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Mideast Conflict Grows

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Jon Alterman
Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; 11:00 AM

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discussed the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Israel has continued to target parts of Lebanon in response to the attack and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers last week by Hezbollah, a radical Shiite group operating within Lebanon. Hezbollah has responded with rocket attacks on Haifa. With a rising death toll in recent days, evacuations are now underway in the region.

VIDEO: The Post's Shadid from Beirut, (July 17, 2006 ).

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: I haven't seen anything about this aspect of Hezbollah's rocket attacks. Does Hezbollah have targeting info and/or capabilities with these rockets? Are they just aimed and fired more or less blindly depending upon their range or does Hezbollah have a tactical plan for their use apart from simply inflicting terror in Israel?

Jon Alterman: Good morning.

The rockets they have been firing at Israel so far are not very sophisticated or accurate. They seem to have used a guided missile to attack an Israeli warship in the Mediterranean, but mostly they're just throwing up a lot of missiles and hoping to hit something.

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Washington, D.C.: Why isn't Israel sending in ground troops to disarm Hezbollah instead of bombing civilians in Lebanon? What military advantage is there in bombing Beirut? Is Israel strong enough to take on Iran, Syria and Lebanon without resorting to nuclear strikes?

Jon Alterman: Israel got out of southern Lebanon in 2000, and they were delighted to do so. Hezbollah was wearing them down with a war of attrition. There's not much eagerness to reinstitute an occupation of southern Lebanon.

Israeli targeting seems guided by 1) a desire to destroy Hezbollah assets, such as they are, and 2) to goad the Lebanese government to taking forceful action against Hezbollah.

I think we've largely seen the end of symmetrical warfare in the Middle East, where armies line up across a battlefield. Israel would handily win any such encounter. That's why countries such as Iran prefer to work through proxies, and to make all of Israel the battlefield.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there a realistic possibility of lasting peace in the middle East? It seems to me there isn't so long as Israel exists. Palestinians and their allies will never forgive or forget the loss of their ancestral land, and Israel, for its part, seems to believe that security involves viewing its Muslim neighbors and citizens as targets. It makes me wonder whether the president of Iran was correct, and peace will only come if the Jewish homeland is moved to Europe.

Jon Alterman: I'm not so sure. I think there's been a remarkable acceptance of Israel in the Arab world that started perhaps 15 years ago. Al-Jazeera's graphic, for example, shows Israel labeled as Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza labeled as such. We've largely gotten away from Arabs referring to "the Zionist entity."

In quieter times, polling suggests broad willingness to live side by side with Israel. Equally importantly, the polling changes depends on what's happening on the ground. Polling in Israel changes, too. I think there is something to build on, but clearly this week isn't the week to try.

Also, note that a large percentage of Israeli Jews are from the Middle East themselves. "Sending them back to Europe" not only isn't a practical option, it also doesn't put us back to the status quo ante.

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Tijeras, N.M.: How is it that three separate attacks were allowed INSIDE Israel? What has happened to Israel's internal security and its military? Have the terrorists become better at internal warfare?

Jon Alterman: I'm told there is a lot of criticism within Israel that operational security had broken down badly, and that these kidnappings of Israeli soldiers were, in part, due to sloppiness by troops in the field.

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Chicago, Ill.: Why is U.N. reluctant to exert real pressure on Syria and Iran, who control Hezbollah, to return the Israeli soldiers and stop launching missiles? That would immediately de-escalate the crisis.

Jon Alterman: The UN's approach is to treat all sides as equally culpable. That's clearly not the US view, and the President has made clear that he agrees with you.

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Springfield, Va.: Given how many rockets Hezbollah has been launching at Israel, is it possible (is there any intelligence) that they have a very finite number of rockets they can use before running out or getting so low as to limit their use in a real way? Also, if this is the case, would it be increasingly difficult for additional rockets to be shipped for immediate or future use via Syria (originating from Iran) given recent developments?

Jon Alterman: Interesting question. My guess is that the cupboards aren't bare yet, but they are certainly working through a finite resource. Some Israeli targeting seems to be directed at cutting off supply routes (including Beirut Airport). I would bet Israel will bargain hard for a bar on resupply as part of a ceasefire agreement. The thing I'm just not sure about is how much of their arsenal can be supplied based on domestic manufacturing.

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Richmond, Va.: What do you think is the probability that Israel would use tactical nuclear weapons, should the conflict widen even further and involve most of the Arab nations opposed to Israel?

Jon Alterman: 1) I don't think the conflict will widen. Not a single surrounding state wants it to.

