By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; A13
The United States, Israel, the United Nations and the European Union have reluctantly concluded that despite punishing military attacks, Hezbollah is likely to survive as a political player in Lebanon, and Israel now says it is willing to accept the organization if it sheds its military wing and abandons extremism, according to several key officials.
"To the extent that it remains a political group, it will be acceptable to Israel," Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said yesterday in the strongest sign to date that the Israelis are rethinking the scope and ultimate goals of the campaign. "A political group means a party that is engaged in the political system in Lebanon, but without terrorism capabilities and fighting capabilities. That will be acceptable to Israel."
In a bid to contain Hezbollah, the United States is hoping to persuade Arab allies over the next week -- Saudi Arabia in talks today and Egypt and Jordan at an emergency meeting Wednesday in Rome -- to get Syria to stop arming, funding and facilitating Hezbollah's military operations, U.S. officials said.
Because Syria is also the physical conduit for all Iranian arms and personnel bound for Lebanon, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad could be pivotal to helping end the current hostilities and ensuring that Hezbollah's options are limited afterward.
The Bush administration's task is all the more difficult because of the state of its relations with Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not plan to hold talks with Syria, include it in the emergency Rome meeting or travel to Damascus.
To end the bloody 16-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 1996, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher shuttled for a week between Damascus and Jerusalem to produce a written agreement that lasted until this month. Today, relations are so chilly that the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, who was recalled last year, has been reassigned to Baghdad and will not return to Damascus.
In the long term, the United States and Israel hope that Hezbollah is discredited or marginalized politically, too; Lebanon and the Arab world hold it responsible for the July 12 cross-border raid and kidnappings of two soldiers that sparked the punishing Israeli response and widespread destruction, officials say.
Pressure has been mounting on Hezbollah's leadership. Israel has specifically targeted Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah as well as the group's headquarters and political offices. The international community has blamed Hezbollah for starting the crisis. And the Lebanese government has demanded that it disarm.
But Israeli, U.S., U.N. and European officials say they do not envision a solution in which Hezbollah is eliminated. Initial U.S., Israeli and U.N. assessments have concluded that Hezbollah's popularity among Lebanese Shiites is likely to remain significant -- and no one but the Shiites will be able to challenge its status, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.
"Whatever damage Israel's operation may be doing to Hezbollah's military capabilities, they are doing little or nothing to decrease popular support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or the region," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Security Council on Thursday.
U.S. experts say Hezbollah's standing may even grow. "Just because many tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims may be living in tents does not mean that they are going to emerge from this war as a diminished political force in Lebanon. I expect the contrary to be true," said Augustus R. Norton, a former member of the U.N. force in Lebanon who now teaches at Boston University.
Hezbollah's future is a contentious issue within the Bush administration. Rice lashed out at the group Friday for violating "every conceivable international norm," as well as several U.N. resolutions, and for ignoring the Lebanese government. "You cannot have people with one foot in politics and one foot in terror," Rice told reporters.
Hezbollah is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but the group, whose name means "party of God," has been elected to parliament in four democratic elections since 1992 and would be hard to squeeze out of Lebanon's complex political system, U.S. officials say. All 17 recognized sects are guaranteed a percentage of seats in parliament and government jobs.
"Ultimately, the question of Hezbollah has to be dealt with politically," a senior U.S. official said, speaking anonymously because of the new diplomatic effort. "If it disarms and abandons terrorism, it's fundamentally a different group."
"If we get rid of the missiles, then we have solved the problem of Israel," a senior European official said, "and Hezbollah will continue to exist as a political force."