Israel should aid Lebanon's government

July 28, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- How do you define victory?

That is the question that Condoleezza Rice and Israeli leaders must ask themselves as diplomatic efforts intensify to end the Lebanon crisis. Through the smoke and bombs, one can see the outlines of a deal that would satisfy key Israeli security demands while halting the bombing that is harming so many Lebanese civilians.

But such a deal requires a separation between political rhetoric - which promises more than can be delivered by bombing - and the achievement of the possible. If victory is defined as achieving a safe border with Lebanon by helping the Lebanese government curb Hezbollah militias, there is a decent chance of success.

Ever since Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and rained rockets on northern Israel, there has been much rhetoric in Jerusalem and Washington about wiping out the organization and its armory. In Washington, a chorus of neoconservative pundits has demanded that the Bush administration strike at Hezbollah's Iranian sponsors by bombing Tehran. (One caller to a talk show I was on yesterday calmly suggested nuking the Iranian capital.)

Mercifully, the White House and Israeli leaders appear to recognize that bombing Iran would not stabilize the region. But politicians in Washington and Jerusalem have raised the bar extraordinarily high about conditions for a cease-fire. Israel is seeking to clean out a 20-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon with bombs and ground forces; it demands the deployment of the Lebanese army and international forces before it stops military action.

These conditions play into Hezbollah's hands. That's because military action alone can't destroy Hezbollah. The organization is also a deeply rooted social and political movement, with many charitable activities and with elected deputies in parliament. Once Israeli troops leave Lebanon, Hezbollah cadres will return to the south.

So a pledge to "wipe out" Hezbollah will only enable the group to crow that it has defeated Israel by surviving. If the real Israeli goal - the operative definition of victory - is to end the cross-border threat from Hezbollah militias, there is a better way.

Which way? Strengthen the elected Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. This government is the product of the "Cedar Revolution," much touted by the Bush White House but until now too weak to disband Hezbollah's militia. However, Mr. Siniora's hand has been strengthened by Hezbollah's reckless incursion into Israel.

"Hezbollah is weakened now," I was told in a phone interview with Ibrahim Nasser, an economist and senior activist in Lebanon's Future Movement, which is working for a multisectarian democracy. "Everyone in Lebanon is trying to tell Hezbollah, `It's enough! You must pay a political price,' even though the Israeli war is not justified."

But Mr. Nasser says that such pressure on Hezbollah can only come after a cease-fire.

Mr. Nasser suggests two ways Israel can bolster Beirut: First, return the three Hezbollah prisoners it holds to the Siniora government - not to Hezbollah - and second, settle the matter of Shabaa Farms, a tiny, disputed piece of territory that the United Nations says belongs to Syria but Hezbollah claims is Lebanese. The territory could be handed over to the U.N., removing Hezbollah's last pretext for calling itself a resistance organization.

At that point, he says, "The Lebanese government and population will press Hezbollah" to pull back from the border and let the Lebanese army take over. If Hezbollah agrees to withdraw, Nasser says, its Iranian sponsor will not stand in the way.

I'd add that reconstruction aid should go through the Beirut government, and be made conditional on a Hezbollah withdrawal.

The diplomatic package put together by Ms. Rice contains some of these elements. But the devil is in the timing. If Israel holds out for the deployment of the Lebanese army before any cease-fire, the Lebanese government could collapse in the meantime.

Of course, there is a risk for Israel in relying on the Lebanese government. I recall Israel's dilemma in 1983, when the Shiite group Amal offered to guard Lebanon's southern border against any return of PLO militants. Israel refused and got mired in Lebanon for 18 years.

Now Israel must decide whether to trust the Lebanese to police their own country. No international fighting force is likely to materialize to push Hezbollah back by force, nor will military action alone destroy the organization.

The best option is to help the Siniora government control the border, ASAP.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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