Transcript

Israeli Offensive Widens

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Michael Eisenstadt
Director, Military and Security Studies Program
Monday, July 17, 2006; 11:00 AM

Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy , was online Monday, July 17, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the widening conflict between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East.

Eisenstadt is co-author of The Last Arab-Israeli Battlefield? Implications of an Israeli Withdrawal from Lebanon .

The transcript follows.

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Williamsburg, Va.: What are the implications of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon? Do you think putting American and British forces in Hezbollah territory would further inflame tensions between Islamists and the West?

Michael Eisenstadt: I strongly doubt that this idea of a peacekeeping force will gain traction. The US couldn't get international support for many allies to send troops to one war zone--Iraq--so I doubt the UN and the UK (who are the main proponents of such an idea at present)will get many countries to volunteer contingents to serve in a war zone in Lebanon. Plus, experience shows that the consent of all parties is necessary for peacekeeping forces to succeed. Israel, for one, will strongly object to a foreign peacekeeping force which they believe will only provide a screen behind which Hezbollah will be able to continue their activities, and which will constrain their freedom to respond to Hezbollah provocations. The ideal solution would be for Lebanon to deploy their Army to the South (as called for in UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and 1559). But there seems to be little will in Lebanon for that, and Hezbollah will object to this. In the absence of these kind of measures, Israel seems to be taking steps to create a 'cordon sanitaire' in South Lebanon just north of the international border. They are destroying former Hezbollah border posts and will probably establish rules of engagement that allow them to open fire on any armed individual that approaches the border, in order to prevent a repeat of last weeks events, as well as the series of Hezbollah attacks across the border that have occurred since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

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Eugene, Ore.: Good Morning Mr.Eisenstadt. Do you think that that Iran spurred Hezbollah to provoke Israel in order to remind the United States, the Arab League and the international Muslim community that Iran is the keystone to Middle East stability?

Michael Eisenstadt: Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah has been promising in public for some time now to take Israeli hostages so that Hezbollah could swap them for three Lebanese security prisoners still in Israeli jails. The capture of the Israel soldier several weeks ago by Hamas in Gaza, provided an excellent opportunity for Hezbollah to pursue its own objectives in a way that would enable it to burnish its credentials in the Arab world (by not only demanding the return of the Lebanese prisoners, but also the return of some 9,500 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails).

Iran also stood to benefit by the timing of this event. And while we lack firm evidence at this time to say what Iran's role may or may not have been in the Hezbollah attack, we know enough about how Hezbollah operates, and the nature of the relationship between Hezbollah and the regime in Tehran, to have good reason to believe that Hezbollah would not have taken such a risky step without the blessing and approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. I would also add that the timing of this incident is perfect from Tehran's point of view, because this incident has shifted attention from Iran's nuclear program, which was to be a major issue on the agenda at the G8 summit, to crisis management related to the Lebanon crisis. If I was a betting man, I would bet that Iran did have a role here. And of course, Iran is the source of nearly all of the 10,000-13,000 rockets that Hezbollah owns, and which it has been launching into Israel. Iran supplied these missiles to Hezbollah because it sees this group, and these missiles in Lebanon, as part of its military capabilities vis-a-vis Israel.

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Boston, Ma.: Considering Israel's military strength is much greater, what is Hezbollah's primary motivation in this conflict?

Michael Eisenstadt: The simple answer is that Hezbollah is a radical, extremist organization, that is committed to the destruction of Israel.

Many people thought that after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah would use the enhanced prestige it derived from being able to take credit for having driven Israel out of Lebanon to become a conventional political party, and it would focus on domestic politics and building up the influence of Lebanon's Shiite community.

Instead, Hezbollah has continued to remain deeply involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict--in part because they thought that after pushing Israel out of Lebanon, anything is possible. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah even gave a speech at about that time in which he likened Israel to a fragile spiderweb that could easily be destroyed. I don't know if he really believes this, but this is the line he publicly annunciated.

Shortly after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the second Palestinian "intifada" broke out--which derived its inspiration, in part, from the "Lebanese model" of "armed resistance" that, many Palestinians believed, might lead to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, without the need for negotiations. During the intifada, Hezbollah emerged as the main external support for Palestinian extremist groups engaged in terrorist violence against Israel (including the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, as well as--though to a lesser extent--Islamist groups such as Hamas). They created a special unit within their security apparatus--Unit 1800--to aid Palestinians engaged in terrorism, by providing funding, direction, weapons, and bomb-building instructions.

So it really comes down to their extremist ideology and belief system--which seeks Israel's destruction, their belief that Israel's strength is built on a very fragile foundation--Israel's extreme sensitivity to casualties, and their solid relationship with Iran, which provides them with the confidence to take risks and ignore demands coming from many Lebanese and the international community, that Hezbollah disarm.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.

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