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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 17, 2006

Why did Hizballah attack Israel... Why is Washington not getting involved politically in trying to mitigate this highly volatile conflict?

Q. Why did Hizballah attack Israel last Wednesday, July 12?

A. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced after the attack and abduction operation inside Israeli territory that the purpose was to grab hostages to be traded for Lebanon's three prisoners in Israel. That rationale does not hold up to examination. True, Hizballah had for the past two years declared and displayed its determination to snatch Israelis, and based on past experience it is fair to assume it would even have abducted dead Israelis had none of the soldiers in the two ambushed hummer armored vehicles survived the attack (indeed, we don't know for sure whether these hostages are alive or dead).

In fact, there are not even three Lebanese in Israeli jails--only one and a half. One of the three names cited by Hizballah is a missing person but was never jailed by Israel. A second, a Lebanese born to a Jewish mother, immigrated to Israel in the 1990s in accordance with the law of return and was subsequently arrested and tried as an Israeli on charges of spying. The third is Samir Kuntar, a Druze who as a teenager participated in a murderous terrorist attack in Nahariya in 1979. The Sharon government agreed in 2003, as part of the Tenenboim swap, to release him if Nasrallah would provide information on missing navigator Ron Arad; Nasrallah never fulfilled that promise.

Nasrallah's presentation of Hizballah's motive began to strike home when he suggested that from herein Israel would have to address the question of the release of its hostages in the hands of Hizballah and Hamas as a single parcel. The timing of the Hizballah operation and Nasrallah's attempt to present the hostage crises on two fronts as a single affair appear to indicate that the July 12 operation was intended in part to preempt any inclination on the part of Hamas to strike a deal with Israel for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit. From herein, considerations of Islamist solidarity will, Nasrallah hopes, prevent Hamas from ending its crisis with Israel.

Here Iran's fingerprints are evident: the Shi'ite Hizballah is an Iranian proxy through and through, whereas Hamas, a Sunni organization linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is happy to take Iran's financial and military support but is less likely to yield to a hard line directive from Tehran where its vital interests are concerned. And Iran, for obvious reasons, has no reason to give its blessing to a Palestinian-Israeli deal regarding Shalit and the Kassam rockets being fired from Gaza.

But the July 12 timing suggests another motive, as well. The day before, Iran in effect turned down the West's offer of a package agreement for ending its nuclear crisis and opening conversations with the United States. Hizballah was used to stage a diversion that is likely to distract the western powers away from Iran's nuclear program for the weeks to come.

Finally, Hizballah may have had a domestic Lebanese motive as well. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for Hizballah to be disarmed and the Lebanese Army to be stationed along the border with Israel. Hizballah, with Iranian and Syrian backing, has been rebuffing domestic and international pressures to comply. The decision of Lebanon's ruling Sunni/Maronite coalition to invite Hizballah and Amal, also a Shi'ite Party with a militia, to take up portfolios in the government was intended to facilitate the de-fanging of Hizballah from within, but appears to have failed. An alternative tactic, to demand that Syria join Lebanon in delineating the border at the Shebaa Farms in order to resolve this Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli territorial dispute, which Hizballah regularly cites as an excuse for its armed presence in the South, also failed recently when Syrian President Bashar Asad refused to give the issue priority.

Nevertheless, Hizballah and its Syrian and Iranian backers may have felt sufficient pressure to warrant an act of preemption here too, the assumption being that the fighting and Hizballah's role in defending Lebanese territory will ward off any Lebanese government pressures for Hizballah to disarm and release the Israeli soldiers. Here Israel hopes to prove Nasrallah wrong.

The Hizballah attack of July 12, incidentally, took place in the western Galilee, far from the Shebaa Farms, and in totally undisputed Israeli territory.

Q. Why is Washington not getting involved politically in trying to mitigate this highly volatile conflict?

A. The simplest explanation is that the US can do relatively little by way of mediation as long as it does not recognize or talk to the protagonist camp, Hizballah and Hamas. Nor does it have many immediate levers of pressure on Syria and Iran, the other protagonists. But there are deeper rationales for Washington's inactivity.

