All is quiet on Iran’s western front, say UN peacekeepers

The land across the border from northern Israel, from the Lebanese shores of the Mediterranean to the mountains of the Golan Heights in Syria, has become a staging ground for Iran and its proxies in their confrontation with the West. Iran has provided the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah with more than 100,000 rockets and missiles and now has begun a “precision project” to retrofit those weapons with accurate guidance systems. It is likely that advanced weapons were flown to Lebanon recently aboard several 747s directly from Iran. The targets, in case it was not abundantly clear, were spelled out in a recent Hezbollah video — in Hebrew, no less — specifying precise locations in Israel.

But until this week, none of this military infrastructure existed in the fantasy-land Lebanon of the United Nations. Faced with incontrovertible evidence, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, conceded that Hezbollah had dug an attack tunnel into Israel. As recently as November, the United Nations secretary general’s four-month report insisted that the situation in south Lebanon “remained generally calm,” with “no evidence” of Hezbollah arms on the ground.

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Re-established in 2006 at the end of the Second Lebanon War, UNIFIL was intended to avert another war between Israel and Hezbollah by supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Entering into a war-torn area with a weak LAF, UNIFIL would include up to 15,000 troops with a significant maritime task force and a rich toolkit to address military and civil engineering projects as well as civilian population outreach and support. UNIFIL spends significant amounts on 580 local “national staff” jobs and on “projects to address the pressing needs of local communities,” which actually mean significant U.N. cash flow to the Hezbollah-supporting populace, and protection money to the local power brokers. Last August, the United Nations extended UNIFIL’s mandate and approved its $474.4 million yearly budget.

It is true that for the past 12 years, Israel and Hezbollah have avoided a full-scale war — mainly through self-restraint and mutual deterrence. But during this period Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon politically, economically and militarily. Today, by supporting the LAF and the civilian population that hosts Hezbollah, UNIFIL has become an accessory to Hezbollah’s ambitions. No wonder the United Nations turns a blind eye. It is time to acknowledge that UNIFIL is oversized, over-equipped and over-funded.

Meanwhile, across the border, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has begun its return to positions on the Syrian Golan Heights after an absence of four years. UNDOF, established at the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War to prevent another war between Israel and Syria, was driven from its peacekeeping outposts when fighting between the government and rebel groups threatened their security. With only 975 troops and an annual budget of just $60.3 million, UNDOF is hardly capable of fulfilling its mission under current conditions. Unlike UNIFIL, UNDOF is undersized, under-equipped and under-funded.

Despite their shortcomings, UNIFIL and UNDOF do fulfill an important role in a volatile area, keeping tactical incidents from escalating to war. The same cannot be said of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which was created to supervise the cessation of hostilities between Israel and its neighbors in 1948. Today this relic of a bygone era has a biannual budget of nearly $70 million, with 153 military officers, 153 international civilian, and 91 national staff — never mind that Israel has peace treaties with both Jordan and Egypt, or that most UNTSO observers are incorporated into UNDOF and UNIFIL in Syria and Lebanon.

The United Nations could take an important step toward reducing security threats along Israel’s northern border — and save money — by rebalancing these three missions. UNIFIL could fulfill its mandate even if it were to cut its troop size from 10,000 to 3,000 and drop its expenditures on local workers, development projects and communities involved in aggression against UNIFIL forces. These recommendations would save $200 million to $300 million every year.

Conversely, UNDOF should resume its substantial monitoring in Syria, based on patrols and observation from temporary positions. To do so, it needs to grow by about $30 million and 300 troops, enhance the security of its mobile units, and engage in engineering and community outreach projects. For its part, UNTSO, quite simply, should declare victory and disband.

With the Trump administration eager to reduce U.N. waste, repel Iranian regional ambitions, and contribute to Israel’s security, the time is ripe to rationalize these three U.N. missions.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces Strategic Planning Division, led IDF relations with U.N. peacekeeping missions. He is a visiting military fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.