After Rice's Trip: What's the Way Out?

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A Chinese U.N. soldier stands near the rubble of a building destroyed by an Israeli warplane.

Sooner or later, when you're dropping tons of bombs every day, you end up hitting something you didn't mean to. In 1996, during its "Grapes of Wrath" campaign against Hizballah in southern Lebanon, Israel inadvertently shelled a U.N. refugee camp at Qana, killing 106 people, a tragic mishap that brought overwhelming pressure to end the campaign. Israel's strike on a U.N. position in southern Lebanon Tuesday that killed four peacekeepers may not bring a swift end to its offensive against Hizballah, but it highlights the deteriorating prospects for Israel and the U.S. to achieve their optimal outcome in the conflict.

In Rome, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Arab and European envoys, there was further evidence that the diplomatic united front against Hizballah that the U.S. was hoping to achieve has not materialized. A growing international clamor for an immediate cease-fire — and U.S. resistance to that call, on the grounds that it would simply restore the previous status quo — is leaving Washington more isolated than it would prefer to be. The final statement of the Rome meeting tried to paper over the differences with a pledge to "work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a cease-fire." But it also included wording pushed by the U.S. that such a cease-fire "must be lasting, permanent and sustainable." Plainly, however, there was little support for the U.S. preference for a delay to allow Israel to pursue its objective of militarily "defanging" Hizballah.

There was substantial agreement in Rome, not surprisingly, on the need to send an international force to police southern Lebanon to allow for the Lebanese army to assume control of the border and for Hizballah to be disarmed. But how such that can be achieved remains highly contentious. Even if most of the international community wants an immediate cease-fire, it is powerless to effect one without the support of the U.S. — the only player capable of persuading Israel to call off its assault. Still, the way the military situation is evolving may actually give the Arabs and Europeans greater than usual leverage in shaping the outcome of this crisis.

Hizballah is proving far more resilient than Israeli military commanders had expected: Aerial bombardment has failed to dislodge Hizballah fighters, or to prevent them from continuing to rain rockets down on Israel's civilian population centers. Israel has therefore committed ground forces that have fought fierce battles (with substantial Israeli casualties) for control of Hizballah positions at Maroun al-Ras, Bint Jebeil and a handful of smaller villages. But Israeli Defense Force officials say there are at least 170 more such Hizballah strongholds throughout southern Lebanon, and they admit that Israel would have to occupy the territory all the way up to the Litani River to have any chance of eliminating the militant group as a fighting force.

From the beginning of the current conflict, however, reoccupying southern Lebanon is exactly what Israeli military and political leaders have wanted to avoid. They know better than anyone that Israeli society is not prepared to bear the cost in terms of ongoing casualties and long-term encroachment on the country's standard of living presented by the frequent call-ups of military reservists that a renewed occupation of Lebanon would require. Instead, the Israeli military is looking to redefine victory as the outsourcing of control of southern Lebanon to an international force.

But the NATO countries that Israel wants to see populate such a force have no greater appetite than Israel does for a deployment of ground forces in Lebanon. The Europeans are already committed to an increasingly hot counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, and they're clearly reluctant to send their troops into a confrontation on Israel's behalf with one of the world's most accomplished guerrilla armies — which also happens to have a well-established capacity for transnational terror operations.

It's hardly surprising, then, that there's been no rush of volunteers. More important, European officials are insisting that troops would be sent only once there is a cease-fire agreed to by Hizballah — a cease-fire that would, of course, be very different from the one envisaged by the Bush Administration, which is, in effect, seeking Hizballah's military surrender.

And if an international force is needed to pull Israel's chestnuts out of the fire, then those who would constitute it — along with Hizballah and its backers — would likely have a substantial say in determining the nature of the truce it would enforce. Indeed, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking in Rome, urged the inclusion of both Iran and Syria in the search for a deal to permanently end hostilities across the Israel-Lebanon border.

The Rome discussion produced no decisive response to the crisis, and the battle in Lebanon will continue to rage for some time yet. But it is becoming clear both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena that the U.S. and Israel are unlikely to achieve the knockout blow they'd hoped to deliver against Hizballah. The question that will be settled, both on the battlefield and in the chambers of diplomacy in the coming days, is which side will have to concede more in the cease-fire that will ultimately take shape.