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A Way Forward

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; A17

To stop the war in Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will need to start with some basics: The best strategy for containing a militia such as Hezbollah is to build a strong Lebanese state; any lasting solution for this conflict will be political, not just military; continued Israeli bombardment of Lebanon to destroy terrorists might backfire by creating another failed state from which terrorists can operate more freely.

The outlines of a settlement that recognizes these basics were floated Monday in Beirut. The Lebanese urged Rice to consider a compromise package -- of the sort that Beirutis describe in a French phrase meaning "neither victor nor vanquished." That kind of negotiated truce would not please those on either side who would like to see their adversaries eradicated. But it might be the best chance of achieving Rice's goal of replacing the dangerous prewar status quo in Lebanon with something more secure and stable for everyone.

Negotiated settlements are always messy, but this package has one great advantage: It would provide a framework for the chronically weak Lebanese state, backed by an international force, to begin to assert control over all its territory. It would stress the basic idea that should be the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the Middle East from Beirut to Baghdad: that political compromise and reconciliation, backed by U.S. and allied military power, provide the only path out of the crisis afflicting the region.

The challenge in Lebanon is identical to the one in Iraq: how to help weak Arab democracies control sectarian militias and build sovereignty and security. The correct American strategy is one that might be called "muscular reconciliation." Its starting premise is that if one side seeks unilateral advantage, everyone will suffer.

Lebanese sources outlined for me the compromise package they say was discussed Monday when Rice met with Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, and Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker and leader of the Shiite militia known as Amal. The cornerstone of this package, according to my sources, is that Hezbollah would agree to withdraw its armed fighters from south Lebanon and accept an international force there that would accompany the Lebanese army. Israel, for its part, would agree to halt its attacks and lift its air and sea blockade. The United States would call for negotiations over the return of a disputed territory known as Shebaa Farms, claimed by Lebanon even though the United Nations ruled in 2000 that it was Syrian.

Within 24 hours after a cease-fire, there would be an exchange of prisoners as part of this package: Hezbollah would give up the two Israeli soldiers it captured in the July 12 border raid that started the crisis; Israel would release Lebanese prisoners it holds. The package also includes some minor provisions, including an Israeli agreement to provide maps of land mines placed just north of the Lebanon-Israel border.

What's in it for Israel to accept such a deal, which would allow Hezbollah to survive? The answer is that an attempt to go all the way and destroy the Shiite militia would require a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, and might well misfire in the same way as Israel's 1982 invasion. Better to go for a solid half a loaf -- pushing armed Hezbollah fighters north of the Litani River and bringing in an international force to help the Lebanese army police a buffer zone -- than to risk further setbacks.

Hezbollah's military power would be severely degraded under such a negotiated settlement, but it would remain intact politically. The Shiite militia is trying to put on a brave face, sending me an e-mail message yesterday through a Lebanese intermediary claiming that it has the upper hand. If a cease-fire isn't reached and Hezbollah fights on, it will "accept a four-to-one casualty ratio," the message warned. "Human losses all go to heaven as martyrs with families and children handsomely compensated." But for all this brave talk, statements by Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, seem to be defining victory as simple survival.

Wars end when both sides decide they can gain more from a negotiated settlement than from continued fighting. Nearly two weeks into the Lebanon war, Israel and Hezbollah both seem split between those who think they can gain from more combat and those ready to cut a deal. As of late Tuesday, Rice was continuing to resist mounting international demands for a cease-fire, presumably to allow Israel more time to hammer Hezbollah. But that strategy is becoming dangerous for all sides. Rice should turn now to negotiating a formula that can halt the bombs and rockets -- and enhance the authority of the Lebanese state. Bargaining with the devil (or at least the devil's intermediary) is part of the job description for an American secretary of state.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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