Two weeks into the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, the United States stands with only two other countries—Israel and Britain—in opposing an immediate ceasefire. Even Iraqi Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki, in Washington for reassurances that the Bush administration will “stay the course” in its Mesopotamian misadventure, demanded that the bombing be halted forthwith.
Today’s Rome gathering of European leaders to discuss a ceasefire is exposing the United States’ isolation in this conflict for all to see. While US officials have begun admitting that a ceasefire is “urgent,” though they hasten to add that for such an agreement to be “enduring,” it must address the “root causes” of conflict along Israel’s northern border.
Those State Department wordsmiths hammered out some thoroughly unobjectionable language. A ceasefire, it goes without saying, is inadequate to diffuse the underlying tensions that produced this war. But when the secretary of state explains what the new diplo-speak means, we know Lebanon and the Middle East are still in deep trouble.
First of all, the Israeli offensive in south Lebanon is welcome to proceed indefinitely, despite nearly 400 Lebanese dead and as many as 750,000 Lebanese (one out of every five) displaced and destitute. Second, Condoleezza Rice continues to identify Hizballah’s weaponry and the threat posed to Israel as the primary, if not exclusive “root cause.” And lastly, the “enduring” solutions that are being floated address only Hizballah’s rockets and Israel’s border security, and not the reasons why the Shiite movement has refused to disarm its militia.
The not-so-quick fix du jour discussed today in Rome is an “international stabilization force,” or what some commentators are calling a “peacemaking force.” The notion originated with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, received Israeli approval, and then was picked up by Rice during her sojourn in Beirut and Jerusalem. Taking its cues, as usual, from on high, the opinion elite is starting to come on board. Cautioned a July 25 New York Times editorial: “Such a force will need to be well-armed and be given a robust mandate so that Hizballah will have little choice but to retreat.”
What makes the proposed force “robust”? It would have authorization to shoot at Hizballah guerrillas, either to disarm them or to push them far enough north in Lebanon that most of their rockets cannot reach Israeli towns. In other words, the international community would intervene to impose the terms that Israel’s air force, navy and army so far cannot. Obviously, Hizballah will not greet that breed of blue-helmeted emissary with sweets and flowers. If the Lebanese government were, in its desperation to end the bombing, to assent to the envisioned force on these terms, Hizballah would regard their compatriots as fully complicit in Israeli and US war aims. Civil war would then be quite conceivable.
These dire scenarios explain why Rice is in no hurry to broker a ceasefire. The US and Israel still hope that Hizballah’s fighting capacity can be sufficiently “degraded” that an international force, when it is finally composed, will be conducting mere mop-up operations. On July 25, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz declared his country ready to reestablish a “security zone” in south Lebanon until such time as the robust multi-national cavalry arrives, reviving memories of Israel’s previous 22-year occupation that ended in 2000.
As Hizballah fights on, some backers of Israel’s campaign are urging that hope give way to hopeless cynicism, and that Washington promise Syria renewed hegemony in Lebanon in exchange for Syrian help in disarming the Shiite movement. Such a deal would certainly give new meaning to this fine phrase of Rice’s: “I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib.” But the Bush team is nothing if not stubborn; Syria will remain out in the cold.
If Rice wants to tackle “root causes,” of course, she could approach Damascus and its erstwhile Lebanese ally from a different direction. (Now that would be a surprise.) In conjunction with pressure on Israel to stop its offensive, and work out a prisoner exchange with Hizballah to stop the rocketing, the US could offer to jump-start direct talks between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. The US could press Syria officially to cede the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside along the Syrian-Lebanese border, to Lebanon, so that Israel could then withdraw and satisfy Lebanon’s last territorial claim against it. Particularly if all this happened against the backdrop of reinvigorated negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Hizballah’s militia would lose its raison d’etre .
There must be an unconditional ceasefire in Lebanon, Gaza and Israel, followed by an expeditious revival of serious work toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. All of this is urgent for enduring security for all concerned.