By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006; A15
Israel, with U.S. support, intends to resist calls for a cease-fire and continue a longer-term strategy of punishing Hezbollah, which is likely to include several weeks of precision bombing in Lebanon, according to senior Israeli and U.S. officials.
For Israel, the goal is to eliminate Hezbollah as a security threat -- or altogether, the sources said. A senior Israeli official confirmed that Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is a target, on the calculation that the Shiite movement would be far less dynamic without him.
For the United States, the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East, U.S. officials say.
Whatever the outrage on the Arab streets, Washington believes it has strong behind-the-scenes support among key Arab leaders also nervous about the populist militants -- with a tacit agreement that the timing is right to strike.
"What is out there is concern among conservative Arab allies that there is a hegemonic Persian threat [running] through Damascus, through the southern suburbs of Beirut and to the Palestinians in Hamas," said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity because of sensitive diplomacy. "Regional leaders want to find a way to navigate unease on their streets and deal with the strategic threats to take down Hezbollah and Hamas, to come out of the crisis where they are not as ascendant."
Hezbollah's cross-border raid that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others has provided a "unique moment" with a "convergence of interests" among Israel, some Arab regimes and even those in Lebanon who want to rein in the country's last private army, the senior Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing conflict.
Israel and the United States would like to hold out until Hezbollah is crippled.
"It seems like we will go to the end now," said Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon. "We will not go part way and be held hostage again. We'll have to go for the kill -- Hezbollah neutralization."
White House officials said Friday that Bush has called on Israel to limit civilian casualties and avoid toppling the Lebanese government but has not pressured Israel to stop its military action. "He believes that the Israelis have a right to protect themselves," spokesman Tony Snow said in St. Petersburg, where Bush is attending the Group of Eight summit. "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel."
Specifically, officials said, Israel and the United States are looking to create conditions for achieving one remaining goal of U.N. Resolution 1559, adopted in 2004, which calls for the dismantling and disarming of Lebanon's militias and expanding the state's control over all its territory.
"We think part of the solution to this is the implementation of 1559, which would eliminate that [armed group operating outside the government] and help Lebanon extend all of its authority throughout the whole country," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters with Bush in Russia yesterday.
The other part of the resolution calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, which was completed in April last year -- after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which was widely linked to Syria.
If Lebanon as a first step takes over Hezbollah's stockpiles, which included more than 12,000 rockets and missiles before the current strife began, then cease-fire talks could begin, the Israeli official said.
"The only way a cease-fire will even be considered is if 1559 is fully implemented," said the senior Israeli official. Lebanese troops must be deployed to take over positions in Hezbollah's southern Lebanon strongholds to ensure that there are no more cross-border raids or rocket barrages into northern Israel.
There are no guarantees, however, that this strategy will work. Israeli airstrikes could backfire, experts warn.
"Hezbollah was risking alienating not only the Lebanese public at large but, incredibly, its very own Shiite constituency. But if Israel continues with its incessant targeting of exclusively civilian targets, and, as a result, life becomes increasingly difficult for the people, I would not be surprised if there is a groundswell of support for Hezbollah, exactly opposite of what Israel is trying to achieve," said Timur Goksel, an analyst and former spokesman for the U.N. force in Lebanon who lives in Beirut.
The Bush administration's position -- and diplomacy -- are the opposite of what happened during the Clinton administration.
The last Hezbollah-Israel cease-fire was just before dawn on April 27, 1996, after the United States brokered a deal to end a punishing 16-day Israeli offensive designed to end Hezbollah's rocket barrages. More than 150 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed; more than 60 Israelis were injured. Tens of thousands on both sides of the border had fled or gone into bunkers.
Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher shuttled for a week between Jerusalem and Damascus to mediate a written agreement, a sequel to a similar oral deal he negotiated after skirmishes in 1993.
For now, that is not a viable option to end the current conflict, U.S. officials say. With its diplomacy redefined by the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has opted for a course that plays out on the battlefield.
Pressed on whether a cease-fire was possible soon, the Israeli official said it was "way, way premature" to consider an end to hostilities. "There is no sense to have a cease-fire without a fundamental change," he said. "That change is to make sure the explosiveness of the situation cannot carry over to the future. That means neutralizing Hezbollah's capabilities."
The Bush administration is also using Resolution 1559 as a barometer, U.S. officials say, acknowledging that the Lebanese government has shown neither the ability nor the willingness to deploy its fledgling army to the southern border.
U.S. officials have cautioned Israel to use restraint, particularly on collateral damage and destruction of infrastructure, which might undermine the fragile government. There was some U.S. concern about attacks on the Beirut airport, but otherwise Washington is prepared to step aside and defer diplomacy unless there is a dramatic break, U.S. officials say.
"They do have space to operate for a period of time," the U.S. official said about Israel. "There's a natural dynamic to these things. When the military starts, it may be that it has to run its course."
Israel and the United States believe that the Israeli strikes in Gaza, following the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, have undermined Hamas. "There is no Hamas government -- eight cabinet ministers or 30 percent of the government is in jail, another 30 percent is in hiding, and the other 30 percent is doing very little," said the senior U.S. official.