A decade ago, for example, the U.S. together with France was able to act as an honest broker between Israel, Syria and Lebanon to put an end to a similar flare-up. But back then, Syria was in control of Lebanon and participating in U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel over the fate of the Golan Heights; Iraq was still ruled by Saddam Hussein's tyranny, which also functioned to limit Iran's regional ambitions; and the Oslo peace process offered Israel and the Palestinians the prospect of peace. Today dialogue amongst the various parties is rare, even as the prospects for U.S. success on key issues such as stabilizing Iraq, fighting al-Qaeda and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons may hinge in no small part on its ability to stop the Israel-Hizballah crisis from spinning out of control. But having dispensed with the traditional U.S. role of shuttling between warring parties, the Bush administration finds its ability to keep a lid on their clashes quite limited.
A quick look at the agendas of the various players in the latest conflict underscores the difficulty facing any would-be peacemaker:
By opening a second front against the Israelis, Hizballah is showing support for the Palestinians of Gaza, who have been under siege by the Israelis for two weeks since they seized an Israeli captive of their own. Moderate Arab governments like Egypt and Jordan appear unable to ease the plight of the Palestinians, and Hizballah may be helping its main sponsor, Iran, burnish its claims to be standing up to Israel and the U.S. on behalf of the whole region. The movement gained a kind of pan-Arab hero status in 2000, when Israel quit Lebanon and Hizballah was acclaimed as the only Arab army ever to have forced an Israeli retreat. It had become a role model and tutor to Palestinian radical groups such as Hamas, which sought to emulate not only Hizballah's art of combining welfare work, politics and military activities, but also its principle of using violence to extract concessions from Israel. In fact, the Hamas militants that seized Corporal Gilad Shalit at Kerem Shalom may have been hoping to emulate Hizballah by forcing the release of large numbers of prisoners for the Israeli's freedom. But Palestinian analysts suggest they were also trying to sabotage any move toward moderation and negotiation with Israel by the Hamas parliamentary leadership.
But Hizballah also has a domestic agenda, which includes hanging onto the private army that gives it disproportionate power in Lebanon. Ever since international pressure forced its ally and enabler, Syria, to retreat from Lebanon last year in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Hizballah has faced a mounting clamor from the other Lebanese political parties to give up its weapons in line with U.N. Security Council demands and confine itself to democratic politics. But the Lebanese government has been powerless to enforce that demand. By picking a fight with Israel and provoking harsh military retribution felt by all of Lebanese society, Hizballah may be perversely trying to make a case for maintaining its army, given the clear inability of the Lebanese army to stand up to the Israelis. It also, ironically, eclipses even the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas by demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of its price for freeing Hizballah's Israeli captives.
Syria's departure left a power vacuum in Lebanon that gave Hizballah even greater freedom of action. Before 2000, Syria, which lacks the military strength to go head-to-head with Israel, saw Hizballah's guerrilla war in southern Lebanon as the key leverage behind its own demands that Israel hand back the Golan Heights. It transferred weapons sent from Iran to Hizballah's forward positions along the Israeli border, and created a defensive shield behind which its fighters trained in the Bekaa Valley. But that relationship both enabled and restrained Hizballah, because Israeli or U.S. pressure on and incentives to Syria could prompt it to rein in the Lebanese guerrilla army. Syria's departure from Lebanon may have diminished some of its direct influence over Hizballah, and Damascus may have less will to restrain it while Syria remains in Washington's diplomatic doghouse. While some statements from the Bush Administration appear to hold Syria accountable for the flare-up, others are less accusatory, couched more in terms of encouraging Syria to use its influence to help resolve the crisis.
Having created Hizballah in 1982 and maintained close ties with the organization ever since, Iran may also see its interests served by the escalation of violence in Lebanon and Gaza regardless of whether or not Hizballah actually coordinated its decision with Tehran. Iran's regional influence has grown substantially as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which removed its arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, and brought to power a Shi'ite coalition government dominated by elements allied with Tehran. Prospects for averting the slide towards civil war in Iraq appear to be grim without active support from Iran, which retains considerable influence over the main Shi'ite militias.
The U.S. vulnerability in Iraq, as well as the ability of Hizballah to make life difficult on Israel's northern border, may have emboldened Iran's leaders to play hardball in nuclear negotiations with the West. Iran's growing reach may also raise the incentives for Washington to seek a "grand bargain" with Tehran that would stabilize relations based on addressing Iran's demand for a normalization of its diplomatic status and security guarantees if it satisfactorily addresses Western concerns over its nuclear program and support for the likes of Hizballah and Hamas. (In a spurned Iranian overture to Washington in 2003 revealed by former National Security Council Middle East director Flynt Leverett and also by Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, Iran reportedly offered to discuss ways in which Hizballah could be converted into a purely political organization.) With the U.S. and its European allies moving the Iran nuclear issue back to the U.N. Security Council in exasperation over Tehran's tardy response to their incentives package, Iran could use the violence in Lebanon either to change the subject or, eventually, as an opportunity to demonstrate responsible behavior by quietly prevailing on Hizballah to accept some form of truce.
The events in Gaza and Lebanon clearly took the Israeli leadership by surprise, and the first instinct of a government that by Israeli standards has a notable lack of military experience has been to retaliate harshly in order to reestablish Israel's deterrent power. The Palestinians and the Lebanese must be made to pay a heavy price for tolerating the militants in their midst, goes the thinking, and Israel is reportedly considering a ground invasion aimed at dismantling Hizballah's military capability.
But the two-week operation in Gaza has thus far failed to yield either the return of Corporal Shalit or an end to Palestinian rocket fire, and Hamas appears to be more popular than ever. The Israelis insist that they must erase the threat to their citizenry by taking down the leadership of Hamas and Hizballah, and that a failure to do so would simply invite further provocations. But the track record suggests that military means may be unable to accomplish that goal, and the militants know this. They are clearly betting they can withstand the Israeli offensive as the civilian casualty toll and the destruction of infrastructure inevitably bring calls for restraint from the West.
The domestic political damage to Israel's government may be more enduring. With every escalation of the current crisis, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plans to make a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank along the same lines that Israel quit Gaza last year look less realistic. Opinion polls show as much as half the population is now opposed to going ahead with the plan that had been the centerpiece of Olmert's election campaign.
The Diplomatic Conundrum
If, as history suggests is likely, the Israelis can't achieve their objectives militarily, Washington is in a tough position. The escalation threatens not only long-term U.S. goals in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, but also Washington's ability to secure a consensus over Iran and Iraq. But to the extent that this administration has distinguished itself from predecessors by its reluctance both to impose restraints on Israel and to deal with actors it deems beyond the pale, such as Hamas, Hizballah, Syria and Iran, its ability to quickly contain the crisis may be limited.