Thursday, July 20, 2006

What to do?

I had been working on a project post about the Iraq war, but the urgency of the Lebanon situation demands that I post more comprehensively my thoughts on its resolution.

Both Hezbollah and the Israeli government must please the hysterical constituencies on their respective sides. Neither party will agree to a settlement that resembles plain defeat: Israel will not unilaterally disengage, and Hezbollah will not accept a retreat or peacekeeping force without some tangible gain.

Frankly, Israel must be willing to accept a prisoner exchange. I freely admit that this would damage its efforts at deterrence. But refusing to consider a policy because of one negative consequence is little short of juvenile. At what price must Israel buy "deterrence"? The wholesale destruction of Lebanon, the radicalization of its people, chaos throughout the region?

The international community must call for the establishment of a peacekeeping force to patrol Lebanon's southern extreme, one with powers beyond those of today's feeble UN presence. Hezbollah could have its freed prisoners, its token to demonstrate to the Arab street that it did not completely surrender. It would reconstitute itself as an enervated guerilla army outside the international force's territory. But the important results would stand: Hezbollah's earlier power would dissipate, the situation would stabilize and the bloodshed would stop.

Of course, even with the prisoner exchange "carrot," Hezbollah might not agree to the proposal. I cannot, however, see any alternative.

Perhaps, paradoxically, an Israeli incursion into a sliver of Lebanon would make negotiation easier. Hezbollah would then be able to claim two "concessions" from Israel: release of prisoners and withdrawal from southern Lebanon. But Israel must simultaenously halt bombings in Beruit and the north of the country. If the aim is to expel Hezbollah from its immediately threatening position in the south, the actions must match.


Zeke said...

A noble effort, Matt, but I don't think you've got it quite right. Let's analyze this post point by point, shall we?

First of all, your second paragraph contains one of the most outrageously absurd sentences I've seen in recent memory. "Both Hezbollah and the Israeli government must please the hysterical constituencies on their respective sides"? Matt, Hezbollah doesn't have to please an hysterical constituency, it is one. Hezbollah's official party platform includes (nay, insists upon) the total annihilation of the Israeli state. What, pray tell, does its moderate wing look like? And while there is certainly a conservative faction within Israel's ruling Kadima party, it is hardly filled with the "hysterical" reactionaries of which you speak, almost all of whom remained within the minority Likud party. Constituency politics really aren't the issue here.

Anyhow, let's move on to the issue of prisoner exchange. I believe, as you do, that Israel ought to seriously consider this possibility as a means of rescuing their kidnapped soldiers. But I certainly wouldn't suggest, as you have, that Israel's knee-jerk refusal to consider this option is "juvenile." You know as well as I that Israel's 50+ year policy of non-negotiation with terrorists has been absolutely essential to the survival of the state. It is also reasonable for Israel to worry that a prisoner exchange may encourage similar acts of terrorist aggression, in the hopes of negotiating more Israeli concessions. As I say, I agree that a change in Israeli policy may be necessary here, but let's not make light of the sincere Israeli objections.

Finally, I must object to your suggestion that a larger UN presence in Lebanon is the optimal solution to this conflict. The simple military fact is that even an expanded contingent of UN peacekeepers would be insufficient to prevent Hezbollah from initiating future conflicts; the terrorists would remain as well-armed as ever, and long-range missiles would still be able to hit Israeli cities.

So, what is the best outcome? Fred Kaplan makes an interesting suggestion in his latest Slate column. He points out that Saad Hariri, the majority leader in the Lebanese parliament, has suggested a settlement under which Israel withdraws its forces, and Hezbollah transfers authority for a prisoner exchange to the Lebanese government. Thus, the fighting could end, and Israel would be spared the indignity of accepting terrorist demands. Schafer suggests that with sufficient pressure from the US, the UN, et. al., the Syrian and Iranian governments might be persuaded to force Hezbollah on board.

Of course, a successful prisoner exchange does nothing to alleviate the long-term problem here. But, as is often the case in this region, a short-term solution is probably the best we can hope for.

Matt Rognlie said...

Yes, Hezbollah is certainly a "hysterical constituency." I was really (albeit somewhat imprecisely) trying to get at the leadership of both parties; the leaders are, after all, the ones who are going to be making the climactic decisions. Nasrallah has displayed his share of hysterical rhetoric in the last week, but in the past he's demonstrated himself to be a more intricate and curious character - more dedicated, perhaps, to balancing his personal grandeur and security. This is contemptible, to be sure, but it isn't necessarily hysterical. In that sense, I think it is appropriate to separate the conniving leader from the teeming masses that follow and judge him. I didn't mean to imply that Hezbollah has a large "moderate" wing, and to avoid the suggestion I should have phrased the sentence more directly: "Both Hezbollah and the Israeli government must please hysterical constituences."

