TEL AVIV—For 16 years, he was Israel’s best friend in Lebanon, a general who commanded a militia of 3,000 that helped the Israeli army keep Hezbollah at bay. At home, he is reviled as a traitor and an alleged war criminal.
This week, as fighting raged along the northern border, Antoine Lahad could be found taking in a cloudy Mediterranean sunset from the seaside bar that he owns in this most modern of Israeli cities, offering delicate criticism of the way his adopted land has punished his native country.
“I’ve seen a lot of revolutions in my time, but what is going on now is painful. I expected this would happen,” said Mr. Lahad, the former South Lebanon Army chief, who blames the Lebanese government for not reining in Hezbollah attacks on Israel over the last six years.
“But Israel retaliated against Lebanese infrastructure in a very hard way,” he continued. “Maybe there was another way so many civilians wouldn’t be killed.”
Pushing 80 years of age, Mr. Lahad seems more genteel grandfather than Lebanese warlord. A Maronite Christian, he speaks Arabic and French in a tobacco-choked alto rasp. (His assistant translated this interview from Arabic into Hebrew.)
Mr. Lahad’s combed waves of white hair were held perfectly in place; the pants of a debonair gray suit approached his lower midriff. A slight tremble of the hand suggests his fragility, but his memory and opinions are robust and lucid.
From a tactical perspective, Mr. Lahad has strictly mixed feelings about Israel’s latest Lebanon offensive. He denies that Israel’s attacks will strengthen Hezbollah, as critics all over the world suggest, but he hints that Israel’s attempts to turn the Lebanese people against Hezbollah aren’t working.
“It unites the Lebanese and allows them to feel less scared of Hezbollah,” he said. “It makes them feel together with Hezbollah, even if they don’t want to be with Hezbollah. It gives them a feeling that Hezbollah should be pitied and that ‘We should help Hezbollah.’”
Mr. Lahad speaks from deep and bitter experience with both sides in the current conflict.
When he was tapped as Israel’s partner 22 years ago, he was a retired Lebanese Army officer living in Beirut. Mr. Lahad was contacted by Meir Dagan—the current head of the Israeli Mossad, who was then a major general in command of Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon after the 1982 invasion.
Mr. Lahad replied to Mr. Dagan’s offer to lead the S.L.A. with a demand to meet with the Israeli political leadership, so he was flown by military helicopter from Beirut to Tel Aviv to meet with Defense Minister Moshe Arens.
“I said, ‘This is a political issue. I want to know if Israel had any water or land interests in Lebanon.’ If they had planned to take even one glass of water, I would not have joined,” he explained.
When Mr. Arens convinced him that Israel had no water or settlement interests, Mr. Lahad accepted the job, seeing himself as a protector of southern Lebanon amid the chaos of civil war.
Thus began a controversial decade and a half of cooperation with Israel that earned him a notorious reputation among his countrymen. The S.L.A. is perhaps most reviled for the brutal interrogations administered at the Al Khiam prison.
Meanwhile, south Lebanon became a de facto dependent of Israel, which offered everything from employment to medical services.
Mr. Lahad said that he talked often with Lebanese government officials during the 1980’s, but the contacts were stopped by the Syrians. In the mid-1990’s, he failed in an attempt to find an interlocutor for then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to conclude a peace treaty with Lebanon.
When asked about former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the decision to leave Lebanon in 2000, Mr. Lahad’s reaction was visceral: “I’ve blocked out all of that.”
But then he relented.
In May of 2000, when it was clear that Mr. Barak planned to get out of Lebanon, Mr. Lahad was in Paris to meet with French military friends from his school days to coordinate a force that would come in the place of the Israel. But when he boarded the flight back from Paris to the Middle East, he got word that Israel had pulled the plug on its 18-year Lebanese presence—two months earlier than planned.
“Barak might have thought that he was acting in the interests of the state of Israel, but I think he was acting in his own political interests,” said Mr. Lahad. “And the proof of that is that now they’re paying the price for it.”
After that hasty exit from Lebanon, the soldiers in Mr. Lahad’s army and their families were left in the lurch. Many resettled in Israel. Some moved to Europe, and others returned home to face war-crimes tribunals.
Barred from immigrating to France, Mr. Lahad decided to remain in Tel Aviv.
Despite the hard feelings, Mr. Lahad apparently remains cozy with his old allies. At one point during the interview at his bar, he paused to greet a pair of blue-suited bureaucrats with Israeli-flag lapel pins who had stopped by to bring him a party invitation.
For the past three years, Mr. Lahad has owned and operated Byblos, a bar named after the Lebanese coastal city in which a long counter of cherry wood sits amid purple neon lights, Oriental wall motifs and Arabic music that give the interior the air of an exotic pickup joint. The tangy, parsley-heavy tabouleh is unmatched in Tel Aviv, and—apparently—attracts a heavyweight military crowd.
“All of the Kirya comes here,” says Claude Ibrahim, who is the manager of Byblos and Mr. Lahad’s assistant, referring to the Tel Aviv army complex that is Israel’s version of Pentagon.
Despite a newspaper report in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail that he had traveled to northern Israel several times to meet with Israeli intelligence during the conflict, Mr. Lahad denied having any formal involvement in the current war with Hezbollah.
But in his professed capacity as an amateur analyst, he is willing to predict that Israel will be unable to attain a decisive military victory over Hezbollah, because the Shiite guerrillas have entrenched themselves all over Lebanon and can’t be dislodged without intolerable casualty rates.
To get at the root of the problem posed by Hezbollah, Mr. Lahad said, Iran and Syria must be pressured. Meanwhile, the current operation can at least achieve a weakening of Hezbollah that will allow an international force to enter Lebanon and help the Lebanese Army establish control over the south.
“I expected that one day that Hezbollah would make a problem with Israel, and it would escalate into something big,” he said. “But I didn’t think it would be on this scale.”
Mr. Lahad said he is confident that, eventually, a multinational force will succeed in stabilizing the south of Lebanon, bringing some semblance of peace to the region. But he is less optimistic that he will ever again be able to visit the land of his birth. For that to happen, Israel and Lebanon will have to sign a peace treat—something that Mr. Lahad can’t foresee in his lifetime.
“Of course I want to go back. It’s my homeland,” he said. “But I don’t think peace treaties will begin anytime soon. I’m at an advanced age, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see peace. But there’s no need for peace now. It’s enough to go back to the truce.”