happen in the future. With its own arguments with Israel. With its own agenda, if you like.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And what is that agenda? What is Hezbollah’s agenda in Lebanon?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: I think we need to separate out Hezbollah in the Lebanon context and Hezbollah in the broader Middle East context. In the Lebanese context, the question is whether Hezbollah really ever bought into the reforms and the political changes that took place in Lebanon a year ago. Those reforms were not led by the Shiite community. They were not led in the south of Lebanon. They were not, as it were, led by a constituency of which Hezbollah was a key part.

So, there’s always been this question of what, exactly, Hezbollah wanted in terms of a new, political dispensation in Lebanon. And whether, to an extent, it felt that it was being squeezed out of a new political set up in Lebanon. So that’s the Lebanese context.

Then, if you look at the wider context, you see Hezbollah — initially founded by Iran with close alliances with Iran and Syria — seeing itself, for good reasons or bad, as a key part of the ‘resistance’ in inverted commas, to Israel. So that’s Hezbollah in the wider, regional context — as kind of continuing the struggle against Israel in close alliance, certainly with Iran, and probably with Syria, too. Not withstanding the fact, one should remember, that there have been no Israeli forces in Lebanon for six years, up until this summer.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Well, Hezbollah has mounted raids into Israel before.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Surely.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: What do you make of the Israeli reaction? Was it a total overreaction?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, I think it’s plain, without needing to state it, that Hezbollah completely underestimated what they thought Israel’s response would be. As you say, there have been raids before. There have been rockets fired before. And no reaction on the part of the Israeli forces came anything close to what we’ve seen in the last month. So, plainly, Hezbollah over-reacted.

So why did Israel react in the way that it did? Well, I think there are a number of factors. First of all, the Hezbollah incursion in the north followed on, if you remember, the abduction of an Israeli soldier in the south, in Gaza, and a continuing violent situation on the border of Israel and Gaza, as Israel confronted Hamas and other groups in Gaza who had not given up the struggle in the south.

So the incursion in the north followed very quickly on from the incursion in the south. Then you have, just as another element, a relatively new Israeli government. Relatively untested in a security sense. Which I think felt that it had to make a statement that northern Israel had to be rendered safe from Hezbollah.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And Hezbollah was also testing …

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Absolutely. No, I think everyone was testing everyone else. Hezbollah was certainly testing the Israeli government. The new Israeli government was anxious to show its own mettle. And so you got what — from the Hezbollah standpoint — would have been a completely unexpected degree of Israeli military retaliation for their raid on the border post.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Can the Lebanese government be held responsible for Hezbollah’s actions on its territory?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, I think that’s a key and a very interesting question. The standard argument would be that Lebanon is a sovereign state. That it has a sovereign government. That the sovereign government should have a monopoly of the use of force within its territory. And hence, that it is legitimate to hold a sovereign government of a sovereign state responsible for those who use that government’s territory to attack others. That’s, as it were, the theory of international law.

In practice, as we know, the Lebanese government does not actually have formal control over the whole of the territory in the way in which the United States government has formal control over everywhere from Maine to California. And in effect, you have a little state within a state in southern Lebanon.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: What do you mean by that?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, I mean in southern Lebanon you have an area in which, in effect, Hezbollah runs a state within a state with its own social services, with its own political structure. And as we now know, with its own military structure and with its own army, effectively. So, you could argue from that set of facts that it is unfair, if you like, to expect the Lebanese government to take responsibility for everything that Hezbollah does, because to all intents and purposes, Hezbollah runs a little ’state-let’ all of its own.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: But it’s the Lebanese people that ended up dying. And there were huge civilian casualties.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Sure.

Editor of Time International, Michael Elliott

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Why couldn’t the Lebanese government protect its citizens? I mean, they’re citizens of Lebanon.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: The Lebanese government, of course, would want to protect its citizens. But the Lebanese government forces were not involved in the incursion into Israel. Lebanese government forces did not have a quarrel with the Israelis. It was Hezbollah forces that attacked Israel. Lebanese government forces, by all accounts, are rather weak. Not particularly well organized. And were incapable, if you like, of heading off what happened. But they didn’t start the fight. It wasn’t the Lebanese government forces that started the fight here. It wasn’t the Israeli forces that started the fight here.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And in the film we hear about Resolution 1559, to disarm Hezbollah. Why hasn’t the Lebanese government been able to do that or wouldn’t it want to do that?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Let’s get back to where we started from. Lebanon is a nation that exists in a rough neighborhood for nearly 40 years. Since the early 1970s the state has been wracked by civil war, by violence, by factionalism, by one form of instability over another, for a very long period. You know we’re talking about nearly 40 years. So, although in the theory of international law, you have a sovereign state in Lebanon with a functioning government, in practice, what you have is a very, very weak set of central institutions which have been unable to apply a monopoly of force, and a monopoly of government authority throughout the whole country.

