What If They Gave a Cease Fire and Nobody Came?

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Israeli artillery fires at targets in southern Lebanon from a position in northern Israel on Monday, Aug. 7

The conflict raging in Lebanon is not between France and the United States, so despite a week of widely reported wrangling, the agreement the two countries reached last weekend on a cease-fire plan is unlikely to mark a genuine turning point. Indeed, France and the U.S. have long collaborated in their effort to shape a new, post-Syria order in Lebanon in which Hizballah is a non-military bit player, and the text of their proposed Security Council resolution reflects their common concerns. But as long as Hizballah and the Lebanese government continue to reject its terms, the resolution — even if approved — has little chance of ending the fighting.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted as much Sunday, and said that neither side could get all of what it wants from a cease-fire. Still, there was no symmetry in the responses to the plan from the protagonists: While Israeli leaders are generally satisfied with the proposal, Lebanon and Hizballah complain that it imposes an unacceptable outcome. U.S.-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora denounced the proposal in an emotional address to Arab diplomats in Beirut on Monday, warning that it could not end the violence.

The draft resolution requires "an immediate cessation of all attacks by Hizballah" and an end to "offensive military operations by Israel," to pave the way for the eventual deployment of an international security force in southern Lebanon. It makes no mention of the return of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hizballah at the start of the crisis, which Israel has made a core objective of its operation. But it allows Israeli forces to remain in southern Lebanon — and to take any action they deem defensively necessary — until the arrival of an international force. President Bush said Monday this would prevent Hizballah from returning in force to the border area.

But neither Hizballah nor the Lebanese government will accept Israeli troops' remaining on Lebanese soil. "The Israelis have justified this whole war as self-defense, so they could argue that they have a right to continue operations," Mohammed Chatah, the senior diplomatic advisor to the Lebanese prime minister, told TIME. "They need to withdraw." And Hizballah has warned that even if it agrees to refrain from rocket attacks into Israel, it will continue to fight any Israeli soldiers remaining on Lebanese soil.

Arab governments are mounting a last-ditch attempt to change the text before it is adopted by the Security Council. Although France has indicated sympathy with Arab complaints, they say the deal on offer is as much as Israel and the U.S. will concede.

All of which brings up the question, what's the purpose of pressing for the adoption of a cease-fire plan that's dead on arrival?

On Sunday, in response to Arab complaints about the cease-fire proposal, Secretary Rice said "We'll see who is for peace and who isn't," making clear that part of the plan is to put diplomatic pressure on those who disagree with the U.S.-French version of an acceptable outcome. More likely, however, the coming weeks of diplomacy and warfare are going to settle the question of whether Israeli troops remain in Lebanon once the guns go silent. The U.S. may be calculating that the Lebanese government's desperation to end the fighting that threatens to destroy the country will force it to accept Israeli forces' remaining in southern Lebanon, thereby isolating Hizballah. Israel has the country in an ever-tightening choke-hold, having cut transport links and leaving the county with less than a week's energy supplies to maintain electricity and essential services. The desperation of Lebanon's government is palpable, and Washington appears to be betting that this will drive a wedge between it and Hizballah.

But the fighting has actually boosted Hizballah's standing in Lebanon and raised the level of hostility throughout the population toward Israel and the U.S. Even if Siniora wanted to back Washington's plan to keep Israeli forces in the country, he'd be restrained by the massive political risk involved. Lebanese politicians fear that if decisions are taken without a national consensus, the result could be a new civil war.

At the same time, by adopting the language of "cease-fire" — the rallying cry of U.S. critics in recent weeks — Washington may simply be hoping to deflect some of the pressure from European and Arab allies over its efforts to buy the Israeli military more time to finish the job.

Hizballah's calculations, of course, are different: It sees the U.S.-French proposal as handing Israel a victory it has not won on the battlefield. Israeli commanders have certainly been shocked by the resilience of Hizballah: Almost a month after the fighting began, the small guerrilla force has not only continued to fight doggedly — and remarkably effectively — to hold its positions in southern Lebanon, it also remains able to rain down scores of rockets every day on Israel's civilian population centers despite Israel's control of Lebanon's skies. Hizballah defined victory simply as survival as a military force, and so far, it seems right to believe it is winning. It may see Israeli uncertainty over how to pursue the campaign and the mounting pressure on the U.S. to press for a truce as signs that continuing to fight can only strengthen its position at the bargaining table.

In the end, the standoff over the cease-fire will eventually be settled by the answer to a simple question: Who needs the truce more? For now, each side believes the other does, and that's precisely why Israel and Hizballah will continue trying to wear each other down, both in the chambers of diplomacy and in the killing fields of southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

—With reporting by Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut