As U.N. Seeks Mideast Cease-fire, Focus Stays on International Force

As the international community tries to find a formula to stop the fierce fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, it faces what could prove to be an insoluble conundrum: how to get Hezbollah to accept its own military demise, or, alternatively, how to persuade Israel to make do with less. Backed by Syria and Iran and still able to lob hundreds of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, Hezbollah shows little sign of agreeing to an American-French effort to stop the war and put in motion moves that would neutralize the Shi’ite militia as a fighting force.

Israel, with the option of widening the ground war to put most of the Hezbollah rockets out of range, opposes any cease-fire that would leave the radical organization’s military wing intact.

A dramatic change on the ground or growing war weariness on either side could change things. But, for now, the fighting seems set to continue and even intensify.

Besides securing the release of the two soldiers abducted by Hezbollah on July 12, precipitating the war, Israel’s main goal is the removal of the rocket threat on northern Israel. It hopes to achieve this through the creation of a demilitarized buffer zone in southern Lebanon, disarming Hezbollah and banning future supplies of arms to any force in Lebanon other than the elected government.

All three measures are included in the American-French initiative. That’s one of the main reasons why the Lebanese side — both Hezbollah and the Beirut government — oppose it.

Initially, the Lebanese government seemed inclined to accept a solution that would enable it to move its forces to the border with Israel and disarm Hezbollah. But with Hezbollah continuing to rocket Israeli towns and cities and gaining more support in Lebanon, the government is even more reluctant than usual to confront the militants.

Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s main backers, also are determined not to allow a cease-fire that might compromise what they see as their wider regional interests. On Sunday, ahead of an Arab League emergency meeting in Beirut, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, arrived in the Lebanese capital to ensure that the Lebanese did not buckle under international pressure for an end to hostilities.

A key element of the American-French plan is the dispatch to southern Lebanon of an international peacekeeping force to help the Lebanese army deploy there. This could be a staged process: First, as hostilities taper off, a beefing up of the United Nations’ interim forces, UNIFIL, already in the area; and later, once there is a stable cease-fire, the dispatch of a larger force with a considerably wider mandate.

Israel argues that the size, composition and mandate of this second force will be crucial. Israel would prefer a multinational force under, say, French command, rather than a U.N. force subject to the organization’s hamstrung bureaucracy.

Israel believes the force’s mandate should be to help the Lebanese army keep southern Lebanon free of armed militants, stop the flow of arms to Hezbollah across the Syrian border, help disarm Hezbollah and prevent any recurrence of rocket fire into northern Israel.

In order to carry its mission, the force would have to be made up of 10,000-20,000 well-trained troops, with authority to open fire if necessary.

The issue of the international force is complicated by differences between Israel and the Lebanon over the timing. Israel also says its troops must remain in southern Lebanon until the international force moves in to replace them — since Hezbollah is sure to exploit any vacuum to move back into the area.

For its part, Hezbollah says there will be no cease-fire until all Israeli forces in Lebanon withdraw. But there’s a more fundamental question: Assuming peacekeepers do move in, will they be able to do the job?

Israel has not had good experiences with international peacekeepers in the past. The United Nations Truce Supervision and Observer force, which was deployed on the border with Egypt after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, pulled out at the first sign of trouble in 1967 before the outbreak of the Six-Day War.

Likewise, UNIFIL has proved unable to stop repeated terrorist attacks on Israel, often standing by while terrorists operate right next to U.N. positions, confident that Israel will feel unable to respond.

Some Israeli analysts hope that this time things will be different, with a well-armed, Western-led multinational force aware of the strategic importance of a stable Lebanon as a bulwark against Iran’s drive for nuclear power and regional hegemony.

Others, however, argue that precisely because of the wider regional implications, Iran and Syria will never allow a stable, Western-leaning Lebanon to emerge. They maintain that no international force will be able to disarm Hezbollah and that Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah terrorism probably would be turned against the force itself — just as, in the early 1980s, Hezbollah launched a campaign of terrorism to drive out American and French peacekeepers.

These analysts maintain that the best hope for a stable Lebanon is a deal with Syria. They hold that as soon as the international force is in place, American and Israeli approaches should be made to Damascus with the aim of detaching Syria from the Iranian axis, establishing a Syrian buffer between Iran and Hezbollah.

The next few days could be crucial. The Lebanese government is working to amend the U.S.-French draft in its favor. But as long as Hezbollah continues to fire rockets across the border on a daily basis, the Israeli government remains skeptical about the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly has decided to give diplomacy a few more days and, if nothing comes of it, to widen the scope of Israel’s land offensive, with a view to putting a stop to the Katyusha bombardments by military means.

That could concentrate minds in Lebanon and lead to a cease-fire agreement. If not, it will mean a new and much wider war against Hezbollah that will put off the diplomatic countdown for some weeks yet.

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