A War With Extremists

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

SOMEWHAT remarkably, the world leaders gathered in St. Petersburg managed to grasp the most important point about the current Middle East crisis: It "results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region and to frustrate the aspirations of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese people for democracy and peace." In other words, the current warfare in Lebanon, Gaza and Israel stems not from Israel's occupation of Arab lands or its holding of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, but from a blatant bid by Iran and Syria and their allies in Hamas and Hezbollah to stop the creation of a democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the parallel consolidation of a democracy in Lebanon.

It follows that the only satisfactory outcome to the conflict would be a decisive defeat for those extremist forces. Should Hamas and Hezbollah fail militarily, Arab democrats and those who favor the creation of a peaceful Palestine alongside Israel would see the removal of their largest obstacle, while the pernicious influence of Iran and Syria in the region would be curtailed.

The worst result would be that suggested yesterday by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki following consultations with his allies in Damascus: "a cease-fire followed by a prisoner swap." Such an outcome would legitimize the terrorist operations by Hamas and Hezbollah that began the conflict and further empower their rogue military organizations at the expense of the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority. It would restore Syrian influence in Lebanon and grant Tehran the ability to ignite a new Middle East conflagration at its convenience.

The extremists now favor a cease-fire because they know that the longer the fighting continues, the more damage Israel is likely to do to the military infrastructure and leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah. Anyone who believes the Israeli army can't be effective in this kind of war hasn't followed the events of the past several years, during which its devastating assassination campaign against Hamas induced that group to declare a unilateral cease-fire in early 2005. Since Hamas broke that truce last month, Israel has killed or captured several score of its leaders; the rest cannot appear in public without inviting an airstrike.

The centrist government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert risks overplaying its hand if it continues to attack Lebanese civilian infrastructure or if the death toll of civilians, which now stands above 200, continues to rise. If it limits its aim to Hezbollah and Hamas and their weapons, it will be quietly cheered by many Lebanese and Palestinians, as well as by moderate Arabs around the Middle East.

The middle course between allowing Israel to take the fight to Hamas and Hezbollah and pressuring it to accept Tehran's terms is that suggested by Britain and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan: an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. It's worth noting that such a force already exists -- and has failed miserably in its nearly three decades of existence. Success would require Western troops and a very different mandate: in particular, authority to prevent launchings of missiles and raids against Israel from Lebanon, and to enforce Security Council Resolution 1559, which ordered the disarmament of Hezbollah. An international diplomatic initiative that allows Hezbollah to preserve and eventually restock its military wing would be worse than none at all.

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