`New Middle East' sought by Rice may be too high a goal



JERUSALEM -- By broadly calling for "a new Middle East" yesterday rather than a quick cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to gamble against the region's conventional wisdom that peace is best achieved in increments.

Here, lofty goals often become the enemy of success, as the United States has learned in Iraq. Small steps sometimes succeed when giant leaps do not, as has been the case in the long, troubled history of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Large ambitions are often wrecked, as Israel painfully learned during an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert endorsed Rice's broad principles yesterday, and both maintained that quicker steps to a cease-fire would be less valuable, and less reliable, than a more dramatic shuffle of power and influence in Lebanon.

"It is time for a new Middle East," Rice said, during a day of meetings with Olmert as well as Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. "It is time to say to those that don't want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail. They will not."

There are worries, though, that by setting such a high standard, the United States and Israel are almost certain to fail - and allow Hezbollah to claim victory regardless of what happens to its fighters or the launchers used again yesterday to fire rockets into northern Israel.

"I do think the goals are unrealistic," said Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general who was head of the army's strategic planning division in the late 1990s. "I would recommend my government be more modest in its objectives. There is no chance they will be realized.

"A total defeat of Hezbollah, there is no chance Hezbollah will accept it," he said. "I don't see any international actor who is going to force Hezbollah to accept it."

The United States remains more focused on democratization and remaking the region than on smaller, more achievable goals, Brom said. "What's required is a process, very slow, very tiring."

As conditions for a cease-fire, Israel is seeking the immediate release of the two Israeli soldiers that Hezbollah militants kidnapped July 12, the militia's withdrawal from southern Lebanon and deployment of an international force that would disarm the remaining Hezbollah fighters in the south and create a buffer zone there.

Hezbollah also would have to give up its longer-range missiles, a goal supported by the United States, and must be prevented from rearming. Israel says that would require international monitoring of cargo arriving from Syria.

"Before the `new Middle East,' let's get some obtainable objectives," said Ephraim Sneh, chief of Israeli forces in South Lebanon in the early 1980s, and now a Labor member of parliament. "To push away Hezbollah from our border, and not to allow them to come back. To destroy their infrastructure in the south that allows them to launch rockets. And to get our POWs back.

"It will take time - two, three weeks - but we can do it," Sneh said. "To maintain it, it will require international activity or an agreement. We have to seal this area, but we need someone to take our place," when Israeli troops are pulled back.

Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, said yesterday that Israel would keep control of southern Lebanon until an international force is deployed.

"We have no other option," he said. "We have to build a new security strip that will be a cover for our forces."

Israel does not yet control the border area; the "security zone" it gave up in 2000 is where the ground combat is taking place.

Some of Israel's short-term goals have been scaled back. On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni talked of dismantling Hezbollah. Yesterday, an Israeli field commander told Army Radio that Israeli ground forces would destroy Hezbollah targets only within southern Lebanon, "not going beyond that."

Israel, like the United States, wants the current fighting to weaken Hezbollah and yet strengthen Lebanon's shaky central government, of which Hezbollah is a part. Some Israelis say the conflict could help produce a reformed Lebanese government that would be backed by Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, replacing the influence of Syria and Iran, and be able to enforce quiet in the country's south.

"You try to push Hezbollah up north, you end their missile capabilities," said a senior Israeli defense official, who spoke about Israel's military and diplomatic goals on condition that he not be named. "Now the political dimension will come to the fore. It will not solve all the problems, but it will create a different picture."

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