Learning from the Israel-Hizbullah War

Toward a Stable Middle East

This article originally appeared in the Middle East Bulletin.

One year after a war erupted between Israel and Hizbullah, with the Middle East poised yet again on the brink of possible conflagrations, we find an appalling silence of American voices, policy-makers and analysts alike, examining what we can and should be doing a year out to set a better course for the days ahead.

On July 12, 2006, Hizbullah killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in a cross-border raid. That action triggered a 34-day air and ground war. Its effects continue to ripple through Lebanon, Israel, the region, and the world. The Israeli press carries endless commentaries about the failures of its government; and the Winograd Commission has contributed much to this debate. The U.S. and Arab press offer analyses about the sad state of Lebanon one year on.

Given the unique U.S. role in the world today, and the United States’ interest in a stable and secure region—one where our actions can reflect our values—we are compelled to reflect on this anniversary and look ahead with a practical eye toward avoiding a repetition of past mistakes, and we call upon others to do the same.

On this anniversary, the situation in the region is precarious. Lebanon is mired in a political standoff over the Hariri investigation and its army is battling Islamist militants in the north. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon lacks the necessary mandate to stop arms smuggling across Lebanon’s borders while Lebanon’s army lacks the skills and training for the mission. Meanwhile, Israel and Syria seem to be gearing up for possible conflict while trading recriminations over failure to come to the negotiation table, Hamas has taken over Gaza, Fatah has yet to show that it can clean up its internal act, Israeli West Bank settlements continue unchecked, Syria and Jordan face the destabilizing effects of the flow of Iraqi refugees, Iraq remains as unstable as ever, and Iran continues to serve as a feeder source for many negative regional forces.

So what lessons can the United States draw moving forward?

First, this anniversary and the worsening state of affairs should be a reminder that now is not the time for canceling diplomatic visits; now is the time to take steps toward resolving these issues before they lead to another war. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to postpone her trip to the region to deal with domestic debates over U.S. policy toward Iraq was misguided. Her greatest contribution to U.S. debates on Iraq would be to embrace the external approach outlined in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommendation—dealing directly and in a concentrated and sustained manner with the Israeli-Arab conflict in the context of a broader international conference that also addresses the Iraq situation.

Second, to ensure a sustained commitment, a high-level envoy must be appointed to address these interrelated regional issues—whether through a much-needed expansion of Tony Blair’s mandate beyond institution-building and into peace-making, as he is rightly requesting, or the appointment of someone of equal stature with a clear, broad mandate.

Third, as called for most recently by Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and George Voinovich (R-OH), the United States must take necessary steps, working closely with the United Nations and the Lebanese government, to implement more effectively U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and increase training of the Lebanese army to help it stem the flow of arms across its borders.

Fourth, the United States must start talking directly with Syria; not as a favor to a country that we have no reason to befriend but because it is in our interest to do so. Delivering and exchanging direct and tough talk, as needed, about the critical issues we have on the table in the region is the smartest way for the U.S. to proceed. Rice took the first step in her conversation with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem at the May meeting of the Iraq Contact Group, but a conversation does not a policy make.

Finally, last but far from least, the United States must keep the Israeli-Palestinian track at the forefront; helping to manage the immediate conflict while also working toward the political horizon—one with two states, Israel side by side with a viable Palestinian state.

This article originally appeared in the Middle East Bulletin.