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Climbing Out of the Lebanon Abyss

With Robert Malley, Slate, 28 July 2006

In explaining why the United States will not press right now for a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah, Condoleezza Rice argues that merely returning to the status quo ante will mean relapsing into violence in the future. She has a point. The accidental war, as some dubbed it, was no accident. It has its origins in a catalog of issues that have been festering for years. But it’s the conclusions she draws from that insight that are problematic. Prolongation of hostilities comes at enormous price and will complicate, not ease, efforts to tackle underlying problems. An immediate cessation of hostilities would not, to borrow the Secretary’s words, offer Lebanese and Israeli civilians a false promise. Telling them they can either achieve an immediate cease fire or address root causes offers them a false choice.

Every day the war goes on is a day of colossal costs. The mounting death tolls, and the massive population displacement and physical destruction in a Lebanon still barely recovering from its last round of hostilities, speak for themselves. There remains the threat of a catastrophic event that, by design or accident, would bring the conflict to an entirely different level. One thinks of a successful Hizbollah strike on a chemical plant or on Tel Aviv, an Israeli operation resulting in massive casualties, a deep and deadly ground offensive, or the expansion of the war to Syria or Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. loses more of its dwindling credibility and public opinion radicalizes in the Muslim world. And Iraq’s security nightmare is being compounded by Shiites feeling deepening anger at the U.S., unable to comprehend how their government can befriend a country that betrays their brethren.

Even by its own logic, the U.S. argument falls short. The administration assumes that time is on Israel’s side: as the military campaign unfolds, Hizbollah will decline. It should know better. Not only is there little evidence of any knockout physical blow, but such wars tend to augment what they seek to decrease, in this case Hizbollah’s domestic influence and militancy among Lebanese. In contrast, Prime Minister Siniora’s government is getting steadily weaker, its capacity to assert authority or impose necessary changes once the violence dies down getting feebler. The U.S. repeatedly broadcasts its wish to bolster the Prime Minster. Why then does it ignore his most pressing demand, an immediate cessation of hostilities?

Washington and Tel Aviv must confront the reality that this war cannot be won militarily, even stretching to the limit and beyond the constraints imposed by international humanitarian law. The only way out is diplomatic and political. It begins with an immediate cessation of hostilities, followed by a prisoner exchange and, under appropriate conditions, the dispatch of an international force to South Lebanon. Given Lebanon’s history and its fragile political-sectarian balance, any such force must be contemplated with extreme caution. It has to be agreed to by all parties -- Hizbollah included -- authorized by the UN Security Council, and be a confidence builder, not an enforcer. Understandable as the desire of Israel and the US may be to have a force with full disarmament powers, if it is viewed as threatening Hizbollah or taking sides in the confessional battles, it could plunge the country in a new round of civil strife.

But, the U.S. says, stopping violence is not enough unless we deal with root causes. Indeed so. Yet it posits a dubious zero-sum choice: either we tend to those causes now, while violence flares, or we never will. Surely there is no reason why the administration, applying its considerable power, could not mobilize international energy to attend to these underlying problems once a cease-fire has been secured – no reason, of course, other than that it has shown no such appetite for diplomacy in the six years preceding the crisis. Just as there was no reason to wait for violence to break out before tacking root causes, there is no reason to wait for root causes to be tackled before ending violence.

Then there is the question of identifying these root causes. The administration singles out Hizbollah’s existence as an autonomous armed militia and concludes that to knock it out is the answer. Hizbollah’s capability is a part of the problem, and not a negligible one at that. But a root cause? The root cause? Can this really be the U.S.’s view of the crisis engulfing the region?

To find root causes one has to dig deeper. There are reasons why Hizbollah has risen and prospered and why it has been so difficult to disarm. These relate to the disadvantaged status of Lebanon’s large Shiite constituency, and the fact that many among them view the Islamist movement as their principal asset in an otherwise inequitable political system. To aggressively go after Hizbollah without simultaneously addressing Shiite grievances could push the fragile nation to breaking point. Hizbollah’s clout also can be attributed to still-unresolved Israeli-Lebanese matters, including the contested Shebaa farms, which the Islamist movement readily invokes as justification for retaining its arms. And Hizbollah’s fate is closely intertwined with regional issues, including Syria and Iran’s role, and the failure to activate a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

A serious effort to safeguard Israel’s security without jeopardizing regional or Lebanese stability is possible, but only if the U.S. is prepared to engage in vigorous, continuous and comprehensive diplomacy. Immediately after a ceasefire has been secured, the U.S. and its European and Arab partners should focus on ending the conditions that produced this deadly conflagration – the real root causes. This would include intensifying the intra-Lebanese dialogue concerning Hizbollah but also the country’s political system and national defense; addressing pending Israeli-Lebanese issues; engaging Syria and Iran in a broad discussion of regional matters; and reinvigorating the long-dormant Arab-Israeli peace process.

Dealing with root causes? By all means, as many of us have been arguing for years. But the right ones, and all of them, and in a way that doesn’t postpone the most urgent priority of all – stopping the present killing.

Gareth Evans, Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996, is President and CEO of the International Crisis Group; Robert Malley, President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001, is its Middle East Program Director. Crisis Group’s latest report on the conflict, Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: Climbing Out of the Abyss (25 July 2006) is at www.crisisgroup.org