There has been a steady and disturbing barrage of reports lately prediciting another war, sooner rather than later, between Israel and Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group that controls most of southern Lebanon and is firmly entrenched in the Lebanese parliament.
As you may recall, the 2006 cease-fire resulted in UN Resolution 1701, which prohibited Hezbollah from rearming. But as Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, reports in a comprehensive "contingency planning memorandum" for the Council on Foreign Relations, "Hezbollah's arsenal is more potent in quantity and quality today than it was in 2006." In addition, he notes, Hezbollah has stepped up its anti-Israel rhetoric, and perhaps in response, Israel has increased its military and civil defense preparedness, mindful that rocket attacks from Lebanon four years ago forced a million Israelis to leave their homes.
What to do about the current threat?
In a thorough and dispassionate analysis, Kurtzer runs through the various scenarios, including a conflict started by Hezbollah, or, more likely, he says, Israel could strike first to "degrade" Hezbollah's firepower and prevent it from being a more serious threat should Israel attack Iran.
An Israel-Hezbollah conflict would have a negative impact on three U.S. priorities, namely trying to stop Iran's nuclear plans, withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and making progress on Mideast peace talks. But Kurtzer points out that American efforts to prevent another war in Lebanon are limited, recognizing Israel's right and need for self-defense and Washington's lack of relations with Hezbollah and its supporter, Iran.
He concludes that the U.S. should increase its intelligence in the area; proclaim its support for Israel's right to defend itself and make known its worries over Hezbollah's rearmament; resurrect an international monitoring system; increase diplomatic pressure on Syria; prepare for war and seek an outcome that weakens Hezbollah; and prepare for postwar diplomacy.
Not very satisfying, but sobering and pragmatic. That's the reality we face. And it should be noted that the Kurtzer memorandum rejects the notion of the U.S. negotiating with Hezbollah now, saying it would not only be politically unfeasible but that "more importantly, there seems little that the United States could offer or threaten to do to convince Hezbollah to moderate its terrorist activities."
Another key point: Kurtzer says that whatever Washington decides, it needs to "send a clear message to Israel," adding: "History shows that Israel will read U.S. ambiguity as supporting its own views."
There are no ideal solutions but it's a comfort to know that a top U.S. expert on the Mideast is calling for giving Israel the latitude to take action, if it deems it necessary. But the report also makes the point that the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chance of Israel inflicting civilian casualties and inflaming the international community.
At the very least, it's important for world attention to be focused now on the fact that Hezbollah continues to rearm in defiance of a UN resolution. And no one is going to stop them. Except Israel.
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