Can anything be redeemed from the horrors of northern Israel and Lebanon? It's becoming clearer that neither side can win this war. Yet only Israel requires victory to come out ahead. Hezbollah needs merely to survive, and this seems increasingly assured.
Even prominent Israeli commentators are growing disenchanted with their government's campaign. Ze'ev Schiff, the well-regarded columnist for Ha'aretz, writes today that, by driving hundreds of Shiites from villages in southern Lebanon on the grounds that Hezbollah might have missiles there, Israel "could justifiably be accused of a disproportionate military response." Meanwhile, he notes, airstrikes alone "cannot solve the problem of missiles being fired at Israel," yet the Israeli people would not support the option that might do the job: "a broad, lengthy ground operation in Lebanon."
Meanwhile, it's an open question how long the Arab governments that have denounced Hezbollah (and only Hezbollah) for starting this war—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—can sustain their positions in the face of Israel's escalating destructiveness. Yesterday, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, denounced Israel for excessive force and came out on Hezbollah's side. Maliki is more indebted to the United States than any other Arab leader; his regime would collapse without America's military presence. If he can take such a bold stance, the other rulers—whose populations are more anti-Israel and pro-Hezbollah than they are—could feel pressure mounting.
At some point, President George W. Bush, as the leader of the only country that can exert leverage for a cease-fire and a settlement (if he wants to), will send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region. According to some reports, the current plan is for her to meet only with Israelis and with the sympathetic Arabs for the purpose of stiffening their stance against Hezbollah. Who knows whether back-channel talks are going on, at this very moment, with the leaders of Syria or Iran, who might bring pressure on Hezbollah (if they want to). Most previous administrations would be holding such talks, but Bush may not be; such talks, whether back-channel or front-door, would violate his policy of promoting democracies and shunning dictatorships.
But this policy of promoting democracies might provide an avenue for eking something decent from this disaster—namely, the survival of the Lebanese government, which came to power after last year's "cedar revolution" amid the rise of a democratic movement and the ouster of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. Bush hailed this development at the time as a dramatic advance in freedom's worldwide march. Now the war is on the verge of not merely dealing the Lebanese government a setback but snuffing it out.
The war has revealed just how weak the Lebanese government is. Hezbollah holds only a minority of seats in parliament, yet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is clearly incapable of bringing its leaders under control. Nor is the Lebanese army able to displace Hezbollah militia fighters from their positions in southern Lebanon.
Michael Young, the opinion editor for Beirut's Daily Star, writes that a Hezbollah "victory" (which would be accomplished by a mere stalemate on the battlefield) would weaken the government further. It would show that this minority party "can stand up to Israel, and can do so because it mobilized its armed state within the state without consulting any of its Lebanese political partners." As a result, Lebanon's "already frayed" political consensus "may crack." Young elaborates:
When [Lebanon's] diverse religious communities decide the problem is that one side has the weapons while the others have nothing but a choice to remain silent, Lebanon will break down, and it could do so violently.
This is one reason Israeli leaders are so determined to fight on for weeks, if necessary, in the hopes of crushing Hezbollah or at least pushing them permanently out of southern Lebanon and weakening them severely. But what if Israel simply can't accomplish this goal without inflicting a level of violence that, as Schiff notes, even most Israelis would find unacceptable? Dan Halutz, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told Cabinet ministers today that the goal of the air campaign against Hezbollah is to "damage, diminish, weaken, and erode." But what if all that doesn't add up to "defeat"?
Saad Hariri, the majority leader of Lebanon's parliament (and the son of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister whose assassination triggered last year's uprising against the Syrian occupiers), has a proposal on the table: Israel withdraws from Shabaa Farms and Hezbollah transfers the handling of a prisoner exchange to the Lebanese government. Zvi Bar'el, a columnist for Ha'aretz, writes that such a deal would hand the government a much-needed achievement.
The problem, of course, is that the Lebanese government is too weak to demand a role in this deal—and Hezbollah would see no reason to go along with it in any case.
The solution is for the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, and maybe the European Union (throw in as many organizations as possible)—acting, crucially, alongside the Lebanese government and army—to impose this deal. This means cracking down on Israel to cease fire—and it means getting Syria or Iran (or whoever it takes) to crack down on Hezbollah to hand Prime Minister Siniora the Israeli prisoners.
Then this same international coalition—again, with the Lebanese army at least officially in the lead—will have to deploy a substantial peacekeeping operation along a wide buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon. Finally, the international community will have to give the Lebanese government billions of dollars to repair the vast damage inflicted by the Israeli airstrikes—not so much as an act of charity but to pre-empt Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah from organizing (and taking political credit for) the cleanup.
It's an unsatisfying solution, like all the others that will be floated in the coming weeks. It will not settle the underlying conflict, but—short of a regional war that could get far deadlier than any outcome could justify—a real settlement may simply be elusive for now. It will, however, stop the killing. It will keep Israel from digging itself deeper into a crisis that has no good end. And it might keep Lebanon from devolving into an anarchic state that would almost certainly prompt the return of Syrian occupiers—or, worse still, the ascendance of a solidified Hezbollah regime.