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As Mideast Smoke Clears, Political Fates May Shift

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

It was a very close call. U.N. diplomats assembled at 3 p.m. in the cavernous Security Council hall to get the U.S.-French proposal to end an excruciating month of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. The United States had Lebanon's approval but still had not received word from Israel. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton did a "diplomatic tap dance" to stall, U.S. officials said.

Then at 3:53 Friday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the third time during a tense day of diplomacy. Despite its decision just hours earlier to launch a ground invasion, Israel agreed to the terms of the resolution. It was a deal.

Before she raised her hand to vote for the proposal, Rice said the time had come "to build a more hopeful future" in the region.

But the future of the Middle East may be markedly different as a result of the bloody drama that erupted July 12 after the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Lebanon's Shiite militia. So, too, the image of the United States. What many now consider to be the sixth modern Middle East war has some distinct winners and losers, interviews with a range of former U.S. officials and Middle East analysts reveal.

Although the outcome will be long debated, big losers at this stage appear to be Israel's government, the Lebanese people, and the Bush administration's struggle against terrorism and its campaign for democracy, these observers said.

In waging the longest Arab war against Israel, the big winner may be Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah -- for now. One surprise has been the strong leadership of neophyte Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Yet every party has lost something.

"This is a war that has not had a clear logic, but it does have a large number of casualties and losers," said Robert Malley of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "Israel's government is in trouble. Lebanon as a country has lost a lot. U.S. standing is worse. Democracy promotion has been hurt. The credibility of the U.N. Security Council has been eroded. Even the anti-terror agenda has lost. So on almost every count, you see diminished assets and credibility."

Israel lost by failing to achieve its strategic objectives in response to the capture of its soldiers, analysts said. It has already paid a huge political, physical and psychological price -- with perhaps more to come, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears imperiled, they added.

"The pressure is rising in Israel to interpret this as a debacle. Israel is nowhere close to having achieved its goal of destroying Hezbollah or its arsenal. It will also have to deal with the moral and humanitarian crisis that it caused," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank, and formerly of the National Intelligence Council. "It looks like the denouement will create a crisis in Israeli politics that will not be easily fixable."

The conflict has affected Israeli civilians more than in any previous war, with the northernmost quarter of the country fleeing sustained Hezbollah missile attacks, analysts noted. It has proved that Israel cannot force peace through military means, said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Edward P. Djerejian.

The United States does not come out well, either, despite marathon diplomatic efforts.

Over the past three weeks, Rice devoted 90 percent of her time to the Lebanon crisis, aides said. In coordination with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and France, she worked through the last three issues, all tricky -- the amount of military firepower a U.N. force can use to maintain peace, the status of the disputed Shebaa Farms region, and the sequence of Israel's withdrawal -- right up to the last minute Friday.

Diplomacy over the past week had been like a Rubik's cube, a senior State Department official said: "One minute you think you had it, then you did the turn and discovered you were further away than when you started." After an agreement last weekend, Washington and Paris by Wednesday were at loggerheads over the terms and timing of an Israeli withdrawal. Thursday was a critical day of compromises, U.S. and European diplomats said.

Many diplomats said the resolution was a masterful blend to secure Israel's vulnerable border while strengthening Lebanon's government and containing Hezbollah.

Yet America's image abroad emerges from the crisis badly battered, in part due to prolonged negotiations widely perceived in the Arab world as deliberate to allow Israel to pursue its military agenda -- with U.S.-manufactured weaponry, analysts said.

Rice's comment on the conflict as part of the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East was particularly "crude, insensitive and cruel," said Rami G. Khouri, an analyst and columnist for Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "She was basically seen as saying you have to kill Arabs to remake them and you have to allow Israel to destroy Arab movements to make better nations.

"If it is a new Mideast, it won't be the one she is expecting," Khouri said, particularly coming after deeply troubled U.S.-led efforts to transform Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

After the July 30 Israeli airstrike on Qana that killed at least 28 civilians, a large banner went up in downtown Beirut depicting Rice with sharp fangs and blood flowing from her mouth. "The massacre of children in Qana is a gift from Rice," it said.

Almost 90 percent of Lebanese said that the United States is not an honest broker, according to a July 29 survey by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, compared with 38 percent who supported a U.S. role in a January survey.

"Our image suffers from this perception and makes diplomacy and democracy promotion more difficult," Djerejian said.

U.S. officials said they recognize the potential ramifications.

"This is certainly one of the toughest challenges we have faced in the last few years. . . . We knew the consequences were very broad. We recognized this was not just a border war between Hezbollah and Israel," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said. "We know there are Arab complaints and anger about our role. But when it came down to the final analysis, the deal could not have been put together without us."

Lebanon suffered the most damage and death. More than 800 Lebanese civilians have died, and one-quarter of the country's population has been displaced. The nation's infrastructure, already rebuilt once after a vicious 15-year civil war, has been devastated. Electrical power plants, roads, bridges and thousands of housing units will require billions of dollars to be reconstructed.

Yet Siniora, who took over a fragile government only 13 months ago, has proved to be a strong and persuasive leader.

"It's been a remarkable performance," said Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Siniora, who wept in talks with Arab leaders on Monday, gave an impassioned speech during the July 26 Rome conference that won support for his proposal on Lebanon's fate.

Hezbollah may gain more than any other party.

In tangible terms, the Shiite militia has lost several command posts and bunkers, financial distribution centers with funds in them, and as much as one-quarter of its front-line fighters, said Dennis Ross, a Middle East negotiator in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. With an expanded international force and a new arms embargo, secret attempts to replace hundreds of missiles from Iran and Syria will be far more difficult. And Hezbollah is supposed to dismantle the last private army in Lebanon under terms of the resolution.

But the movement is also now widely seen in the Arab world as having achieved its second victory against Israel -- after first forcing it to withdraw in 2000.

Although Nasrallah is a Shiite cleric, he has personally emerged from the Lebanon war as an epic "folk hero" in Arab and Islamic circles, said Paul Salem, director-designate of the new Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The Beirut Center survey showed about 87 percent of Lebanese support Hezbollah's retaliatory attacks on Israel. Yet the general consensus throughout the country is that Nasrallah grossly miscalculated the response to seizing the Israeli soldiers.

"Inside Lebanon, he is stronger in the sense that he fought a war and survived, but he also comes out weaker in the sense that his leadership that once led the Shiites to political victory but has now led them to ruin," Salem said.

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