Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The U.N.-backed cease-fire has stopped the killing in Lebanon and Israel. Now a United Nations peacekeeping force, coupled with the fractured Lebanese army, faces the daunting task of disarming Hezbollah. A realistic appraisal of this “A-Team” of terrorist organizations has this cease-fire looking more like a Hezbollah tactical pause, not a lasting commitment to peace with Israel.

In Israel last week, the speaker of its Knesset told me “we closed our eyes” to the growing threat of Hezbollah, which started building its military capabilities in southern Lebanon the day Israeli soldiers departed six years ago. The result: 3,700 rockets fired by Hezbollah into Israel over 33 days. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army with determination, skill and sophisticated weapons, surprising Israel.

Iranian backing greatly aided Hezbollah. Iranian Revolutionary Guards trained and directed its forces in Lebanon and Iran. With Syrian complicity, Iran armed Hezbollah, providing the sophisticated anti-tank missiles that proved deadly to Israeli forces. Iran helped Hezbollah fight the Israel Defense Force to a draw. One top Israeli official admitted Hezbollah has taken some blows but its spirit has not been broken.

It’s naive to think Hezbollah will disarm voluntarily. Last year, its leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned “any thought of disarming the resistance is pure madness… any such step is an Israeli act, and any hand reaching for the resistance’s weapons is an Israeli hand and we will chop it off.” That was before its new-found swagger.

Hezbollah arms are likely to prove useful again. Hezbollah now knows it can provoke Israel into conflict, as it did in July by its kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks, and maintain the support of the Lebanese people, despite their suffering. In the blame game, Israel will always lose to Hezbollah among the Lebanese. In fact, with its attack, Hezbollah is well on its way to becoming the dominant political force in Lebanon. Iranian-financed infrastructure rebuilding of Lebanon will cement the strong Hezbollah position. Hezbollah’s construction company began moving dirt as soon as the guns went silent.

This infrastructure no doubt will include schools to indoctrinate Lebanese youth. Hezbollah is the “Party of God.” The name Hassan Nasrallah translates to “Victor of Allah.” The Israeli Speaker, Dalia Itzik, a self-described reformed peacenik, described Hezbollah’s “devastating Nazilike philosophy.” Through destruction, Hezbollah is laying its long-term groundwork.

Entering into Lebanese politics, always cutthroat, will be a new U.N. peacekeeping force, handicapped by some second-rate troops. More problematic will be its mission to help the Lebanese army disarm Hezbollah. The Lebanese army is weak and influenced by Hezbollah. This makes disarming nearly impossible. Some countries already signal their reluctance to set foot in Lebanon until its army disarms the terrorist group.

With its contributing countries certainly unwilling to tolerate casualties, Hezbollah will be able to shatter this U.N. force at will. This means it is almost surely fated to be short-lived or as feckless as the 28-year-old U.N. peacekeeping force that stood by as Hezbollah armed in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Either way, Hezbollah will continue to arm. Iran won’t let its cats paw be declawed. Hezbollah is deep into Lebanon in a long-term way no U.N. peacekeeping force can ever match. The U.N. peacekeeping solution has a desperate feel to it.

Israel faces deep crisis. Its neighbor is controlled by a state-sponsored terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction. The Palestinian Liberation Organization pales in comparison. Some Israeli strategists talk about “containing” or “degrading” Hezbollah, not conquering it. Israelis are struggling.

If the U.N. approach fails, Israel will defend itself. A full-scale, lengthy Israeli military operation in Lebanon would be costly, in Israeli lives and treasure. Israel would pay a heavy price in world opinion too, as it is now, regardless of circumstances. An occupation of Lebanon would likely produce unintended and unfortunate consequences, as Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon helped give rise to Hezbollah. There are no good options.

It is clear Iran must be central to any solution. Maybe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s support for Hezbollah will stiffen the world’s spine to confront Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, our greatest worry. The nuclear weapons-terrorist nexus has never been more evident. Iran might even be forced to pay a price for materially supporting Hezbollah, which is the beginning of clipping its wings. It is not encouraging that the U.N. cease-fire resolution failed to even mention the Iranian role. What ever happened to addressing the “root causes” of the conflict? The appeasement instinct runs deep around the world. Nevertheless, all tools to weaken Iran must be carefully considered.

The stakes for Israel are its national survival. The stakes for the U.S. are quite high. Hezbollah has hit the U.S. before. It can do so again.

Wise statesmanship requires thinking several steps ahead. It means thinking about a Lebanon hobbled by a feeble or failed U.N. peacekeeping force and a further emboldened Hezbollah. Not comforting, but that’s the real world we can’t close our eyes to.

Edward Royce, California Republican, is chairman of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee.

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