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A DIPLOMATIC DUD
PROBLEMS WITH A CEASE-FIRE
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
August 2, 2006

August 2, 2006 -- AS the conflict in Lebanon continues, the catchy word "cease-fire" has become a substitute for the policies needed to rid the Middle East of the root causes of violence and stabilize its state structures.

The major powers and others involved in this fight have used this fig leaf before. Ten years ago, after another tragedy in the village of Qana, the wheels of diplomacy went in motion to obtain a cease-fire - ending the first Israeli attempt at uprooting Hezbollah. That cease-fire lasted almost a decade, during which Israel felt secure enough from Hezbollah attacks to withdraw from territory it had held in Lebanon for almost two decades.

Yet, as we now know, that cease-fire didn't address the problem's root cause - the protagonists' inability to accept each other's existence. Hezbollah wants Israel wiped off the map. Israel repays the compliment by seeking the elimination of Hezbollah as a military organization. Thus, this fight is prompted by existential threats, not territorial disputes that diplomacy can sort out.

Yet many would still seek a cease-fire now as a least-bad option, which might offer a respite to organize humanitarian relief. The trouble is, they don't appear to have thought out the problems involved. Contacts with the United Nations, the European Union and the French government (all of whom are promoting the cease-fire idea) have failed to provide any answers to the key questions.

The first question is: Who will be the parties to the cease-fire?

The obvious answer is: Israel and Hezbollah. But such a deal would require Israel to recognize Hezbollah - which it regards as a terrorist organization - as a substitute for the Lebanese state.

One solution would be to have the cease-fire signed by the Lebanese government. But that option, too, entails major problems. That government's rival branches have contradictory different attitudes on the conflict. In a French TV interview last week, President Emile Lahoud made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Hezbollah - not the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - represents Lebanon in this conflict. But the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, wants to reduce the role of Hezbollah, though without giving the Siniora government a boost. The Siniora government itself, meanwhile, wants a cease-fire but is not prepared to guarantee its enforcement unless and until the Lebanese army takes control of southern Lebanon - something that Hezbollah has vowed never to allow.

There is also talk of the European Union and the United States guaranteeing a cease-fire. Yet that would require them to abrogate their laws, which classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to have bought the idea of his generals that Hezbollah has been mortally wounded and, given another two weeks, would be ready for a coup de grace. So far, however, there is little evidence to back that analysis.

Hezbollah has seen considerable success from its tactic of preserving armed militants by hiding them among civilians. Consider: Three weeks into the fighting, Hezbollah admits the loss of 10 fighters, against some 800 civilians killed. At that rate, to "eliminate" Hezbollah's estimated 8,000 fighters, Israel would have to kill almost a quarter of the Lebanese population. Hezbollah's losses in weapons? Easily and speedily replaced by Iran - as indicated by Adm. Ali Shamkhani, head of the newly created Defense Policy Board in Tehran.

Those who hope for a meaningful cease-fire will look to the example of Hervé de Charette, then France's foreign minister, who brokered the 1996 cease-fire after the first massacre at Qana.

De Charette faced the same question as today: Who controls territory in southern Lebanon deep enough to provide Israel with a credible shield? He immediately realized two things. First, there was no Lebanese government strong enough to control the south and enforce the cease-fire. Second, it was naive to expect Israel and Hezbollah to abandon their mutual hatred and guarantee a cease-fire.

His solution was to bring in Iran and Syria on one side and the United States on another as guarantors of an Israel-Hezbollah cease-fire. (For diplomatic cover, he also involved the U.N. Security Council.) De Charette and his Iranian counterpart at the time, Ali-Akbar Velayati, became de facto chairmen of the ministerial committee that guaranteed the cease-fire.

By all accounts, that was a brilliant tactical success for diplomacy. It provided almost 10 years of calm on the frontier. Four years into that period, Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to evacuate the area Israel had controlled in southern Lebanon for nearly two decades.

De Charette's initiative showed that, given time and calm, the Lebanese could obtain what they had failed to do through years of violence. Can the same formula work again? The risk is that, if history repeats itself, it would do so (as Marx once observed) as a farce.

The world is not what it was in 1996. Both Israel and Hezbollah have more powerful weapons and have perfected their tactics for dealing with one another. Israeli military planners are adamant that they can do away with Hezbollah once and for all. Hezbollah leaders for their part are equally adamant that, by simply not losing, they can win this round against Israel, thanks to international support (especially from Europe and the global antiwar movement). Syria is bitter toward the West and in no mood to revive the late President Hafez al-Assad's policy of keeping Washington sweet under all circumstances.

More important, perhaps, is that Iran appears to be in no mood for diplomatic finessing of issues. Its new leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is convinced that the West is in retreat and that, once President Bush is no longer in the White House, the Americans will run away, leaving the Islamic Republic and its allies to reshape the Middle East.

If a cease-fire emerges this time, it is likely to be a temporary stalemate in the bigger struggle to set the agenda for the region, not a prelude to a decade of tense calm on a remote border between two tiny states.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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