Catch-22: Cease-fire Calls Don’t Jibe with Need to Defeat Hezbollah

It’s a conundrum for countries that want to end the crisis in Israel and Lebanon: Despite their calls for a quick end to violence, the best hope for a lasting cease-fire depends on how thoroughly Israel crushes Hezbollah. Many of the actors meeting Wednesday in Rome at a crisis summit hosted by the United States have called forcefully on Israel to exercise "proportionality" in its efforts to rout Hezbollah firepower from north of the border.

The problem with such calls is that as a terrorist militia accountable to no government, Hezbollah is neither a reliable nor acceptable party to any agreement as formal as a cease-fire, Israel says — a reality underscored by Hezbollah’s unprovoked July 12 cross-border assault that launched the fighting.

Europe and the United Nations may be calling for an immediate cease-fire, but "they have a message that is a contradiction in terms," said Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. "They call for an early cease-fire and then they call for restraint. It doesn’t work together."

Hezbollah is likely to stop shooting only when it is crippled militarily, according to this theory.

Now touring the region, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is likely to propose a muscular international stabilization force that would police the border until Lebanon’s military is strong enough to replace it and keep Hezbollah terrorists at bay.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has made an end to violence in southern Lebanon a precondition for French participation in any peacekeeping force.

"You have to understand that if there’s no cease-fire, there can’t be any intervention by a foreign armed force," Douste-Blazy told French television station RTL.

The American message was equally clear: A cease-fire must ensue from circumstances that would prevent Hezbollah’s return to the border.

"We cannot return to the status quo ante, in which extremists at any time can decide to take innocent life hostage again by using their missiles or using their capabilities," Rice said Tuesday in Jerusalem, where she met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Nearly 400 Lebanese have been killed and more than a half-million uprooted in the crisis. Further down the line, Israeli officials said they would be ready to accept a robust multinational force, and at least one country, Turkey, seemed ready to pony up.

"If and when called upon, we will be giving positive consideration to whichever way we contribute, including to a force," Burak Akcapar, a counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, told JTA.

Akcapar noted the good marks Turkey got for its leadership in similar missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

As one of the few nations with good relations to all parties, Turkey’s motivation in Lebanon would be especially acute, he said.

"We have a major stake in maintaining stability in the region," he said.

France, a country that has had a stake in Lebanon since before Napoleon was emperor, almost certainly would be expected to take a lead in such an endeavor, so its willingness to serve is critical.

Speaking on background, a French official said France understood that Israel had some military work to do before the ground was ready for a cease-fire.

"We don’t want to put the cart before the horse," the official said.

The problem is that Israeli attacks are limited in what they can accomplish, the official said, and no one believes Hezbollah can be completely routed.

"If the goal is disarmament by force of Hezbollah, Israeli military operations show that it is not that easy," the official said.

Israel claimed Tuesday to have taken the critical Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, but fierce fighting continued.

Ayalon said the outlook was good overall.

"We have made significant progress in taking out Hezbollah long-range capabilities and medium range, and now we are taking out the short range," he told JTA. "They have already been crippled as a fighting force, but of course it’s not enough. We are still receiving Katyusha rockets in Kiryat Shmona and Haifa — we will take care of that."

Few expect Hezbollah to disappear, but Israel needs to continue until it has at least the trappings of a victory, said Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

"There should no longer be yellow flags along the border," Luft said, referring to the Hezbollah standard. "That is not only a symbolic issue but a strategic issue that has to do with deterrence."

A sufficient marker for Israel would be a "killing zone" on the Lebanese side of the border, where Israel can "kill on sight anyone who moves in," said Luft, a former battalion commander in the Israeli army.

"I don’t believe there will be a knockout, but there should be a victory on points," he said.

Such terms might bring Israel short-term quiet, but Israel and the United States need to address the longer-term picture, according to Mark Rosenblum, a founder of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. Jewish group that has been most aggressive in recent days in pushing for a diplomatic solution.

"The dilemma here is to get diplomacy revved up with enough teeth," Rosenblum said.

He suggested direct contacts with Syria, what he called the "weak link" in an axis with Iran at one end and Hezbollah at the other. Without Syria, Iran would be hard-pressed to resupply Hezbollah.

"The primary goal at the moment is to address Syria and see if might not be a weak link of this arc of terrorism and rejection and if it can be converted," he said.

The United States and Israel have rejected direct contact with Syria because of its backing for terrorist groups and its failure to secure its border with Iraq.

Whatever happens, Hezbollah, embedded among Lebanon’s Shi’ite plurality, remains a factor, according to the French official who spoke to JTA on background.

The official said the group could be neutralized by the exchange of three Lebanese in Israeli jails for two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in the July 12 raid, though the exchange would have to be in the wider context of an agreement favorable to Israel.

Additionally, Shebaa Farms, a patch of captured Syrian land in the Golan Heights that Lebanon sought to claim after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 — the United Nations rejected Lebanon’s claim as unfounded — could be handed to Lebanon, the official said. It’s not clear if Israel would accept that condition, which might be seen as giving Hezbollah a prize for its aggression, and Syria in the past has refused to cede the territory to Lebanon.

The French official said Lebanon’s energy minister, who represents Hezbollah in the Lebanese government, could sign off on any agreement, alleviating concerns in the West about negotiating directly with terrorists.

"We have to find a political framework for Hezbollah to agree, and that remains unresolved," the official said.

NEXT STORY