2) I cannot imagine Israel would use nuclear weapons, except as a final salvo to avoid the destruction of the state. In some ways, their nuclear arsenal is intended as much to show us they're serious as it is to deter their neighbors. For example, during the 1973 war, they rolled out their nuclear-capable Jericho missiles not because they wanted to use them, but because they wanted US overhead surveillance to see them and understand this whole thing could get out of hand. Surrounding Arab armies were clueless about this development.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Jon,

This war has been going on since 1948, almost going on 60 years. Is there any end in sight?

Jon Alterman: I can imagine an end to this conflict, but I can't see it from here. Much will depend on how the dust will settle from this (in terms of Israeli politics, in terms of Lebanese politics, etc.). Much will shift. After all, the current Israeli government was elected on the platform that unilateral withdrawal will produce peace, and now they find themselves fighting a two-front war in the very places from which they withdrew. They obviously are going to need a different strategic vision.

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Akron, Ohio: It is reported that the Arab League, though acknowledging that Hezbollah is the instigator of the present situation, is asking the U.S. to push Israel to a cease-fire. Two questions based on this news: Is the Arab League, and its member states, also pushing to get Hezbollah and Hamas to commit to cease-fire? Also, aren't many of the member states of the Arab League tacitly part of the problem since they refuse to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and right to defend its borders?

Jon Alterman: I think the Arab League is indeed pushing Hamas and Hezbollah, neither of which they feel much warmth toward. At the state level, these countries have basically reconciled themselves to living side-by-side with Israel, and they see these groups as dangerously challenging the status quo. The Saudi comments about Hezbollah's adventurism were unprecedented. I also note that the Hamas fundraisers have gotten more hectoring lectures than cash when they toured the Gulf a few months ago.

It seems to me that they really are committed to the Arab League initiative, put forward in Beirut in February 2002. They understand there's no other way forward.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Jon,

Thanks for doing this chat today.

There has been some speculation that this conflict could widen and include attacks on Syria and potentially Iran and its capabilities (nuclear and otherwise.) It seems that Israel's stated goal of disarming Hezbollah and making it impossible for them to attack Northern Israel could be followed to the logical conclusion that they would attack Syria and/or Iran. In your opinion, what are the chances that this will occur? And, if it were to take place, what are the chances that this would pull the United States into the conflict? Thank you...

Jon Alterman: I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Syria attacked, but I don't think they'd respond. They certainly haven't before, given the overwhelming strength of the Israeli army. There may in fact be some backchannel negotiations between Israel and Syria right now to make sure it doesn't happen.

I think Iran is just too far, and the target sets too remote, to invite an attack.

More likely this will remain a limited proxy war, to continue for a week or more, and then succumb to international mediation. Of course, a lot could go wrong between now and then, and there will certainly be continued loss of life on both sides.

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GB. Wis.: How is Iran involved in the current conflict in Isreal?

Jon Alterman: Iran waves its anti-Israel credentials in part to elide the fact that they feel connected to the Middle East but are not Arab. The Shah dealt extensively with Israel, and the Islamic revolutionaries who tossed him out defined anti-Israeli policy as a core value of the Iranian revolution.

The interesting thing in the last year is the way that President Ahmedinejad has used anti-Israeli rhetoric to gain credibility in Muslim communities throughout the world. It seems to me that this is becoming a more popular issue (due in part to people watching the Arab-Israeli conflict more on television), and Iran is at the forefront of pushing it.

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Reston, Va: What do you think Iran wants out of this? Return to the status quo? Another occupation of southern Lebanon? A wider conflict involving Syria and Iran?

Jon Alterman: Iran's foreign policy, it seems to me, is both entrepreneurial and hedging. The current conflict diverts attention from their nuclear program, it builds up animosity to Israel in Muslim communities, and it builds solidarity among the Lebanese Shia. None of that is especially bad from their perspective.

My guess is they haven't thought this out strategically, and they'll take what they can get.

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Fairfax, Va.: If we can assume that Israel's goal is as stated in today's Jerusalem Post to "alleviate Hezbollah's capacity to threaten Israel" and they are largely successful in accomplishing this, how long will this problem be "alleviated" before they are expected to rearm? In view of the "Law of Unintended Consequences" what can be expected after the current crisis plays out?

Jon Alterman: I don't doubt that Israel wants to constrain Hezbollah, as do many Lebanese. Whether they will be successful will depend on how subsequent negotiations play out. They key issue, though, is this: what Israel really needs is a political outcome, not a military one. Hezbollah needs to make a decision to lay down its arms and submit to the authority of the Lebanese state, and that is a fundamentally political decision. Everyone has ample military means at their disposal, but military means can't force political outcomes.

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Parkville, Md.: Israel has not withdrawn from the West Bank. Gaza is only a tiny territory. It seems that as long as Israel occupies the West Bank its actions will suffer from some moral taint. Personally, I could accept a temporary military occupation of certain strategic regions outside Israel if such were deemed militarily necessary, but by building civilian settlements in these places the Israelis have really undermined the cause of their own legitimacy and security.

