How the U.S. Hopes to End the Lebanon Crisis

  • Share
  • Read Later

Lebanese firefighters extinguish burning shops attacked by Israeli warplanes in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Monday

The Bush Administration is finalizing what amounts to a four-point plan to end the fighting in Lebanon in a manner that prevents further violence between Hizballah and Israel, Arab sources tell TIME. "The Administration wants a complete solution," says one source. Washington's thinking is bold, they say, and includes a recipe both for ending the current fighting and preventing any resurgence. But there may be potent resistance to elements of the plan from Hizballah and Iran.

Cease-fire and international intervention

The U.S. goal is a cease-fire that would halt Israeli air, naval and ground operations in Lebanon. But getting there requires the fulfillment of several preconditions, including an agreement by Lebanon, Israel and — apparently — Syria as well as European nations on the deployment of a NATO intervention force in Lebanese territory along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Unlike the present UNIFIL peacekeeping mission, which in practice does little more than monitor events, the new force would be empowered under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter to intervene against "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression."

Prisoner exchange?

U.S. officials say they're also demanding the unconditional release of the two Israeli soldiers held by Hizballah as a precondition for a truce. But according to Arab sources, the U.S. quest for a comprehensive solution will see the proposal also implicitly addresses Hizballah's stated reason for seizing soldiers on July 12, by accepting an exchange of prisoners between Israel and the Lebanese government. U.S. officials say although this idea has been raised by Arab governments, Washington has not yet accepted it.

Lebanon in control

Finally, and most importantly, the administration seeks a process under which the Lebanese army would take full control of security in southern Lebanon, where Hizballah currently runs a state within a state. This would be a key step towards Hizballah eventually disarming, and limiting its role to that of a political party. According to one Arab source, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's surprise visit to Beirut Monday was intended to send a signal of strong support to the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who would have to request the deployment of the NATO force — and persuade Hizballah, which is also part of the government, to accept it.

Arab governments are said to be studying the proposal, and to have responded positively to most of its elements. It is expected to be refined in discussions in Rome on Wednesday between Secretary Rice and Arab, UN and European diplomats.

Despite the positive response, many obstacles lie in the path of such a plan. While the cease-fire proposal would be welcomed by all Arab parties — probably including Hizballah — Israel will be reluctant to agree until it is assured of peace on its northern border. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government has thus far refused to negotiate for the return of the captured soldiers, and has vowed to reject any return to the pre-July 12 status quo on the Lebanese border. Instead, the Administration's proposal establishes a credible security plan for Israel's northern border, which Arab sources say would take the form of a robust NATO force mandated to act firmly to maintain stability in southern Lebanon and would pave the way for the Lebanese army to take control of the border. That option also had the advantage, for Israel, of avoiding another long-term deployment of Israeli troops in Lebanon, an option of which the Israeli public remains wary given its traumatic 22-year occupation that ended in 2000.

Who'd go to Lebanon?

Assembling the NATO mission may yet prove problematic, given the tragic history of previous foreign peacekeeping interventions in Lebanon. A multinational force led by the U.S. and including France, Britain and Italy landed in Beirut following Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but effectively became a party to the conflict as Lebanon descended into civil war. President Reagan ordered the withdrawal of the U.S. contingent after suspected Hizballah suicide bombers killed 241 Marines and more than 50 French paratroopers in simultaneous attacks on their Beirut bases.

Hizballah's threat to Israel would be neutralized if the country's border with Israel was controlled by the Lebanese army rather than by the Shi'ite militia. That's the arrangement called for in the Taif agreement that ended the 1975-90 civil war, as well as in U.N. Resolution 1559. But getting Hizballah to comply will be difficult.

Iran casts a shadow

Hizballah's influence in Lebanese affairs is considerably amplified by the fact that as even as a relatively small armed force, it is more than a match for the national army. Having been designated a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S., its leaders will understandably fear pursuit and arrest if it is disarmed. And Hizballah's capacity to resist resides not only in its military capabilities, but in the people-power potential of its mass support among Lebanon's Shi'ites. In a show of strength during last year's "Cedar Revolution" protests, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah brought hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets of the capital. Iran, Hizballah's chief international patron, will also not be pleased to see Hizballah's wings clipped — Tehran is under fire at the U.N. over its nuclear ambitions, and needs to flex all the strategic muscle it can muster.

Will Syria play ball?

One way to help facilitate the Bush plan, says an Arab source, is to settle the fate of the territory known as Shebaa Farms, wedged between Lebanon and Syria and occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Although the territory had been part of Syria at that time, both the Syrian and Lebanese governments insist it belongs to Lebanon (although the United Nations disagrees), and that gives Hizballah a pretext to continue bearing arms against Israel on the grounds it is trying to liberate occupied Lebanese land. Arab officials are suggesting that if the U.S. package deal were to return the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, perhaps to be used for the base of the NATO force, that would allow the Lebanese government to demand the deployment of the army to replace Hizballah guerrillas, and blame Hizballah — and Iran — for blocking a solution to the crisis. Hizballah would also be able to save face by proclaiming Shebaa liberated by its efforts.

The wild card is Syria, which has a strategic alliance with Iran, backs Hizballah, and serves as the logistical bridge between Tehran and the Lebanese group. Syria is in a position to put considerable pressure on Hizballah to cooperate. But unless Syria is either put under unbearable pressure, or is offered the carrot of a resumption of negotiations aimed at the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, President Bashar Assad is unlikely to make a deal with Washington, especially at the expense of Hizballah and Iran.

So, while the framework of a deal may be emerging, getting all the principal players on board to close it will be one of the major diplomatic challenges of our time.

—With reporting by Elaine Shannon/With the Secretary of State