Crisis Unabated in Middle East

Martin Indyk
Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; 1:30 PM

Martin Indyk , director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was online Wednesday, July 26, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss the current crisis in Israel and Lebanon.

Full coverage from : Crisis in the Middle East

The transcript follows.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you think that the "law of unintended consequences" has fully kicked in as the current conflict unfolds or is everything going about as expected by Israel and Hezbollah? What evidence do we have, if any, that this is a "proxy war" as some have suggested in the press and media?

Martin Indyk: Funny you should ask. I'm writing a book about U.S. diplomacy in the ME and it's provisional title is "Unintended Consequences."

In this case, Hezbollah has admitted that it did not expect the Israelis to react with such ferocity. Nasrallah thought it would just be a repeat of previous kidnappings and prisoner swaps. That's why he called Israeli PM Olmert an "idiot" because he didn't play by the established rules of the game.

On the other side, the Israelis were already dealing with one kidnapping in Gaza. To them, this looked like an Iranian attempt to hijack the Palestinian cause on the eve of the G-8 summit. And they had been watching Hezbollah build up its forces and rocket and missile stocks for six years. They were in effect waiting for an opportunity, but certainly didn't expect it to come at this moment. The Israeli Army wasn't prepared for this level of fighting.

Given that the war itself was "unintended" both sides are groping for achievable objectives. Nasrallah is trying to show that he can be "the last man standing." The Israelis have gone from declaring their objective to be the destruction of Hezbollah, to the stripping of its rockets, to the clearing out of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, to the establishment of a buffer zone along Israel's northern border. Nasrallah's inability to get Israel to back off its military campaign is leading him to ever more escalatory actions. He is now declaring that he will attack beyond Haifa. It's not clear whether this means missiles on Tel Aviv or terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. But if either of those things happen, we can expect an Israeli escalation in response.

The ultimate unintended consequence will be, I fear, an Israeli-Syrian confrontation. Even though both Israel and Syria declare they don't want it, unfortunately I don't think the crisis ends until it rises to that level.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question. If the tensions in the middle east end up culminating in a Shia versus Sunni conflict, might the world be better off? That is if the Islamist rage is inwardly directed to a fractrical war might that be better than the current "clash of civilizations". I am reminded of Mayor Ed Koch's comment on the Iran-Iraq war if they are killing each other "who cares"

Martin Indyk: Yes, there is a growing Sunni/Shia conflict that started in Iraq but definitely has the potential now to spread to Lebanon and thence to Syria. Notwithstanding their anger at Israel's bombing of Lebanese infrastructure, Lebanese Sunnis and Christians are largely unaffected by Israel's targeting of Shia suburbs of Beirut and Shia towns and villages in Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. They resent Hezbollah taking the country to war and they will want to see Hezbollah disarmed, just as their own militias had to do a long time ago. This demand is now being voiced by the international community -- it was one of the points of agreement at today's Rome meeting of the Lebanon Core Group. But Hezbollah is declaring that it will not be humiliated in this confrontation with Israel, which means it will not disarm. So this crisis is likely to end with increased Sunni(Christian)/Shia tension in Lebanon.

In Syria, the Sunni majority has long been suppressed by an Alawite minority sect headed by the Asad family. The Alawites are closely associated with the Shias and the regime is allied with Shia Iran and Hezbollah. There is considerable potential for Sunni/Shia tensions to explode in Syria too.

Would it be a good idea to encourage? Definitely not, in my view. It could make the current bloodbath in Iraq look like a picnic. And the outcome would not only be that a lot of innocent people will die. It will set the region back a century as extremists come to power everywhere.


Reston, Va.: Is it possible that Hezbollah could develop a political wing similar to the Sinn Fein wing of the IRA with whom Israel would be willing to talk with?

Martin Indyk: Hezbollah already has a political wing. It has 30 representatives in the Lebanese Parliament. It has two cabinet ministers in the Lebanese government. The problem is not that it lacks a political wing, it's rather that the political wing is subservient to a militant leadership in Lebanon and Iran. After Hezbollah's victory against the Israeli army in 2000, when Israel evacuated all of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah had to choose between focusing on internal Lebanese politics or continuing the conflict with Israel. It chose the latter, manufacturing the issue of "Shaba Farms" (which the UN has declared as Syrian NOT Lebanese territory) to justify its continued "resistance" operation. And then it jumped on the Palestinian bandwagon, inserting itself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supporting Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel.

The sad reality is that when Syrian troops left Lebanon in response to UN Security Council Resolution 1559, there was an opportunity to insist that Hezbollah respect the third paragraph of that resolution which called for the disarming and disbanding of all militias in Lebanon. Believing those French and Lebanese voices that said the best way to disarm Hezbollah is to get it into the political process, the Bush Administration supported elections and gave up on demanding Hezbollah's disarmament. Hezbollah then used the elections to move into the government and establish a veto over any attempt to disarm them.

So shifting Hezbollah from a militant terrorist organization with outside sponsors, to a political party without a militia, is going to be a very difficult proposition.


Bethesda, Md.: By becoming part of their country's governments, aren't Hezbollah and Hamas going down the slippery slope of "legitimacy"? In order to be effective, it seems to me they're going to eventually have to recognize Israel and disavow terrorism, otherwise, they will become so isolated that they and their governments will implode?

