COMMENTARY
 
Lebanon: Will Rice’s Visit Make a Difference?
Weekly Pulse
Jul 28-Aug 3, 2006
Hezbollah wanted an immediate ceasefire, followed by negotiations over prisoners’ exchange. The Lebanese government’s position was almost the same. Israel wanted its two captured soldiers back before any talk of a ceasefire. The stand of the United States was pretty much the same. It was in this backdrop that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Lebanon and Israel in the past week, and held meetings with Lebanese, Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But her visit seems to have re-affirmed the fact that each contender of the current crossfire across the Lebanese-Israeli border between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, which has already claimed hundreds of lives in south Lebanon and dozens in northern Israel, has a peculiar position, which is different from the other.

The United States is said to have proposed a package settlement, including a cease-fire, simultaneous with the deployment of the Lebanese army and an international force in south Lebanon and the removal of Hezbollah weapons from a buffer zone extending 30 kilometers from the Israeli border.

Hezbollah’s Writ

Like Israel, the US wants to end the domination of Hezbollah in south Lebanese region bordering Israel. Israel likewise has rejected any halt in the fighting until two of its soldiers captured by the Shiite militia are freed and the guerrillas are forced back. Tel Aviv now also seems to agree for the deployment of an international force in south Lebanon.

The Lebanese government has its own package for settling the current conflict. It includes a call for a “swift cease-fire,” to be followed an over-all solution guaranteeing the return of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, Israel’s withdrawal from the Shaba Farms, a tiny border region that Lebanon claims, and a provision on minefields lain in south Lebanon during its 18-year occupation of the region.

Hezbollah has also insisted that a cease-fire must precede any talks about the return of captured Israeli soldiers and resolving its presence in south Lebanon. Hezbollah would like to swap the captured Israeli soldiers with its own prisoners being held in Israeli prisons. As for its presence in south Lebanon, its contention is that this is a Lebanese matter to be resolved through internal factional dialogue. The Shiite militia is, therefore, opposed to the deployment of international troops in south Lebanon.

In retrospect, the US Secretary of State’s visit to the region has done nothing but expose further the underlying differences in the Lebanese and Israel positions on a conflict that could conflagrate if international diplomacy did not prevail well in time. Therefore, all eyes are now set on the Rome Conference to resolve the current crisis in Lebanon.

UN Diplomacy

The UN diplomacy now seems to concentrate on the deployment of international troops in south Lebanon, preferably under NATO command, to create a buffer between Israel and the rest of Lebanon.

However, the world body seems to acknowledge that Syria’s cooperation for the purpose was essential. For its part, the US would not deal directly with Damascus, even though it may settle for some Syrian role via UN. As for Israel, it is quite critical of the UN approach, especially its projection of the worsening humanitarian situation in Lebanon, due to Israel’s disproportionate and irresponsible military response to Hezbollah’s rocket firing. While Secretary of State Rice also expressed her “concern” about the humanitarian consequences of Israeli shelling in south Lebanon, which has already uprooted close to a million people and resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians, it continues to hold Hezbollah as the main culprit.

The principal reason for such a staunch US backing of Israel is due to the tremendous influence that the Jewish community exercises on the US political structure, print and electronic media. No matter what Israel does in south Lebanon or the Palestinian territories of Gaza and West Bank, which have also been bombed severely in the last one month after the capture of an Israeli soldier, it does not receive any criticism.

Divergent Voices

However, there are a handful of divergent Jewish voices. For instance, according to David N Myers, a professor of Jewish history at University of California at Los Angeles, whom I recently met, Israeli response is “disproportionate and may prove to be counter-productive.” But he is also of the opinion that a “more focused attack on Hezbollah, combined with international pressure to disarm the Shiite militia, can be a reasonable alternative.”

All said and done, perhaps the Rome Conference may help bring about an end to the current conflict, with the current cost for Lebanon of Israeli destruction estimated at $1 billion. While the outcome of the Conference may lead to the creation of a buffer zone in south Lebanon being manned by international troops, the question of Hezbollah’s disarmament will be more complicated.

The reason Hezbollah is there, or Hamas has come to power in Palestine, is the continued occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel. As long as this occupation continues, militant challenges to the Jewish state will continue. You eliminate one, another one will spring somewhere. Settling Palestine according to UN resolutions may not be in the interest of Israel lobby, and, therefore, the United States; but in the absence of such a settlement, even if a ceasefire was reached in what is being called as Lebanon Two, the broader Middle Eastern conflict will continue.