Monday, July 31, 2006

Positions of strength

When the Israeli-Hezbollah (Lebanon) conflict was merely days old, as opposed to weeks old, a troubling element that could have lead to additional violence was the common perception of strength among the belligerent parties. This perception remains and extends beyond the immediate combatants to their larger benefactors.

Syria and Iran feel emboldened by some Hezbollah success and the continued mess in Iraq. Israel has military superiority, with air supremacy, and that makes generals happy. George W. Bush believes in a bellicose transformation of the region, which no one has been able to dislodge from his psyche.

Something has got to give. I hope that the better angles of human nature will develop this week. But, I believe the opposite impulse will rule.

What follows is an intentionally scattershot set of excerpts.

The Los Angeles Times:
DAMASCUS, Syria — Amid bitter condemnation across the Arab world for the Israeli attack that killed as many as 56 villagers in the Lebanese town of Qana, Syria said Sunday that it would insist on an "unconditional" cease-fire and that it remained opposed to the deployment of any foreign troops to end the fighting in southern Lebanon.

"Before everything, a cease-fire. Stop the war. Without any condition. Then we will talk about the exchange of prisoners, then we will talk about the whole peace process of the region," Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said in an interview, echoing the increasingly urgent call of Arab leaders for an end to the violence.
The New York Times:
And Israel’s defense minister, Amir Peretz, made it clear in a speech to the Knesset today that Israel intends to continue its ground operations against Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon.

“We must not agree to a cease-fire that would be implemented immediately,’’ Mr. Peretz said. “If an immediate cease-fire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew.’’

At the end of a turbulent eight-day trip, Ms. Rice laid out what she called an “emerging consensus” for a cease-fire package. Under the proposal, Israel and Lebanon - presumably representing Hezbollah -- would agree to a cease-fire as part of a larger pact that would include installing international peacekeepers throughout southern Lebanon.
The New Yorker:
But Hezbollah’s interests are not reducible to the conventional terms of a casualty balance sheet. Hezbollah has embedded itself deep within Lebanese society, in effect creating a state within a state, with an extensive social-service network. Even if Israel manages to dislodge Hezbollah’s fighters, Nasrallah will likely remain the most powerful politician in the country, in part because the chaos of the last weeks has exposed the weakness of the government. Most of the Lebanese analysts I spoke with said they believed that Hezbollah had, on its own terms, been significantly strengthened by the conflict.

The damage to Lebanon, meanwhile, has been catastrophic. Fayyad said that he had arranged to evacuate his father from the family home in a village near the Israeli border, but he emphasized that Hezbollah’s forces would not leave south Lebanon without a fight. “You must remember that the point of resistance is not to hold ground and face off in front of another position,” Fayyad said. “That is classical warfare, but we are guerrillas. If the Israelis want to take the territory all the way up to the Litani River, do you think they can do it without heavy casualties?”

Fayyad finished his ice cream and stubbed out his cigar. Before we left Lina’s, he said, “This doesn’t mean that the battle isn’t difficult for us. It is. It’s painful, too. But the longer it goes on the harder it will be for them.”
The AP:
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that the entire Middle East peace could collapse because of Israel's fighting in Lebanon. "There is an urgent need for an unconditional cease-fire, which would pave the way for international efforts to end the crisis and deal with its consequences," he said in a nationwide TV address.

In Washington, President Bush stuck to his position that any cease-fire be accompanied by a wider agreement addressing the root causes of the fighting, such as Hezbollah's control of southern Lebanon, and Iran and Syria's influence in Lebanon.

Fighting was heavy in the northeast corner of south Lebanon around Taibeh and other border villages, where Israeli ground forces have been fighting Hezbollah guerrillas for nearly two weeks. Constant Israeli artillery blasts — not covered under the air halt — shook the hills.
The Christian Science Monitor:
Topping it all off, Iran specialists say, the diminutive but rhetorically explosive leader sees Iran's existential enemy, the United States, so weakened by its Iraq involvement that he and the regime's powerful mullahs are feeling less constrained by fears of America.

And the troubling reality, these experts add, is that the regime's analysis is more accurate than fanciful.

"Four years after being labeled part of the axis of evil, Iran has a sense of being on the rise while the US and the West are increasingly weak, and they have reason to think that way," says Lawrence Haas, an Iran specialist at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
And there is the nuclear matter to consider. The AP:
UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council passed a weakened resolution Monday giving Iran until Aug. 31 to suspend uranium enrichment or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Because of Russian and Chinese demands, the text is weaker than earlier drafts, which would have made the threat of sanctions immediate. The draft now essentially requires the council to hold more discussions before it considers sanctions.
The Washington Post:
"The arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction," said Richard N. Haass, who was President Bush's first-term State Department policy planning director. "The biggest danger in the short run is it just increases frustration and alienation from the United States in the Arab world. Not just the Arab world, but in Europe and around the world. People will get a daily drumbeat of suffering in Lebanon and this will just drive up anti-Americanism to new heights."

The White House recognizes the danger but thinks the missiles flying both ways across the Israel-Lebanon border carry with them a chance to finally break out of the stalemate of Middle East geopolitics. Bush and his advisers hope the conflict can destroy or at least cripple Hezbollah and in the process strike a blow against the militia's sponsor, Iran, while forcing the region to move toward final settlement of the decades-old conflict with Israel.


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