Martin Indyk: They'll become isolated or they'll hijack their governments and societies. At the moment, it looks more likely that they will use the political process to further their militant objectives, rather than that the political process will tame them.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm struck that the endgame of this conflict looks more and more like a lose/lose proposition for all the parties involved. While states (and militia groups for that matter) aren't perfect rational actors, the decisions here seem wildly poor when looking at the long-term interests of everyone involved. Is this just a case of the fog of war, the dynamics of rapid escalation, and bad internal negotiations producing bad choices, or am I missing some long-term wins that any of the parties seem to be moving toward? Also, beyond diplomatic chest thumping, the costs of the US refusing to engage in direct talks with Syria seem awfully high. Is there some legacy of direct talks with bad regimes being damaging to US foreign interests? (This comes up w/North Korea too.)

Martin Indyk: First, Hezbollah's objectives are those of a non-state actor. In a speech Nasrallah gave yesterday on his TV station, he made clear that victory for him is the demonstrable ability to continue to fire rockets into Israel and inflict heavy casualties on the Israeli army. Since Hezbollah is not a state, he explains, it doesn't matter if it loses control over territory (or for that matter if Beirut is destroyed - it will be rebuilt, he declares). Since, in these circumstances, Israel cannot hope to destroy or even deter Hezbollah with conventional force, it has to create conditions where the Lebanese government, backed by the Lebanese people and the international community, demands that Hezbollah's state-within-a-state be dismantled. Airpower is a blunt instrument for achieving that objective.

Talking to Syria is not the issue. It's the content of the message that counts. In the 1990s, when Syria had 15,000 troops in Lebanon, and Israel and the U.S. were engaged with Syria in a peace process, we relied on Syria to curb Hezbollah. That's why we would run to Damascus when Hezbollah's attacks on Israel started to get out of hand. But the context has changed dramatically since then.

First, notwithstanding the fact that four Israeli Prime Ministers (Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak) offered the Syrians full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, the Syrians were never willing to consummate the deal. So anyone who imagines that the way to contain Lebanon's crisis is to make peace between Syria and Israel needs to be able to argue that it will be different this time around. Unlikely.

Second, over a million Lebanese, backed by the U.S. and France, came out in Beirut's streets a year ago and demanded that Syrian troops leave Lebanon. Amazingly, they did.

If Secretary of State Rice now went to Damascus to ask them to curb Hezbollah, it would be tantamount to inviting them back into Lebanon. It would be a betrayal of everything the Bush presidency supposedly stands for in the Middle East, and a particular betrayal of the Lebanese people.


Washington, D.C.: Israel's bombing of Hezbollah targets is comprehensible, but I fail to understand why they are bombing parts of the country not affiliated with Hezbollah. If the idea is to have the Lebanese government act against Hezbollah, how does weakening the Lebanese government further that aim? Thank you for taking my question.

Martin Indyk: The Israelis do a lousy job of explaining their targeting. Today, they are bombing Tyre (a city in southern Lebanon) because the rockets that are hitting Haifa are launched from there. They are hitting the southern suburbs of Beirut today, in retaliation for the attacks on Haifa (on the principle that for every attack on Haifa, ten buildings in Hezbollah's southern Beirut enclave will be destroyed, according to an unnamed Israeli security official).

In the early days of this campaign they hit roads, bridges and airports to make it more difficult for Iran and Syria to resupply Hezbollah with rockets and missiles. They have not hit the power grid or the water supply.

After the surprise missile attack on their battleship, the Israeli Air Force attacked naval radars all the way up the Lebanese coast, including the lighthouse in downtown Beirut.

So there is method in what might often appear to be blind rage. But that doesn't take account of the targets that are hit by mistake in such an intensive bombing campaign, which include civilians and now a UN post.

The Israeli Government needs a strong Lebanese government to insist on the disarming of Hezbollah and to send its Armed Forces to the south. But it also needs to degrade Hezbollah's capabilities. And the two objectives are often in contradiction.


Vienna, Va.: Thank you for taking questions. I actually have 2: (1) Other than suspicion, what proof is there that Hezbollah is is acting on orders of Iran by way of Syria? (2) At what point will the US relaxed its conditions for a cease fire in Lebanon?

Martin Indyk: I don't have any proof of instructions from Iran. What can be established without a shadow of doubt is that the arms, funds, and training for Hezbollah come from Teheran. For decades, there were hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon providing training to Hezbollah. Iran provides the rockets and missiles that Hezbollah is firing now. They have over 10,000 rockets! And Iran finances Hezbollah to the tune of $100 million a year.

The U.S. is likely to relax its conditions for a cease fire when President Bush feels that Israel has sufficiently degraded Hezbollah's capabilities that it will not be able to claim a victory and when the Israeli army has succeeded in clearing Hezbollah out of its positions in southern Lebanon along Israel's northern border.


Detroit, Mich.: Thanks for calling on me. I've done a lot of reading and it seems the pro-Israel bias of the American negotiating team was one of the central reasons that the Arab side was not properly taken into account and, ultimately, a reason why we have this mess today. As one of those negotiators, do you think in the future the US government should only employ mediators who are less biased in the future or must one come from AIPAC to negotiate Arab-Israeli peace ?

Martin Indyk: It's a fair question but perhaps you should ask the Arab leaders whether they preferred people who were committed to making peace between Israel and the Arabs because they wholeheartedly believed that it served American interests and Israel's well-being, or they prefer people now who don't believe in peacemaking or diplomacy?

For eight years, President Clinton and his peace team dedicated themselves to trying to achieve a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace that would have met the reasonable requirements of the Palestinians and the Syrians. Those deals included formal offers, accepted by Israeli governments, of all of the Golan Heights, all of Gaza, and 95-97 percent of the West Bank (with territorial compensation for the rest).

We thought that's what the Arabs wanted. That's certainly what they told us they wanted. So I fail to understand the argument that we didn't take their needs and requirements into account. And that somehow, by pursuing peace with all our hearts and minds, we are responsible for this mess.

_______________________ Thank you for joining us for this discussion.


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