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July 22, 2006

Backing for Israel Stymies Larger US Aims in Region

by Jim Lobe

Washington's strong backing – hedged by occasional calls for restraint – for Israel's 10-day-old military campaign in Lebanon has won it very few friends in the Arab world, despite recent criticism of Hezbollah by pro-U.S. governments in the region, according to a range of regional and foreign policy experts.

On the contrary, most experts believe Washington's refusal so far to rein in Israel, which Friday began massing thousands of soldiers along its northern border in preparation for a ground invasion, marks a serious setback in its long-term efforts to win Arab and Muslim "hearts and minds" in the wider "war on terror."

"Failing to be seen to take visible action to resolve the crisis, or even presenting an option like trying to revive the peace process, makes the U.S. seem to be a partner to Israel with little regard for the Arab world," noted Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here in a report released Friday, entitled "The Road to Nowhere."

"This is not the posture that helps in Iraq, that helps (U.S.-backed) regimes in Egypt and Jordan, or helps build up support dealing with Iran and Iraq," according to Cordesman. "It is not a strategy that helps in the war on terrorism."

The Bush administration clearly hopes to begin reversing that impression when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to the region Sunday in hopes of laying the groundwork for a more permanent solution to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah that would include the insertion of what she called a "robust" international military force in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's traditional stronghold.

But the fact that, in announcing the trip, Rice dismissed growing international pressure for an immediate ceasefire is likely to add to the impression that the administration of President George W. Bush remains sympathetic to Israeli appeals to be given more time to accomplish its minimum military objectives – to push Hezbollah to at least the north bank of the Litani River and destroy as many of its estimated missiles and launch sites as possible.

"A ceasefire would be a false promise if it simply returns us to the status quo, allowing terrorists to launch attacks at the time and terms of their choosing and to threaten innocent people, Arab and Israeli, throughout the region," she said in referring to Hezbollah's attack on Israeli soldiers along the border Jul. 12. She defined Hezbollah as the "root cause" of the crisis.

That Rice repeatedly praised Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has spent the past week desperately – even tearfully – appealing for an immediate ceasefire that would end the destruction by Israel of much of his country's infrastructure and the lives of well over 300 civilians so far, simply added to the impression that, when it came to balancing Israel's military aims with the agony of a friendly Arab government and population, it was no contest.

"I don't see a stable outcome in Lebanon no matter what happens to Hezbollah," Shibley Telhami, a regional expert at the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, told a forum at the Nixon Center here Thursday. Noting that the Shi'ite group has a strong grassroots base, he added, "In the end, the Lebanese state will be weakened even more than Hezbollah."

Indeed, despite the battering it has been taking from Israeli bombing and missile attacks, according to other experts, Hezbollah may well emerge stronger, perhaps not immediately as a military force, but rather as a political symbol for once again defying both Israel and its U.S. patron.

"I think Hezbollah so far is the winner in this confrontation," according to Edward Walker, director of the Middle East Institute (MEI) here. While the group was increasingly on the defensive within Lebanon where it was under growing pressure disarm before the current crisis, he said, "Hezbollah is (now) more popular than sliced bread – all over, not just (among) the Shi'ite."

Moreover, the western-backed Siniora government could fall, opening the way to the return of Syrian influence through its hand-chosen president, Emile Lahoud, according to Walker.

"The prognosis is a new rise in Syrian and Iranian influence, more confessional and sectarian tension, less power to the government and army, and a much worse situation for the Lebanese people," wrote Cordesman.

Moreover, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who had also been on the defensive both at home and abroad, has also benefited from an outpouring of popular support for Hezbollah, including from opposition forces, according to analysts here.

"The bottom line is we are in a situation where all the wrong guys are getting a boost," Walker said.

That boost has been greatly facilitated by the ferocity of the Israeli campaign which has wrought far more damage against the civilian population and infrastructure in Lebanon than against Hezbollah itself, whose casualties appear so far to have been relatively minor.

"There's no question that the outrage in the Arab world at what they see is the extent of destruction and death every night on their television screens is steadily increasing," one State Department official who asked not to be identified told IPS this week. "And we're being blamed for giving (Israel) a green light for that."

"Israel is obviously entitled to respond," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. "The question is, against whom?"

Israel's campaign, he added, not only showed an "indifference to the scale of collateral damage," but was also "morally not justifiable" and almost certainly counter-productive. "It's more likely than not that you won't intimidate (the target population)," he said. "You'll outrage them."

That is happening across the Arab world, according to Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion.

While Rice Friday hailed recent denunciations of Hezbollah's "adventurism" by the U.S.-backed Sunni-led governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt as evidence of what she called a "new Middle East," Telhami said they do not reflect popular attitudes.

"There is a huge gap that is out there between governments and publics that is likely to grow the longer the crisis goes on," he said. Noting the governments' criticism, Walker asserted at the same Nixon Center forum that if the Israeli offensives continue or escalate, he expected that Arab government criticism of Hezbollah will cease.

Indeed, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz declared Thursday that his government "cannot tolerate that Israel plays with the lives of citizens, civilians, women, old people and children."

One particularly worrisome development cited by regional specialists here this week was Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's bitter attack on what he called Israeli aggressions, a reflection not only of a rare unanimous vote in the Iraqi parliament last weekend, but also a sign of growing anger in Iraq's majority Shi'ite community.

"If the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah stretches to weeks and even months," asked David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist with long experience in the Middle East, "how long will it be before the United States faces a Shi'ite insurgency in Iraq, which would almost certainly spell a decisive American defeat there."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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