I think, however, that this is a pretty accurate characterization on the Israeli side. Olmert and the Kadima party are not by nature radical, but in a misplaced attempt to flex national security muscle they took a course that was. And when extraordinarily high percentages of the Israeli population express support for such a venture, "hysterical" might not be the absurd characterization it initially seems. The Israeli military is, after all, besieging and radicalizing nearly an entire nation, a nation that handed it a sickening quagmire two decades ago. When there is such universal public support for this kind of operation, the prevailing attitude can reasonably be called "hysterical". The psychological effect of missles penetrating deep into Israeli territory, no doubt, has taken its toll.

I'm a bit puzzled by your assertion of a longstanding and inflexible policy of non-negotiation. Fewer than three years ago, Sharon agreed to a prisoner exchange to secure the return of a kidnapped Israeli businessman. The current canon of the Israeli right holds that such capitulations have weakened Israel's stand against terror - this may be correct, but it implicitly recognizes that such concessions have occured.

Olmert has a difficult question to answer. Sharon "capitulated" with only one Israeli life at stake - why does Olmert now refuse when literally thousands of lives, and possibly the stability of the entire region, hang in the balance? He may believe that Israel should break irrevocably with its past efforts at accomodation, but if so he has made a dramatic turn to the right.

I place emphasis on the term "hysterical" because I think that it has very real implications for any possible resolution. Both sides now must come away with results that can be spun as triumphs. That's why I'm skeptical of Hariri's plan: it doesn't provide any sure sense to either party.

A possible peacekeeping force might be more useful for spin than for effect, but that makes it all the more important. I wasn't suggesting merely an expansion of the UN force, but instead some kind of alternative multinational army with different rules of engagement (some suggest the EU). This would enable the Israeli leadership to 1) Provide concrete gains against Hezbollah to the electorate and 2) Maintain a better deterrent against future provocations, since Hezbollah would feel a lasting consequence for its actions.

Zeke said...

You are right, of course, to point out that Israel's famous policy of non-negotiation with terrorists has been far from universally observed. But deals with such organizations have been exceedingly rare, and have thus far generally entailed the release of low-profile soldiers and officials. By contrast, Hezbollah's present demands require the release of three fairly notorious terrorists, including the murderer Samir Kintar, whose freedom would make him, in the eyes of right-wing Israelis, something akin to the Lebanese Willie Horton. This, combined with Olmert's lack of military credentials and the specter of an ongoing war, makes the prime minister's political position considerably shakier than that of his predecessor. Of course, Israel could try to negotiate the exchange of a greater number of less controversial prisoners, but I have little hope that Hezbollah would accede to such requests.

I disagree with your contention that Hariri's plan denies concrete triumphs for both sides. Israel can boast the return of its soldiers, as well as its refusal to negotiate with terrorist aggressors; Hezbollah can brag about the release of its own prisoners, along with the removal of Israeli troops from Lebanese soil. In this respect, a larger contingent of international peacekeepers would be useful, as they would give Israel an easy excuse not to stage another long-term occupation of southern Lebanon. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: the Israeli public is far too cynical to believe that a few token international soldiers will provide either "concrete gains" against Hezbollah, or a "better deterrent against future provocations."

All things considered, however, I don't think this conflict is necessarily destined to become a drawn-out war. No matter how hysterical both sides may appear, they are quite rational with regard to their own interests, and neither Israel nor Hezbollah has any desire to become trapped in a protracted and pointless stalemate. This war, after all, is simply the result of political miscalculation: Nasrallah assumed that Hezbollah's defenses would dissuade Israel from any kind of large-scale retaliation after the military kidnappings. He was, needless to say, spectacularly wrong. Israel, meanwhile, knows full well that they cannot disarm or destroy Hezbollah's forces; they need only to continue the bloodletting long enough to convince Hezbollah leadership that they are not, in fact, intimidated by their military strength. Since Israel has already hinted at an end-date for its operations, it is entirely possible that both sides will be open to an international settlement within the next few weeks.

Hmm...on second thought, that last prediction sounds far too optimistic to fit my general disposition. And it's possible that Olmert actually wants to occupy southern Lebanon, in which case we're in for a long and ugly fight. But, hey, a guy can always hope, right?

Matt Rognlie said...

Hmm... one question. If the Israeli public is so jaded that a more powerful international force would be meaningless, why would it view a largely cosmetic difference in negotiating partner more favorably?