Thursday, August 03, 2006

May You be With the Force

A Force to be Reckoned with
Asia Times 4 August 2006,

In addition, Mark Malloch Brown showed yesterday that a lame duck Deputy Secretary General can still have teeth in his bill, with his reminder to 'Yo-ny' Blair that he has lost all credibility as an interlocutor in the Middle East, and indeed as the US. Often regarded with suspicion by the developing world, MMB has followed up on his truth-to-power rap on Bolton with a statement of the obvious, that is almost heroic in today's invertebrate state of diplomacy.


By Ian Williams

When St Augustine converted to Christianity, he prayed to become virtuous-but not just yet. Similarly, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Israelis want a ceasefire, but not just yet. They also did not want a multinational force, but the "yet" has caught up with them already.

In fact, now that the Israeli vision of rapid and complete victory has evaporated, they want an international force so much that their former robust refusal has dropped down the memory hole.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would stop the offensive "only after a robust international peacekeeping force is in place in southern Lebanon to protect Israel from border raids and rocket attacks".

Even if everyone is too polite to mention that Olmert is eating his words, the force is his only feasible exit strategy, unless the Israelis follow the neo-conservative plan of digging themselves deeper into the hole they have made, and continue their assault, sending in more troops.

Unless they suffer another outbreak of stupidity, the Israeli leadership will be looking for a ceasefire and an international force that they can disguise as a victory, but with the casualties and costs to Israel of the Hezbollah bombing, and the diplomatic costs of the Lebanese casualties, it will take some very heavy disguise.

Insofar as the assault on Lebanon has any rationale, it was that Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz had hoped to prove to a skeptical Israeli electorate that, despite their lack of military experience, they really were tough guys. As Shimon Peres proved in 1996, the last Qana massacre, killing Lebanese wholesale seems the approved way for Israeli politicians to assert their military machismo, even if each time they predictably come unstuck.

There are reports of intelligence failures that led the Israeli leadership into thinking that they could breeze into Lebanon, whack Hezbollah and declare victory (see A new face to Hezbollah's resistance, August 3).

That combination of credulity for wish-fulfillment intelligence and a desire to disguise military experience is so reminiscent of President George W Bush that we should not be too surprised that he has applauded the disaster from the beginning.

Diplomatically, any solution has to allow all sides to declare victory and back down, and the idea of a force authorized by the United Nations seems to be the preferred ladder for everyone to climb down, which is of course rich in irony, since the Khiyam bombing certainly expressed Israeli commanders' true feelings about both the UN and international forces, all the more so since Likud, the party whose founders killed UN representative Count Bernadotte, has packed the high command while it has been in power. But the politicians can claim victory if an international force is on border - the other side, of course.

For its part, Hezbollah, by standing up to the Israelis for far longer than any recent Arab armies, has already won a victory politically in the Arab world. A payoff that may persuade the Lebanese and Hezbollah could be the handover of the Sheba Farms area to Lebanon, or to the UN force.

The question here, certainly not helped by Damascus' reticence about Lebanese borders in general, is whether the Israelis are occupying Syrian or Lebanese territory. One thing is sure, these are not Israeli territories. In fact, they come, like the Golan and the Palestinian territories, under UN Resolution 242, long outstanding, which says the Israelis should get out of them anyway.

It would certainly be anomalous to have a UN force enforcing Israeli control of annexed territories; Israel would have to "un-annex" them, since it grabbed them as part of the Golan Heights.

But the problem with an international force is, of course, in the details. If its task is simply to disarm Hezbollah, which does after all have the support of most of the people living in the south, it will soon be getting the dedicated militant attention that drove Israel out, unless it shows even-handedness by resisting Israeli incursions into Lebanon, which are in fact much more frequent than those going the other way.

The pipe dream of it patrolling the hitherto loosely demarcated border with Syria sounds like the invention of someone trying to prevent any force at all being established.

The fig leaf for the multinational force would be the restoration of Lebanese sovereignty, symbolized by the disarmament of the militias, as called for in UN Resolution 1559. But while Washington talks of new democracies in the region, it blithely ignores the unanimous votes of the newly elected parliaments of Iraq and Lebanon condemning Israel.

It raises a major paradox: if the purpose of 1559 is to restore sovereignty to Lebanon, then how is that process served by disarming Hezbollah against the wishes of the Lebanese people and parliament? According to a Zogby poll, last year even before the invasion, Syria was more popular in Lebanon than the United States was. (Israel had zero support from any Lebanese, even the Maronites, who look to the "Christian" US to back them.)

If the Israeli action impels the Lebanese government to "nationalize" Hezbollah's armed wing, and nominally incorporate it into the Lebanese armed forces, then where does that leave 1559?

Apart from the question of what the international force will do is the even more vexed question of who will do whatever. The bombing of the UN post at Khiyam was a hint to potential troop contributors as to what they can expect. Even now, some people in the Israeli army, who may not have taken Olmert into their confidence, do not want a UN force with teeth, possibly because they still cherish illusions of following in the bloody footsteps Ariel Sharon left on the road to Beirut in 1982.

If they want to avert the prospects of a new Khiyam, any countries joining a multinational force should get cast-iron guarantees from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the US on protection for the force-including anti-aircraft capability.

The French, the most enthusiastic proponents of the force, seem to be implying that it will indeed be strongly armed, with armor and artillery, which raises the interesting question: In the event of shooting between Israeli and UN/multinational forces, which side will the United States be on? And the prospect of German troops firing on Israel may be a little too historically ironic for any of the parties to contemplate.

It is clear that insofar as there is a solution, the UN is at the core of it, and for that to succeed the US must be behind the solution, rather than behind Israel. That is a lot to ask of any US administration with mid-term elections in the offing, and even more so of one that seems to have shared the delusions that have led Olmert to disaster. Maybe Washington will eventually begin to listen to its "other" allies.

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