Northern Israel experienced a minor earthquake last weekend, but the election of former army general and Prime Minister Michel Aoun as Lebanon’s president late last month presents a different seismic shift in the axis of power on Israel’s northern border.
The new president’s allegiance to the Iranian bloc would presumably lead the country away from Saudi influence. However, in an attempt to repair a growing rift, Saudi adviser to the king, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, on Monday invited Aoun to Saudi Arabia, an invitation he will accept after forming a government.
The 81-year-old veteran of Lebanon’s complex and fractious political system took on the role, reserved for a Maronite Christian, in a system set up by the French, whereby the president is Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.
Aoun is allied with the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy group established to fight Israel.
The presidency has been vacant for over two years after 45 failed attempts by the National Assembly to reach an agreement. Aoun’s election came after compromise by former prime minister and political opponent Saad Hariri, a supporter of Western and Saudi influence.
Significantly, the first foreign minister to visit Aoun was Shiite Iran’s Foreign Secretary, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The rising influence of Iran in Lebanese politics comes at the expense of Sunni Saudi Arabia’s influence – preferred by America. In February, Saudi Arabia announced withdrawal of $4 billion of aid to Lebanon.
Hariri, who enjoys Western and Saudi support, eventually endorsed Aoun to, as he put it, save the country from becoming another Syria and to “protect Lebanon, protect the system, protect the state and protect the Lebanese people”
Lebanon has been described as “a playground for foreign powers.” Its borders, as with much of the Middle East, were set under the Sykes-Picot axis agreement between Great Britain and France in 1916, with each country controlling certain areas. This agreement took little notice of ethnic and religious communities, resulting in conflicts that spill across borders making national boundaries extremely difficult to maintain to this day.
As American influence in the Middle East waned significantly under the Obama administration, Russia has propped up the failing Syrian President Bashar Assad at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives, and millions of refugees – 1.5 million who fled in Lebanon straining the economy there.
Ironically, Aoun was Syria’s greatest enemy during their occupation of Lebanon right up until 2005. Now, Aoun is allied with Hezbollah as is Assad, making for a powerful and dangerous power bloc.
So what does the rise of Aoun to the presidency mean for Israel amid this complex and often bewilderingly conflicting web of allegiances? Aoun has stated that he will retake land that Israel occupies in the North, part of Mount Hermon and an area known as Shebaa Farms. That is not surprising rhetoric though, since he is allied with Hezbollah.
Meanwhile his government has just started building a controversial concrete security wall around the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, for “security reasons.” Such a move is likely to provoke and destabilize Palestinians living in Lebanon, though Hamas and the Palestinian Authority leaders are known for making Israel the scapegoat for their grievances.
Aoun’s rise is a potential prelude to a regional war with neighboring countries attacking Israel who they hate more than each other. The Psalmist spoke of such a war in Psalm 83 praying the outcome would be swift and decisive. The combination of combatants he described has yet to occur.
Psalm 83. A song. A psalm of Asaph.
1 O God, do not remain silent;
do not turn a deaf ear,
do not stand aloof, O God.
2 See how your enemies growl,
how your foes rear their heads.
3 With cunning they conspire against your people;
they plot against those you cherish.
4 “Come,” they say, “let us destroy them as a nation,
so that Israel’s name is remembered no more.”
5 With one mind they plot together;
they form an alliance against you—
6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
of Moab and the Hagrites,
7 Byblos, Ammon and Amalek,
Philistia, with the people of Tyre.
8 Even Assyria has joined them
to reinforce Lot’s descendants.
9 Do to them as you did to Midian,
as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon,
10 who perished at Endor
and became like dung on the ground.
11 Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb,
all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna,
12 who said, “Let us take possession
of the pasturelands of God.”
13 Make them like tumbleweed, my God,
like chaff before the wind.
14 As fire consumes the forest
or a flame sets the mountains ablaze,
15 so pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your storm.
16 Cover their faces with shame, Lord,
so that they will seek your name.
17 May they ever be ashamed and dismayed;
may they perish in disgrace.
18 Let them know that you, whose name is the Lord—
that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.