Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Saving Face, Not Lives

Here's my take on the UN Security Council resolution on Lebanon, which is reminiscent of the fine sounding but fundamentally flawed resolutions about Milosevic for the early part of the Balkan Wars, showing concern while wishing he would hurry up and finish the job.

As I have discovered on Fox and MSNBC, even those who can see the Israeli offensive is getting nowhere seem to think repetition of the word "terrorist" about Hamas and Hezbollah absolves Olmert of all sins and stupidities committed. I'll return to the subject in more detail.


Saving Face, Not Lives

Ian Williams

August 08, 2006


Ian Williams is the author of Deserter, a look at Bush's military career. He has been covering the U.N. and the Middle East for publications around the world, including the Nation. His last book was strictly non-fundamentalist, Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, and his next is on the U.S. and the United Nations.

One month and a thousand dead later, the U.S. is belatedly supporting a United Nations "cease-fire" resolution on Israel and Lebanon that could, if it were drafted carefully, give all the parties a chance to climb down from their various dead-end positions and declare victory. Sadly, that is not an option for those who have died so far, but at least it would stem future blood-flow.

However, the present resolution-drafted to much fanfare over the weekend and set to be voted on later this week-is about saving face, not saving lives. Knowing the feelings of United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, President Bush and the Israelis about the United Nation's legitimacy and effectiveness, you know that they will only toss the very hottest of potatoes in the direction of the U.N.

A sonorous but empty resolution will allow negotiators like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to distance herself from any failure, and blame the U.N., even though it is patently obvious that only Washington has any influence with Israel.

So it should not be too surprising that the phrasing of the resolution takes diplomatic ambiguity into a completely new dimension. One of the key indicators is the absence of any invocation of Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, which authorizes use of military force to make resolutions binding. It is mentioned-but as a promise for a future resolution on an international force.

In the absence of serious international pressure-which means the U.S.-on the parties, it simply means that Israel will carry on, and Hezbollah will fight back. It would be reassuring to think that back-channel negotiations between the sides had produced a discreet timetable for everyone to pull back under cover of the ambiguities of the resolution, but there are few visible signs of that.

The present resolution does not really even call for a cease-fire. It does call for Hezbollah to stop fighting, but has no provisions for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and simply calls upon Israel to stop "offensive" military operations. Of course Israel will claim that, by definition, all its operations are defensive, so there is far too much wiggle room there.

Indeed, Israeli ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon said on television only hours after the first draft of the resolution was released that under his understanding of the "cease-fire," Israel will continue pounding Lebanon until Hezbollah surrenders and returns the captured Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, in their eagerness to pull together a face-saving draft, neither the French nor the Americans seem to have considered what the Lebanese might want-despite the resolution's constant invocation of Lebanon's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Lebanon wants a cease-fire and withdrawal of Israel troops before the international force comes into play. Contributors to the putative international force would almost certainly insist on that as well.

The Lebanese, inflamed into unity behind Hezbollah by the Israeli attacks are also unhappy at the contrast between the demand for the "the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers," and the limp "encouraging the efforts aimed at settling the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel."

On one crucial issue, there is only a vaguely-worded request to the U.N. Secretariat to send "proposals" to the Security Council on how to deal with "border issues"-a veiled reference to the Shebaa farms region, a chunk of land Israel holds onto despite the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

The Shebaa farms are an esoteric but essential point necessary to remove with Hezbollah's excuses to be a resistance movement.

When the Israelis withdrew six years ago, the U.N. decided the area was not part of Lebanon but part of the Syrian Golan-although it is worth recording that U.N. resolutions also say Israelis should with draw from all occupied land, whether Lebanese or Syrian, including Shebaa.

The Shebaa farms became the excuse for Hezbollah, with Syrian encouragement, to continue its self-professed liberation struggle. Handing them over, even to an international force, would remove that excuse, but would allow Hezbollah to claim victory-and maybe to cooperate in disarming and disbandment.

Above all the resolution ignores what might be called the real "root causes" of the conflict. While the Western world was watching Lebanon and Israel, the Arab world is also scrutinizing what is happening in the Palestinian territories, where Israel's military campaign against the Hamas government has continued with a ferocity matching anything in Lebanon, including the kidnapping of 38 elected legislators-the latest the speaker of the Palestinian assembly this weekend.

It is clear that there will be no solution in Lebanon unless there is a comprehensive peace settlement in the region, and one of the messages that the Arab League ministers will be taking to New York this week when they plea for revisions to the U.N. resolution is that Hezbollah will grow in political strength across the Arab and Muslim world unless such an agreement is reached. That is not a prospect that any of the governments involved relish.

The Arab League has an offer on the table: recognition of Israel and a comprehensive peace settlement based on the 1967 boundaries. The U.S. could reinforce that with a message to Israel that the U.S. will pledge defense of those boundaries but no further. No more weapons deliveries until after a ceasefire.

It would help those who genuinely want peace in Israel, and redeem the U.S.'s battered reputation in the Middle East-and, indeed, the rest of the world.

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