Now Resolution 1559, when the Israelis finally withdrew from southern Lebanon six years ago, established a set of things that were supposed to happen — like disarming Hezbollah, for example — which were predicated on something that didn’t exist. Which is to say, a strong, functioning Lebanese government.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: But the onus was on the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Very much so.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: So then did the international community drop the ball in terms of trying to dismantle Hezbollah?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: That’s an extremely good question. The Israelis would say, and I think they have a point, that for six years they have not been in Lebanon, and nothing has been done to stop Hezbollah re-arming, re-supplying itself to a level never seen before with weapons and missiles and what have you that have come in from Iran and Syria.

And the Israelis would say, “We knew this was happening, lots of people knew this was happening.” I don’t actually think anyone knew what was happening to the extent that it truly was happening. Apart from Hezbollah and Iran and Syria.

All this stuff was happening. Why didn’t the international community step up — particularly after the Cedar Revolution a year ago — and try, as it were, do the next step of stabilizing Lebanon, which implied expanding the authority and the power of the Lebanese government right up to the border with Israel.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Where does this leave the U.S. policy of democratization in the Middle East? We’ve seen what’s happened in Israel between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon and the Middle East Peace process. Where is it?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, you would have to say that right now democratization in the Middle East doesn’t look like a winning policy. After all, Lebanon had a democratic revolution a year ago — the Cedar Revolution. That did not succeed, however, in extending the power and authority of the government so that Hezbollah could be disarmed. In the case of the Palestinian Authority, of course, you had an election earlier this year in which Hamas — which is not in Israeli eyes or anyone’s eyes, I suppose, a viable peace partner — took over the Palestinian Authority.

Now, if you’re an optimist within the councils of the U.S. that advanced democratization is an answer, you would say this takes time. And in Condoleezza Rice’s famous, perhaps unfortunate, phrase, we’re seeing the birth pangs of a new Middle East here.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Do you think that’s an appropriate analysis?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: I thought it was a curious phrase to use. And there was a certain glibness to it. But for those who believe that democratization is the answer, it is perfectly true that part of that process is to imagine that this takes a long time. And that what counts isn’t the first election; that what counts isn’t the first Cedar Revolution. That what counts isn’t the first step. That what counts isn’t just casting a vote in a ballot box. But what counts is a series of steps that create democratic structures over 10, 15, 20, 25 years.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And initially Arab governments responded to the Hezbollah action with a lot of criticism.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Sure.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: That has now changed.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, indeed. I mean it has changed and it’s not surprising that it’s changed, I think. Arab governments right off the bat, were highly critical of Hezbollah for very understandable reasons. The Saudi statement I thought was the most clear, where it said that essentially Hezbollah was, for its own purposes, getting involved in a war with Israel knowing full well that it would not, itself, bear most of the burden. Because the burden would be borne — as it has been — by Lebanese civilians, who have been bombed out of house and home.

And this, let us remember, in Middle Eastern terms, this is a long war. I mean, the most famous war in the Middle East we called ‘The Six Day War.’ This has been going a month as you and I have been speaking. So this is a long war. This isn’t a short war, as the conflict has gone on and the violence has continued and the attacks have continued and Israeli forces have gone deeper into Lebanon.

So, unsurprisingly the mood in the Middle East street has become less condemnatory of Hezbollah and governments have responded to that in being less condemnatory of Hezbollah themselves.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Is this going to increase support for Hezbollah once the dust settles down politically?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: I think that’s too early to tell. Because I think a lot of people, when everything settles down, will remember who started this. And it wasn’t Israel who started this. And it wasn’t the Lebanese government who started this. At the same time, obviously, there have been four weeks of terrible violence and terrible tragedy and sorrow. So people will remember that, too.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: You’ve said that the Bush administration has been avoiding “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East. What would full-hearted engagement, vis-à-vis the peace process be about, right now?

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, the problem with the Middle East is you have about six interlocking issues. And you have to address all of them — if not at the same time, then in a process that links one to the other. But I don’t think many people think that essential part of that process is trying to draw the venom out of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. That is not easy. God knows it’s not easy. Reputations for 50 years have been wrecked on it. Plans have been put forward. People have rejected them. Men of goodwill have been killed. So no one pretends that this is a breeze.

But I think all sides accept — and I think the United States government accepts now — that you can’t have a true, comprehensive settlement in the Middle East without addressing the Israel-Palestine issue. And you can’t address the Israel-Palestine issue without full-on, continuous involvement by the United States in trying to do it.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Michael Elliot, thank you very much for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Good to be with you.

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