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Back From the Brink

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A19

The question in Israel's war with Hezbollah is not whether the Israeli government had a right to retaliate. It is whether there is a way of avoiding full-scale war in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded to Hezbollah's attacks on Israeli soldiers because Israel has been trying to do what the world has told the Jewish state it had to do: live within internationally recognized borders and pull Israeli troops out from lands it came to occupy as a result of past military victories.

Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, put the matter as well as anyone: "Israel is currently waging the most just war in its history," he wrote Monday. "Not a war of occupation, but rather a war of defense. Not a settlements war, but rather a Green Line war. A war over the validity of an international border that was drawn, defined and recognized by the United Nations."

As it happens, Shavit is also critical of the Israeli government's handling of this war and suggests a unilateral 72-hour cease-fire to give the "international community" a chance to resolve the "problem of the northern border by nonviolent means." In the meantime, Israel could plan "thoroughly and meticulously" to defeat Hezbollah if everyone else's efforts failed.

I found myself sympathetic to Shavit's proposal in part because it might give the normally ineffectual players outside the region a chance to think through the disaster that is in the making.

For anyone who spent time in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, this struggle is a particularly toxic case of deja vu -- even if Olmert is trying to learn lessons from Ariel Sharon's failed effort to reorder Lebanese politics by way of Israel's 1982 invasion.

The law of unintended consequences seems to be an iron law in the Middle East. The most depressing view of 1982 and today now goes like this: The 1982 Israeli invasion did indeed destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization infrastructure in Lebanon -- initially to the satisfaction of many Lebanese Shiites tired of living under the PLO's thumb. Israel hoped that the Shiites, long forced to the bottom of the Lebanese class and religious heap, might be their allies in a new Lebanon.

But many unfortunate things happened on the road to that new Lebanon. One of them was the replacement of an older Shiite protest politics, rooted in secular leftist ideologies, with a new politics that grew steadily more religious and then more fundamentalist. Hezbollah became the dominant voice of this tendency. Under Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader since 1992, the movement has used Iranian help and Syrian cooperation to become the most powerful voice of Shiite discontent.

And so, having rid Lebanon of the PLO, the Israelis now find themselves roughly a quarter-century later confronting a movement that is, if anything, more extreme and intransigent, powered by Tehran's deep pockets and its palpable interest, shared with the Syrians, in causing trouble. Talk about unintended consequences.

If there is any good news here, it is that parts of the Arab world -- particularly Sunni governments alarmed by Iran's use of Shiism in its reach for hegemony -- have criticized Hezbollah's provocations. But what will those reproofs mean on the ground? Olmert himself took a step toward a solution yesterday by telling the Israeli Knesset that the fighting could stop if two kidnapped Israeli soldiers were released and the Lebanese army took control of the country's southern border.

The most frightening aspect of this war is that the logic for escalation is far stronger than the logic for de-escalation. If Hezbollah's power is not severely degraded, Israel will remain vulnerable. But if Olmert wants to avoid Sharon's 1982 mistake of a large-scale occupation of Lebanon, what options does he have?

As long as Hezbollah continues to receive support from its Iranian patrons and its Syrian partners, it will be able to re-create itself, building on long-standing Shiite grievances. Absent such support, the movement would wither militarily. That argues for settling things once and for all with Iran and Syria -- which means wholesale war in the Middle East at a time when roughly 130,000 American troops are in Iraq.

This would be a calamity, which is why alarmism is the highest form of realism in this case. The "international community" cannot engage in its usual dithering. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair called yesterday for an international force to disarm Hezbollah, it seemed an impossibly impractical demand. But if there's something more practical than avoiding a full-scale regional war, I don't know what it is. And in this case, it will take a genuine international effort, not a narrow "coalition of the willing."

So let there be at least a brief cease-fire to let the world take account of the catastrophe on its doorstep.

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