Condi's New Challenges in Making a Truce

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An Israeli soldier during a weekend operation in the south Lebanese village of Marun al-Ras, Lebanon

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is confident that both a cease-fire and a lasting settlement that prevents a resumption of fighting in Lebanon can be achieved this week. But events on the battlefield may be diminishing Washington's ability to shape the terms of the truce that will emerge — whether this week or at some point in the future.

The political fallout from the killing of 54 Lebanese civilians in a bombing raid at Qana highlights the diplomatic crisis facing the U.S. It is now generally viewed as the enabler of the Israeli campaign, both by virtue of statements by Israeli leaders to the effect that they have been given a "green light" by the U.S. to fight on, and by virtue of the fact that when a 48-hour suspension of certain Israeli air operations was declared in response to the Qana tragedy, the announcement came not from the Israelis but from State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. Clearly, the U.S. is feeling pressure to retreat from its insistence that an immediate cease-fire would be detrimental. But in dealing for a truce, however, here's why the U.S. has a weaker than expected hand:

Hizballah Has Not Cried Uncle

Despite the civilian toll, Israel has not yet achieved the battlefield objectives sought by the Bush Administration: After two weeks of bombardment, Hizballah has lost neither its ability nor its will to fight on. It continues to rain down rockets on Israel, and the tenacity of its guerrilla fighters in engagement with elite Israeli infantry units has made clear that neutralizing it as a fighting force in southern Lebanon would require the sort of massive ground invasion that Israel wants to avoid, because bitter experience has taught it that getting out is infinitely more difficult than going in.

Washington's reluctance to press for a cease-fire has been based on the hope that the Israeli military campaign could batter Hizballah to the point that it would agree to surrender its independent military capability. Not only would such an achievement reassert Israel's power of deterrence, but it would also weaken Iran's. One of the cautionary notes against a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities had been the probability that Tehran's retaliation would include a massive missile attack on Israel by its Hizballah proxy.

Washington has therefore insisted that there can be no going back to the status quo of three weeks ago, and that any truce must eliminate any ability for Hizballah to threaten Israel's northern border. Because Washington lacks engagement with the only regional players able to restrain Hizballah — Syria and Iran — Washington's prime leverage against the organization has been the Israeli military campaign.

But it's not working.

Hizballah continues to fight, and the Israeli bombardment appears to have actually strengthened it politically. Instead of the Lebanese backlash against Hizballah anticipated by Israel, the opposite has occurred — a survey of opinion across all communities last week found that upward of 70% of Lebanese backed the movement's original decision to seize two Israeli soldiers, the action that provoked the Israeli campaign.

Your Truce or Mine?

The Lebanese government wants an immediate cease-fire, with the longer-term agreements aimed at ending hostilities to follow. And it envisages a process based on Hizballah's consent — the movement would agree to disarm not as an act of surrender, but because Israel has agreed to settle the outstanding disputes with Lebanon over owndership of the Shebaa Farms area and the fate of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. The Qana killings will likely increase Hizballah's influence over the position of the Lebanese government: The two Lebanese officials with whom Secretary Rice met last week — Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri — indicated Sunday that there was no purpose to her returning to until a cease-fire could be delivered.

Until now, the U.S. has insisted that a cease-fire be called only when Hizballah is ready to surrender its independent armed role, and a mechanism to disarm it is in place. That would involve deploying a robust international force to prevent further Hizballah attacks and possibly taking charge of the process of disarming the movement, eventually paving the way the Lebanese army to take charge of the border.

France Goes Its Own Way

It is looking increasingly unlikely, however, that the U.S. and Israel will win agreement on the deployment of an international force before Hizballah has agreed to a cease-fire. If the mandate of such a force is to be a counterinsurgency mission on behalf of Israel, there will, quite simply, be no takers. France — currently the most likely candidate to lead such an international force — has made clear it wants an immediate cease-fire endorsed by Hizballah before such a force is deployed. The military confrontation has reached an impasse, say French officials. And that position is likely to be supported by most contributors. France is also showing a willingness to reach out to Iran in the search for a solution. French foreign minister Phillipe Doust-Blazy, speaking on Monday in Beirut after meeting Lebanese government leaders, described Iran as a respected power "which plays a stabilizing role in the region," and signaled a willingness to talk to Tehran about resolving the crisis.

Plainly, France's idea of a diplomatic solution includes elements anathema to the Bush Administration. And a cease-fire that is agreed to by Hizballah while it retains its capacity to fight will be counted by the movement as a major victory — it has, after all, defined victory as simply surviving the Israeli onslaught. Israel and the U.S., by contrast, have defined victory as the elimination of Hizballah's capacity to inflict harm, and it will press for a truce that achieves that goal. Still, the limits of what has been achieved on the battlefield may now begin to set limits on what the U.S. and Israel are able to achieve via diplomacy.