More than two weeks after Israel launched its countermilitary offensive against Lebanon, the Bush Administration continues to refuse to call for a cease-fire or to take other actions to rein in Israel’s disproportionate response to Hezbollah’s attack across its northern border. That attack, in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured, was a clear violation of international law. But it was not grounds for an act of war. The US position is not only morally wrong; it thwarts the goal of securing stable and lasting peace in the region, upon which American interests and Israeli security depend.
Washington’s tacit blessing of the Israeli military operations, along with its expedited resupply of Israeli munitions, means that the United States will be complicit in the death and displacement of Lebanese civilians beyond the 400 already dead and at least 600,000 displaced, as well as in added destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure and the deepening of a humanitarian crisis. In short, Washington will be implicated in what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has called possible war crimes, which will breed more hatred for the United States and Israel throughout the Islamic world. Adding to the sense of impunity were the deaths of four UN observers by an Israeli precision-guided missile, despite what the UN said were repeated Israeli assurances that UN posts were not being targeted.
Ostensibly, White House strategy is to buy time for the Israeli military to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice builds international support for strengthening Lebanon’s government and putting pressure on Syria to stop supporting Hezbollah. The overall goal is to break Hezbollah, the Administration has suggested, so that the Lebanese government can control all of Lebanon, disarming what remains of Hezbollah and securing a peaceful border with the help of international forces. But supporting Israel’s military offensive makes no sense. The Israeli attacks are weakening the Lebanese government and increasing Hezbollah’s popularity. Rather than breaking Hezbollah’s will, the attacks will likely break the Lebanese government and society, creating another failed state and giving militias more freedom to operate.
Washington also says it wants Syria to end its support for Hezbollah, but it refuses to talk directly to Damascus–instead seeking the help of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who want to stop what they see as a rising Shiite crescent. But the longer Israeli military operations continue, the more vulnerable to popular pressures these governments will become and the less helpful they can be. The leaders of these Sunni states may fear Iranian influence, but their people are more angered by what they see as Israeli aggression. Syria has indicated it is open to talking, but the idea that Basher al-Assad will be moved by Sunni Arab entreaties to split with Iran without major concessions from Washington and Tel Aviv misreads political realities.
Disarming Hezbollah, moving Syria away from Iran and creating a stronger Lebanese state are all worthy goals. But they cannot be achieved by the Bush Administration’s limited notion of diplomacy and certainly not without addressing the underlying concerns of the Palestinian and Lebanese people as well as talking with Iran and Syria. Secretary of State Rice is right about one thing: We do need to address the roots of the current crisis. But the roots are not Hezbollah per se, or Syria’s or Iran’s support for it; as Rashid Khalidi argues in this issue, they can be found in Israel’s nearly forty-year occupation of Arab and Palestinian lands. The Israeli strategy of avoiding negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict while seeking to impose its will by force has only radicalized many Palestinians and Lebanese and added to the strength and popularity of Hamas and Hezbollah.
As the latest violence should make clear, Israeli and US policies seeking to isolate Hamas and Hezbollah, treating them as terrorist organizations and denying them the opportunity to govern, have clearly failed. And so will the current effort of Israel to defeat them militarily. If the Bush Administration really wants a lasting peace, it will put aside the terrorist rhetoric and try diplomacy to resolve the underlying grievances. The first steps are an immediate cease-fire and the exchange of prisoners, followed by multitrack negotiations that will end with the recognition of Israel and the withdrawal of Israel from occupied Arab territory. It will not be quick or easy, but it is the only way to break the escalating violence and hatred that could eventually engulf the entire Middle East.