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Suddenly, Washington Sees That Iraq, Lebanon Issues Are Linked

August 8, 2006
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A funny thing is happening on Israel’s way into Lebanon: Its war with Hezbollah is converging politically with the civil war now convulsing Iraq. In Baghdad, tens of thousands of Shi’ite marchers swore allegiance last week to their Hezbollah co-religionists; some even pledged their lives.

“Mahdi Army and Hezbollah are one, let them confront us if they dare,” the marchers chanted, referring to the brutal militia headed by the popular Iraqi Shi’ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Washington, some officials are saying the two conflicts are inextricable.

“We must find a comprehensive solution to the corrosive Arab-Israeli conflict,” Gen. John Abizaid said Aug. 3 in outlining to the U.S. Senate his top priorities as the top U.S. commander trying to prevent Iraq’s collapse.

The other two priorities, he said, are to isolate Al-Qaida and deter Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East.

The idea that the two struggles are linked could inhibit U.S. support for Israel’s efforts to rout Hezbollah from southern Lebanon.

“The United States is discovering that as Israel’s war with Lebanon becomes more and more of an issue with its friends like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, America’s relations with these countries become more and more tenuous,” said Stephen P. Cohen, an analyst with the Israel Policy Forum who consults regularly with Middle East leaders. Israel and the United States “are caught in a common web.”

Abizaid made the same point.

“Iraq is only one part of a broader regional struggle under way, one which requires the wise application of all our resources,” he said.

Israel threaded itself insistently through a hearing that was to have been devoted to Iraq.

The powerful committee chairman, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), said one of the reasons he convened the hearings is because of “concerns about the potential impact of events in Lebanon and Israel and their cascading effect on the wider Middle East region, and specifically on the United States and coalition forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Close to 700 Lebanese, most of them civilians, have been killed since July 12, when Hezbollah launched the war with rocket attacks and a cross-border raid. More than 90 Israelis have died, half of them in rocket attacks.

In the same hearing, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has vigorously defended Israel’s response to Hezbollah, acknowledged that the risks of the conflagration have drawn concerns from the highest echelons of government.

“In the meetings that I’ve been in with the president and the secretary of state and those that are intimately involved in the situation in Lebanon and Israel with respect to the Hezbollah, there is a sensitivity to the desire to not have our country or our interests or our forces put at greater risk as a result of what’s taking place between Israel and Hezbollah,” Rumsfeld said.

Another ominous signal for Israel’s hope for continued U.S. support was a column in Sunday’s New York Times by David Brooks, who has close Bush administration ties.

Brooks devoted his column to an anonymous “policy-maker” who said the legitimacy of Israel’s war “was forfeited during the first days with the bombing campaign, which seemed to punish all of Lebanon instead of just Hezbollah.”

That’s an about-face from the Bush administration’s consistent message, since the outbreak of hostilities, that Israel’s response is appropriately aimed at the terrorist group and not at Lebanon more generally.

More substantially, the policy-maker suggested the administration’s policies of bolstering Iraq and pulling Arab moderates out of the fire were at risk because of Israel’s policies, adding that the Israelis “won’t like” aspects of the U.N. Security Council resolution the United States and France proposed this weekend as a way out of the conflict.

Israel’s official response was that it was examining the resolution, but it was already clear that the document fell considerably short of Israeli expectations.

The resolution “emphasizes” the need to return two Israeli soldiers captured July 12, which precipitated the war; that language falls short of the “calls for” that Israel was hoping for, and which carries the weight of international law.

That significantly weakens one of the three pillars of Israel’s preconditions for ending the war. The other two, which the resolution “calls for,” are a cease-fire and the removal of armed Hezbollah forces south of the Litani River.

Also unpalatable for Israel are paragraphs that anticipate that Israel will release Lebanese prisoners and relinquish the Shebaa Farms area of the Golan Heights. Lebanon suddenly raised a claim to the area after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of Lebanon in 2000. The United Nations checked the Lebanese claim and found it baseless, agreeing with Israel that the area — captured in the 1967 Six-Day War — was Syrian and should remain under Israeli occupation until Syria and Israel resolve border issues.

Israeli officials have said they are loathe to reopen the issue, which would essentially mean handing Hezbollah a victory.

“We never said that this is part of our motherland,” Shimon Peres, the deputy prime minister, told CNN on Sunday. “On the other hand, we are not ready to pay a price for an aggression.”

The more sensitive issue is the prisoners. Israel kept just three Lebanese prisoners after a 2004 exchange with Hezbollah. This was partly because of the severity of their crimes — one, Samir Kuntar, has been imprisoned since 1979 when he murdered a father in front of his 4-year-old daughter and then smashed in the girl’s head — but also to retain a bargaining card in Israel’s 20-year-old effort to track Ron Arad, a missing airman known to have been once held by Hezbollah.

Returning the prisoners would be profoundly unpopular in Israel and would bury what leverage Israel still has in tracking Arad’s fate.

Israel also was hoping that the resolution would call for the immediate deployment of an international force to keep southern Lebanon free of Hezbollah, but Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, said that would come in a subsequent resolution.

The Lebanese are unhappy with the resolution because it allows Israeli troops to remain in southern Lebanon for now and retaliate against Hezbollah attacks.

Rice balanced the concerns of both countries in a meeting with reporters Sunday prior to briefing President Bush at his Texas ranch.

“There are things the Israelis wanted and things the Lebanese wanted, and everybody wasn’t going to get everything that they wanted,” she said. “This is the international community’s effort to bring about an equitable, reasonable basis for a cessation of hostilities of the kind that are so devastating to civilian populations.”

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