One is that the US is content for Israel to be battering two radical Islamist movements. That both movements aggrandized their power thanks to democratic processes that Washington encouraged--without even objecting to the participation of these armed Islamist parties--only underlines the irony of this situation. Moreover, were Israel to succeed by force in actually toppling the Hamas government in Palestine or bringing about a governmental crisis in Lebanon, it is not at all certain that the outcome would actually be beneficial to either Jerusalem or Washington. But meanwhile, American support and non-involvement have enabled Israel to proceed relatively cautiously on the ground in Gaza and in the air in Lebanon, thereby reducing casualties on both sides to a "tolerable" level and giving the IDF a chance to achieve its operational objectives. (No level of civilian casualties is really tolerable. But the levels reported in Lebanon and Gaza appear thus far to be acceptable internationally, considering the circumstances of a campaign like this that focuses on terrorists who use the civilian population for cover and that involves considerable Israeli casualties as well.)

Another explanation is that the Bush administration has never, in five and a half years, been inclined to get involved in Israeli-Arab peacemaking of any sort. Then, too, it is preoccupied with its fiasco in Iraq and its effort to enlist international pressure on Iran. No US administration likes to try to manage more than one Middle East crisis at once.

Until a few days ago, the administration could point to mediation efforts by Egypt and Turkey, both of whom appeared to have more access to Damascus and Hamas than Washington. Besides, Cairo and Ankara were anxious to undertake a mediatory role, insofar as this enabled them to score points with the US and reduce tensions in their relationships with America.

The July 12 Hizballah attack on Israel radically alters the parameters of the conflict, possibly to a degree of escalation (involving, say, Syria, or the collapse of the Lebanese government or the Palestinian Authority) that is beyond the capabilities of regional powers to mitigate, and conceivably threatening the stability of friendly Arab regimes. Moreover, as Israel fights on two fronts, the danger of causing a radical rise in Arab civilian casualties--an eventuality that traditionally brings about forceful international intervention--grows exponentially. Both of these dimensions could conceivably force Washington's hand.

Were this to happen, the administration would likely be more vulnerable to pressure from a variety of pro-Arab and anti-Israeli lobbies that argue that unequivocal US support for Israel has dangerously alienated the Arab world, and that the time had come to tilt toward the Arabs.

However, as long as Israel's campaign is able to proceed relatively unfettered and with minimal objection from both the industrialized world and most Arab countries, from Israel's perspective, the time for intervention does not yet appear to be ripe. There are still important objectives to be achieved for Israel's security, particularly eliminating the Hizballah leadership and destroying the movement's Iranian and Syrian-supplied arsenal of long range rockets. The moderate Arab countries, led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, seem to be in no hurry to save Hizballah, and for good reason: radical Islam threatens their own security. The Arab League on Saturday essentially abdicated any role in resolving the conflict, while the G8 summit passed a resolution that satisfied all the assembled world leaders but, at least according to the US interpretation, put the onus on Hamas and Hizballah to make the first move and avoided calling for a ceasefire until then.

All these actors are apparently hoping that Israel's offensive in Lebanon will deal a blow, however indirect, to Iran and Syria. Washington's support for Kofi Annan's UN peacekeeping mission to the region should be seen, therefore, essentially within the context of gaining time for Israel.

On the other hand, if Israel's Lebanon operation grinds to a standstill without a solution for the South, or if the operation gets embroiled in uncontrolled escalation, or generates some major humanitarian catastrophe, Washington should be poised to present a solution.

At that point it would make sense to advocate a model of US intervention that does not tie Israel's hands but nevertheless signals the Arab world that limits are being applied. One option could be to offer a US-led international force to fill the void created in southern Lebanon, along the border with Israel, by Israel's campaign against Hizballah, along with close coordination with the Siniora government in Beirut to ensure a timetable for a Lebanese Army force eventually to take over there, in accordance with Lebanon's obligations under UN Security Council resolutions.