U.S. Plan for Lebanon: Flawed and Dangerous

John O. Voll

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented the American plan for a “Three-Part Comprehensive Settlement” for the fighting in Lebanon and northern Israel. In her statement on 31 July 2006 in Jerusalem, she said that the plan is the product of “series of intense meetings and discussions with leaders in Israel and Lebanon – as well as leaders from throughout the world gathered in Rome and Malaysia – to try to find common ground and bring an end to the violence that has claimed so many lives.” (U.S. Department of State release, 31 July 2006) While the effort has been a major one, both the product and the process of developing this proposed “Comprehensive Settlement” have major and probably fatal flaws.

The conflict is between two clearly identifiable parties, the government of Israel and Hizbullah. However much outside governments and groups may have interests in this conflict, the combatants are the ones who are actually engaged in the fighting. Each side receives significant support from other states or groups, but the conflict is not an apocalyptic one between a Shiite Axis of Evil and a global Crusader-Zionist force. It is a battle between two specific groups. A person can discuss the issue with a hundred prime ministers, presidents, and kings around the world, but any “settlement” plan that ignores one of the two combatants has a major problem.

The absence of any input from leaders of Hizbullah in defining the proposed “comprehensive settlement” is made clear by the content of this plan. The first step in the American plan is the initiation of a ceasefire, set in motion by a United Nations Security Council resolution. However, in her briefing following the statement, Secretary Rice made it clear what the nature of the ceasefire would be: “[Y]ou need a Security Council resolution that establishes a cease-fire on a basis that doesn’t allow a return to the status quo ante.” Explaining further, she noted that this must avoid a situation in which “the south returns to circumstances in which you can have yet another terrorist attack across the blue line.” (Department of State release, 31 July 2006) For all practical purposes, a “ceasefire” defined in this way assumes a disarmed Hizbullah that has withdrawn from the Lebanese-Israeli border. This image had already been clearly put forward in President Bush’s Radio Address on the preceding Saturday when he outlined the strategy for achieving a “sustainable cease-fire.” The first step was, “Militias must be disarmed.” He added that the proposed Security Council was an approach that “will demonstrate the international community’s determination to support the government of Lebanon, and defeat the threat from Hezbollah and its foreign sponsors.” (Office of the Press Secretary release, 29 July 2006)

All of this means that the proposed “settlement” is simply a repetition of the American demand that Hizbullah surrender. There is no incentive in this plan for Hizbullah to cooperate and there appears to be no recognition by U.S. policy makers that there might be a need to have some contact with both of the actual combatants if there is to be a resolution to the conflict. In other words, for the plan to succeed, Hizbullah will have to be defeated and forcibly disarmed, a task which the Israeli armed forces have been unable to do, despite almost twenty-five years of major efforts to do so.

The question can legitimately be asked: why does the American approach so willfully ignore or suppress the realities of conflict resolution negotiations? President Bush gave a possible reason in his 29 July Radio Address. After discussing the specifics of the Lebanese case, the President stated, “As we work to resolve this current crisis, we must recognize that Lebanon is the latest flashpoint in a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region.” In this perspective, “Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel” are viewed as a part of the more general opposition of “those who oppose democracy” to the broader American campaign to transform governments throughout the region.

An experienced Israeli political analyst and participant, Naomi Chazan, has identified the possible dangers of this approach for Israeli security and her analysis also is apt for understanding the weakness of the current American proposal. (In “Forward to the Basics,” Americans for Peace Now Issue Briefs, 28 July 2006) She notes that there are two approaches to defining the nature of the current crisis. One sees the existence of an “extremist axis” stretching from Hizbullah to Shiite militants in Iraq and Iran. This view, as illustrated by President Bush’s Radio Address, “is insistent that any truce in Lebanon not only contain the imminent threat posed by the Hezbollah and its deadly arsenal, but also significantly disrupt the consolidation of the militant Shiite regional network of which it is a part.” In terms of Israeli interests, this approach “subsumes Israeli interests to American concerns” and “diverts attention, once again, away from the Palestine question.” A second approach to the current crisis, the “Palestinian-Israeli” school, sees the possibility that negotiations for cessation of hostilities in Lebanon could provide an opportunity for progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks. “From this perspective a monitored truce in Lebanon, accompanied by an exchange of prisoners… must be utilized to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.” Her conclusion applies to American as well as Israeli policy options: “It is much more realistic to pursue the Palestinian-Israeli course than to be lured exclusively into the regional trap suggested by the Islamic axis strategy. Indeed, any attempt to deal with armed religious extremists without addressing the essential Israeli-Palestinian question is a sure prescription for the perpetuation of violence and disorder.”

This realistic approach requires that Hizbullah in some way be included in the discussions. A plan which starts with a precondition of the elimination of Hizbullah is as unrealistic now as the Israeli military found it to be between 1982 and 2000. The broad apocalyptic vision of the great Shiite axis of evil is not an effective framework for negotiations that will bring an end to the human suffering of the current Lebanese-Israeli conflict.

John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.