The Lebanon War Is Not Yet Ripe for Diplomacy
The diplomats descending on Beirut and Jerusalem intent on swinging a ceasefire in the seven-day Israel-Hizballah war exchanges have come too early. The two sides are in full flight. The Israeli deputy chief of staff Moshe Kaplinsky said Tuesday of “several weeks” of combat lie ahead and Hizballah refuses to hear of a ceasefire.
They can be stopped only by two unforeseen events: Either Hizballah manages to deal Israel’s military or population a blow of “unimaginable” proportions – as threatened by Tehran, or Israel is able to mete out a mortal blow to Hizballah.
Since neither disaster has happened, Israel and the Hizballah continue to circle round each other in search of weak points for delivering this blow. The would-be mediators are meanwhile shuttling back and forth aimlessly between Beirut and Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem at least, they have access to one of the principals, unlike Beirut. Except that Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, followed by foreign minister Tzipi Livni, spent Monday and Tuesday, July 17 and 18 laying down four totally unrealistic conditions for a ceasefire:
1. The unconditional release of the three Israeli soldiers held hostage by the Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian Hamas may have been morally obligatory, but the demand falls on deaf ears. The other side might have listened had Israel held a strong card, such as the capture or death of the Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah or a key Hamas figure in Gaza. But this has not happened. In fact Nasrallah has slipped through the Israeli air blockade of Beirut and set himself up in a fortified bunker in the northern Lebanese pocket of Hermel on the Syrian border.
Watching Nasrallah stand up against the tons of bombs Israeli warplanes have thrown at his militia has encouraged the Palestinian Sunni Hamas to continue its belligerence against Israel. As a gesture of support, the Palestinian group stepped up its missile barrage against Israeli towns and villages from Gaza this week and sent a suicide bomber carrying a 5-kilo bomb vest into the heart of Jerusalem.
Therefore Israel’s sine qua non for discussing a ceasefire, the release of the three soldiers, is not realistic. Hizballah and Hamas will both hold on to their prize cards and only lay them on the table at the conclusion of talks.
2. Equally unrealistic is the prior demand for the Hizballah to be removed from south Lebanon and replaced by effective Lebanese army units. So far, not even Israel’s own armed forces have managed to shift them. Does anyone seriously expect UN Secretary General Kofi Annan or his special Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen to be able to push the Hizballah north? That the Shiite terrorists are still very in much in place is demonstrated by the shower of Katyusha rockets pelting northern Israel for seven days.
debkafile‘s military sources report that their rocket launching center is situated in the Triangle of Death, a region of deep crevasses and dense vegetation lying between the Shiite towns of Tebnine, Qana and Jounaiya in south Lebanon. Though much smaller, the geography of this triangle resembles that of the al Qaim province of western Iraq which US elite forces have never been able to purge of al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgent sanctuaries.
Drawing rightly on lessons from the US war on terror in Iraq, the IDF is focusing its effort to rid southern Lebanon of the Hizballah militia and neuter its rocket campaign almost exclusively on aerial strikes. The results are mixed and the battle unresolved.
3. It is not entirely clear whom Israel is holding responsible for applying the UN Security Council resolution 1559’s clause calling for the disarming of all Lebanon’s militias.
The United States and France, Lebanon’s post-Syrian sponsors, who have taken prime minister Fouad Siniora under their protection, have done all they can, together with the world body, to impose this resolution on the Lebanese government – and failed. This is not because the Siniora government is not willing to comply but because it can’t. In any case, even if Hizballah removed its presence from the south, the Lebanese army is short of the operational brigades for the “effective deployment” Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni deems necessary.
The Olmert government’s starting point for diplomacy is a bit like its approach to the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Even assuming he wanted to meet Israeli and international demands to dismantle terrorists and establish a regime based on law and order and fit for peace negotiations, he is totally powerless to bring his will to bear on the Palestinian situation. Just as Palestinian national security forces aid and abet terrorists, so too does Hizballah have sympathizers and collaborators inside the Lebanese army and security forces.
4. And who exactly does the Olmert government see stopping Iran and Syria from re-arming Hizballah in the future?
If Israel’s terms for a ceasefire are unrealistic, Hizballah’s leaders and masters in Tehran and Damascus are completely inaccessible and unsusceptible to diplomatic norms. For them, a premature ceasefire at this point would be an unthinkable admission of defeat. Therefore, with the best will in the world, the diplomats have nothing to chew on at this point. Condoleezza Rice is under no illusions. “We should have a ceasefire when conditions are conducive to one,” she retorted at a joint news conference with Egyptian foreign minister Abul Gheit in Washington Tuesday, July 17. By this reply she slapped down her guest, who wanted a ceasefire at once, and the reporter who asked her how much time the Bush administration was willing to give Olmert.
The Israel-Hizballah war has more rounds to go before conditions become conducive for the diplomats to step in. Hizballah is threatening more surprises and the IDF will strive to chalk up successes to give Jerusalem the leverage it needs.