Jon Alterman: PM Olmert was elected on a platform of withdrawal from the West Bank, and Hamas and Hezbollah have helped make that far less likely. Some might argue this was their intention, because they need armed conflict for their survival. From my talks with folks sympathetic to them, I don't think they're that strategic, and their hatred for Israel is genuine.

Israel certain needs a long-term strategy both to deal with Arab populations in the West Bank and Gaza, and to deal with surrounding states. My guess is that they're in a relatively strong position on the latter, but back to the drawing board on the former.

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Washington, D.C.: Presumably the biggest losers from the escalation between Israel and Lebanon have been Lebanon's citizens. How would you describe sentiments in Lebanon toward Hezbollah before the escalation, and what would the Lebanese government need to do in the future to prevent another such conflict from creating so much collateral damage?

Jon Alterman: Lebanon's citizens are deeply split, depending on the normal kinds of things -- geography, class, sectarian origin. In general, people are awfully tired of proxy wars being fought on their territory. Lebanon needs a strong government to negotiate with Hezbollah and make them play by the rules. I'm not confident that the current actions make that more likely.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the proposed UN or international force that Tony Blair seems intent to create would help the Lebanese government and actually stop Hezbollah from regrouping on the border?

Jon Alterman: I wish I were more confident about outside military forces making a difference. In general, peacekeepers are effective when there is a peace to keep. Peacemakers need to fight their way in, and in so doing, would constitute an invading army. I don't think we're ready for outside military forces to come in.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning, Dr. Alterman.

Some have suggested that Israel had been planning its recent offensive in Gaza for several months, and used the capture of Cpl. Shalit as a pretext for justifying this course of action. Can you assess the legitimacy of such speculation?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Jon Alterman: Militaries plan for all sorts of things, and I would think the Israeli army would be derelict in its duties had it not had a Gaza plan on the shelf.

They also had a new government, headed by a Prime Minister and Defense Minister with little military experience. It seemed to me--and I said at the time--that PM Olmert would need to show toughness before he could show compromise on Arab-Israeli issues.

The political question, then, is whether this was the appropriate thing to do in response to the provocation of a soldier's kidnapping. I don't think they were merely seizing a pretext to do what they had decided to do already, but I'm not sure that the military reaction they had was the best possible response to the provocation.

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Hanover, N.H.: What do you think of William Cristol's enthusiasm for the "opportunity to crush Hizbollah?"

Jon Alterman: I'm skeptical that Hezbollah can be crushed. It's a lot more than merely a militia, but its strength as a militia contributes to its overall power.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the solution to extremism...I mean, they have the necessities of life, unlike Sudan violence or N. Korea...How can they learn to get along?

Jon Alterman: Strangely, really poor people don't fight -- they're too busy trying to find food. It turns out revolutions are much more common among middle-income populations than among the poorest of the poor.

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Washington, D.C.: Is Hezbollah a Lebanese organization, or is it a transplant group? Also isn't the hat for Israel due to the rigidity of the religion?

Jon Alterman: It's Lebanese, with some Iranian cash and Syrian encouragement.

I don't see Shia Islam as especially rigid.

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New York City, N.Y.: Doesn't the rising price of oil strengthen Iran's hand? It would seem that it would easily pay for all those rockets to be replaced.

Jon Alterman: You're absolutely right. A friend in the oil business told me that based purely on supply and demand, oil should be at about $45/barrel. That means there's currently a $30 risk premium that all producers (including Iran) enjoy, and it goes right into their pockets.

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Reston, Va.: How significant is it that other Arab countries in the region have remained relatively silent rather than condemning Israel?

Jon Alterman: I think it's an important sign that governments in the region have largely reconciled themselves to living side by side with Israel. Populations are a different story, and many of them are in the streets protesting government inaction. In general, Arab governments have weathered public protest in the past (over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Israeli redeployment into the West Bank and its sacking of Jenin in 2002, and so on). It's unclear whether their past luck will hold, but at this point I don't see good reason to bet against them.

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Washington, D.C.: When you say Hezbollah is a Lebanese organization, do you mean its members are Lebanese nationals or Palestinians who live as refugees in Lebanon or both?

Jon Alterman: Hezbollah isn't Palestinian at all. It's Lebanese Shia.

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Washington, D.C.: With the Lebanese president vowing to stand by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and the Israeli Prime Minister refusing to consider a cease fire without certain conditions being met, what are the chances that this conflict will be resolved without further escalation?

Jon Alterman: My guess is a week or two of more fighting and escalation, followed by successful international mediation (ultimately with a strong US role, but not initially).

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Jon Alterman: I'm afraid I'm going to have to knock off. I apologize to the 50 or so folks I haven't gotten to. I appreciate your questions, and I look forward to doing a chat with you all in the future.

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