Jerusalem — Israel is abuzz with the talk of incompetence and failure. The interim report of the Winograd Commission was released last week, and it lays out, in excruciating detail, the multifaceted catastrophe that was last summer’s war against Hezbollah: the ignorance of the prime minister and defense minister concerning military matters; the appalling ineptitude of Dan Halutz, the chief of staff of the IDF, in commanding the military and advising the country’s political leadership; the absence of a preexisting plan to deal with an entirely predictable crisis; the declaration of strategic goals that were entirely divorced from the means required to achieve them; the ill-conceived, ineffective air war and the last-second, impulsive ground campaign; and the six-year history of passivity and retreat on the northern border that emboldened Hezbollah and telegraphed Israel’s lack of military readiness.
The Winograd report is sobering reading, but the fact of its existence is certainly not unusual in the Jewish state’s history. Israel’s culture of self-criticism and its ingrained lack of deference toward authority figures are some of the foundational reasons why this small country, constantly under attack, has been able to flourish in the Middle East. There is no doubt that Israel’s political landscape — and its military priorities — will be significantly altered by the fallout from the Winograd report.
But there is one institution that has quite remarkably escaped any opprobrium for its own important contribution to the outbreak of war last summer. And that is the United Nations and its edifice of Security Council resolutions, some dating back decades, that have sought to remedy the problem of Lebanon’s lawless southern region and its hospitality to terrorist organizations. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was encamped there from 1968 until it was pushed out by Israel’s 1982 invasion, and Hezbollah remains there to this day. Since it is the season for assessing failure and assigning blame, why should the U.N. escape scrutiny?
It was back in March 1978 that the first Security Council resolution was passed attempting to address the power vacuum in southern Lebanon. A week earlier, PLO terrorists had crossed into Israel and murdered 37 people in a gruesome bus attack near Tel Aviv. Israel responded with Operation Litani, an IDF incursion that pushed the PLO off Israel’s northern border. Resolutions 425 and 426 created a U.N. force that was supposed to take the IDF’s place in southern Lebanon, create a buffer zone along the border with Israel, and, in the somewhat ludicrous text of the resolution, “restore international peace and security and assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.” UNIFIL was born.
Since then a concatenation of nearly identical UNIFIL-related resolutions has been issued by the Security Council, always with one thing in common: Events on the ground are never permitted to affect UNIFIL’s mandate. Through a combination of diplomatic foolishness and bureaucratic inertia, UNIFIL has remained impervious to any evaluation of its actual utility in bringing peace and security to southern Lebanon.
By my count, the Security Council has passed some 38 resolutions pertaining to UNIFIL, every one of which seamlessly ignores UNIFIL’s inability to accomplish its mission. If Israel last summer declared goals for itself that it didn’t have the means to accomplish, the U.N. has been doing so for thirty years. In renewing UNIFIL’s mandate in 1978, the council noted “the progress already achieved by the Force towards the establishment of peace and security in Southern Lebanon” and called “for strict respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon.” In 1982 it demanded “the strict respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence under the sole and exclusive authority of the Lebanese Government.” In 2000, after Israel withdrew completely from southern Lebanon, the Security Council announced that it “calls on the Government of Lebanon to ensure the return of its effective authority and presence in the south.” When that didn’t happen, the council announced its “strong support for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon.” And so on, plagiarizing itself repeatedly, farcically declaring the same impossible goals, decade after decade. Resolution 1559, passed in 2004, is considered a watershed for Lebanon because it used stronger, more precise language to demand exactly the same things that the Security Council started demanding in 1978. But, alas, even stronger words didn’t deter Syria and Hezbollah. Five months after 1559 was approved, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, was murdered in a massive explosion in Beirut, almost certainly by Syria.
Fine, a person might say — UNIFIL is ineffective. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that UNIFIL is more than an innocuous presence. It contributes to instability along the Israeli border and to the ability of Syria and Iran to co-opt Lebanon by allowing the international community to embrace the comforting delusion that it is doing something. In reality, UNIFIL gives diplomats an excuse to do nothing about Hezbollah’s re-armament, and thus enhances the militia’s ability to thrust Lebanon and Israel into war at a time of its choosing — such as during a U.S. military strike on Iran. Moreover, UNIFIL stands as a disincentive for the Lebanese army to attempt to deploy in the area, it observes Hezbollah daily but does not collect or share intelligence on its activities, and its presence on the ground complicates Israel’s ability to engage the terrorist army in battle. (Hezbollah shrewdly built much of its military infrastructure in close proximity to UNIFIL stations.) The presence of UNIFIL certainly hasn’t prevented violence in the past: Since Operation Litani in 1978, Israel has had to strike at the PLO and then Hezbollah on numerous occasions, including air strikes in 1981, the 1982 invasion and subsequent occupation, the week-long Operation Accountability in 1993, the sixteen-day Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, and dozens of smaller incidents scattered in between. And over the course of this long history of terrorist provocation in southern Lebanon, the world’s diplomatic corps has maintained the self-congratulatory fantasy that more extensions of UNIFIL’s mandate will help the region.
At the conclusion of the war last summer, an enlarged UNIFIL was given the mission of ensuring the tranquility of southern Lebanon. But, nine months later, it has only enlarged the problems created by its less ambitious predecessors. The new force is feckless: afraid to confront Hezbollah, unwilling to interrupt the easy flow of arms across Lebanon, prohibited from patrolling the border with Syria, unable to make a difference. No serious observer of southern Lebanon today believes that the new, “robust” UNIFIL is doing anything that will prevent another round of warfare.
And when hostilities break out again, the world’s diplomats will have one predictable solution in mind: a cease fire, and more UNIFIL. Israel’s willingness to criticize itself sets an admirable example in how to publicly evaluate failure. It is unrealistic to think that the United Nations would follow suit with an examination of its own failures in Lebanon, but that should not stop us from asking: How much longer will this region have to suffer the Security Council’s benevolence?
– Noah Pollak is an assistant editor of Azure magazine.