The hardest thing about war, it seems, is not fighting it; the hardest thing is the exit strategy. That's what bedeviled the US in Vietnam and is stumping it in Iraq, what caused so much trouble for Israel in its 1982 foray into Lebanon and is doing so again now. The problem seems intractable, a gordian knot incapable of being cut. The problems?
First, from the Israeli perspective, it cannot accept a return to the status quo ante
, with Hezbollah again hunkering down armed and unopposed on the Lebanese side of the border, continuing its quest to destroy Israel and ready, willing and able to provoke another conflagaration any time it chooses.
Israel would accept a robust international force charged with a mandate of preventing Hezbollah attacks against Israel and disarming Hezbollah by force, if necessary, but the international community isn't exactly tripping over itself volunteering to supply the soldiers, arms and support such a force would require.
Hezbollah, of course, will not lay down its arms as doing so would be a massive humilliation and defeat, particularly without any Israeli concession on the Shabaa Farms/Har Dov area which Hezbollah uses as its pretext for attacking Israel.
And Israel, of course, cannot surrender on Har Dov for two reasons: first, its withdrawal in 2000 was certified by the UN and the UN's experts have determined that Har Dov was captured from Syria, not Lebanon. Thus, surrendering Har Dov to Lebanon despite the lack of a legal claim would be an invitation to invent still more disputed Lebanese territory as a pretext for Hezbollah's continued war against Israel. Second, and much more importantly, surrendering Har Dov in response to Hezbollah attacks would simply prove to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the rest of the "Destroy Israel" crowd in the Arab world that terrorism and violence works, it gets results, and could be successfully be used to achieve the ultimate goal of an Israel-free region.
All in all, it seems like a wholly insoluable mess. But lately I've been thinking that there may be a solution lurking in there after all. Let me lay out what I think the solution could look like, and then I'll explain it.
Step 1: Syria and Lebanon sign a treaty by which Syria irrevocably cedes all claims to the Shabaa Farms region to Lebanon.
Step 2: Israel and Lebanon sign a peace treaty with the following terms:
a) An immediate cease fire; and
b) Israel will turn control of the Shabaa Farms/Har Dov over to Lebanon exactly three years to the day after the treaty is signed, as long as the following conditions are met:
1) The captured soldiers are returned alive and unharmed;
2) Hezbollah agrees to disarm and disband, turning its arms over to the Lebanese army in a process certified by a UN team to include observers from the US, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, which must have been certified to have been completed by two years after the date the treaty is signed; and
3) There are no further attacks on Israel from Lebanon in the interim, whether by Hezbollah (or any other such entity), the Lebanese government, or even individual Lebanese citizens;
c) Should any of these conditions fail to be met, Lebanon will unconditionally and irrevocably cede the Shabaa Farms/Har Dov to Israel; and
d) Should there be any attack on Israel from Lebanese territory after the date that Israel turns over the Shabaa Farms/Har Dov, whether by Hezbollah (or any other such entity), the Lebanese government, or even individual Lebanese citizens, which if the attack had originated from the government of Lebanon would be a breach of the peace treaty, Lebanon will immediately and irrevocably cede control of the Shabaa Farms/Har Dov to Israel.
What does this accomplish? Well, first, step 1 removes the problem of invalidating the UN certification of the 2000 withdrawal, since if Syria officially and irrevocably cedes its claim to the area to Lebanon, then it becomes Lebanese territory as of the date of that act, and Israel can separately negotiate over the Shabaa Farms/Har Dov with Lebanon, rather than being forced to negotiate over it only in the framework of a broader agreement with Syria. Step 1 also ensures that if either of what I'll call the "forfeiture provisions" come into play, Israel's title to Har Dov becomes undisputed, instead of subject to possible dispute from Syria.
As to the treaty between Israel and Lebanon, which would formally end the state of war that has existed between the two since 1948, it:
1) allows Israel to accomplish the necessary goal of neutralizing the strategic threat posed by Hezbollah;
2) allows Hezbollah to claim a modicum of victory in achieving control of the Shabaa Farms;
3) satisfies Israel's need to not be seen as being forced to capitulate to terror, as the Shabaa Farms would become Lebanese territory only through peace, and not through war; and
4) provides an incentive to Lebanese extremists who would support further attacks on Israel regardless of the pretext of the Shabaa Farms to keep from doing so, as if they attacked Israel they would be directly harming the Lebanese national interest, while simultaneously both providing Lebanon and its non-extremist citizens with an incentive to be vigilant against extremists in their midst and gives Israel assurances that if it trades land for peace it will either get that peace or, if not, it will get to keep the land.
Personally, I think it's a pretty elegant solution, not only because it seems to satisfy the needs of the parties but because it quite effectively puts Nasrallah and Hezbollah on the spot; they can either accede to a deal that stands to greatly benefit Lebanon - the country whose interests they claim to serve - or they can veto it and reveal themselves to their Lebanese constituency as entirely uninterested in the good of Lebanon, which would hopefully drastically weaken their base of support among Lebanon's shiite community.