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Cease-fire Holds Between Israel, Hezbollah

August 14, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The cease-fire in the Israeli-Hezbollah war. We start with two reports, the first from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News in southern Lebanon.

JULIAN MANYON, ITV News Correspondent: Fifteen minutes before the cease-fire, an Israeli missile struck. Then the planes and guns fell silent.

The Israelis said their vehicle ban was still in force, but we set out and found people emerging from their hiding places.

Wreckage was still smoldering from the frenzied bombing just before the cease-fire. Petrol stations had been a special target, and roads were again wrecked by the Israeli air force.

Just a mile outside Tyre, a massive bomb crater severs the road. And behind me, a bulldozer is now working to try to clear an alternative route so we can get through further south.

Next to the hospital in Didnein (ph), devastation. The Israelis had used a cluster bomb. In the hospital basement, some frightened refugees were still refusing to come out. This woman clung to her baby, born just three days ago, but a small boy’s spirit was unbroken.

YOUNG LEBANESE BOY: I’m happy, so happy because we have victory. And Israel has been done. And we’ll be back to our home.

JULIAN MANYON: Further south, the town of Bint Jbail devastated by the fighting. We found old people still surviving in the wreckage of their homes.

This woman’s husband and son lie buried beneath the rubble. This old lady was left for dead but still has the strength to call out for water.

Hezbollah fighters are everywhere. They threatened to take our camera if we tried to film them. Some Hezbollah men led us to what was the front line. The village is in ruins, but the Israelis have pulled back across the border.

This moonscape was the center of the battle for Atalshab (ph). Repeatedly the Israelis tried to seize the village but they were hit by anti-tank missiles and their troops were ambushed in the narrow streets.

A Hezbollah fighter emerging from the rubble told me, “We fought them for 34 days. Now we are here, and they are gone.”

Amid the ruins, ordinary people now have some hope, and a few are starting to return to their homes. But no one knows if the cease-fire will hold or if the bombs will start to fall again.

JIM LEHRER: Next, Martin Geissler of Independent Television News reporting from northern Israel.

MARTIN GEISSLER, ITV News Correspondent: This was relief, not celebration, these soldiers just glad to be alive. After a punishing month for both sides in this conflict, the guns fell silent at day break. Some claimed victory; for others, a moment of prayer. This war has had a profound effect on many who fought in it.

ISRAELI SOLDIER: I saw things I didn’t see before, that’s for sure. I did things I didn’t do before.

MARTIN GEISSLER: Do you think it will change you?

But despite the mental and physical exhaustion, many here feel this truce has come too early.

ISRAELI SOLDIER: It’s a nice feeling, but it’s also a feeling of a failed mission because I think it’s just…

MARTIN GEISSLER: Just off-camera, a senior officer signaled his disapproval.

ISRAELI SOLDIER: It’s a nice feeling.

MARTIN GEISSLER: But while it may not be the party line, it is what many Israelis believe: The war may be over for now, but it’s not been won. And nowhere is that feeling more acute that in the bombed border communities.

For the first time in more than a month, there is absolute tranquility here in Kiryat Shmona, but there’s no one out on the streets celebrating this cease-fire because, for the time being at least, no one here can bring themselves to trust it.

The town’s mayor has been working from a bunker for the past four weeks. He believes that before long his people will be forced back underground.

HAIM BARBIBAI, Mayor, Kiryat Shmona: One more year, two or three years, the Hezbollah try again.

MARTIN GEISSLER: This is the man they blame, and Ehud Olmert is feeling the heat. The Israeli prime minister told his parliament today Israel will do better next time, and there may be a next time, he said. The guns here may be silent tonight, but they’re not being moved away just yet.

A winner among the rubble

Hisham Melhem
An-Nahar
[Hezbollah is] supported, obviously, by the Iranian and the Syrians, and that's why they fire 4,000 antique, meaningless rockets in a strategic sense, but they did create the havoc and the terror that they were designed to create.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis of where matters stand tonight. It comes from Hisham Melham and David Makovsky who have been with us often since the crisis began one month ago. Hisham is Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. He also hosts a weekly program on Al-Arabiya Television.

David is director on the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy. He's a former editor and correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz newspapers.

David, both sides are claiming victory. Do either side have a case?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: Well, both may have. I mean, if you look at, is Hezbollah stronger or weaker? I would say objectively they're weaker; subjectively, they feel stronger. But how they play out in the Lebanese political context is yet to really be seen. So some of the hardest issues are really still ahead of us.

I think objectively, look, they clearly lost a quarter of their frontline fighters, although the numbers will go back and forth, command centers, financial distribution centers. They've eroded a lot, but they're not going to admit to it.

So I think, in an objective sense, they're weaker. But subjectively Nasrallah feels like an icon, that these militias now could be emulated throughout the Arab world. But I wonder if these victories are short-lived, because the more militias like these are replicated in the Arab world, I fear that this will lead to Arab antagonisms toward their supporters in Tehran.

But Nasrallah feels like he went 15 rounds with Mohammed Ali at his prime, and Israel is a regional power. But let's be clear: Every single punch of Nasrallah was under the belt. He killed, you know, indiscriminately, 4,000 rockets against women and children and civilian population centers. In my view, that defines who they are.

So subjectively, he may feel good, but I think there's some questions down the road. And in terms of a Lebanese context, what's going to happen? Is Nasrallah -- is there going to be any reckoning for Nasrallah that we got ruins? There's going to be some real questions, and whether this cease-fire will hold and the government of Lebanon will take hold, there are some questions here that we can't say yet who won and who lost.

JIM LEHRER: Who won and who lost? What would you follow up or disagree with what David just said, Hisham, particularly -- why don't you do what -- he looked at the Lebanon-Hezbollah side. You look at the Israeli side. What did Israel accomplish here?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, An-Nahar: Well, clearly, the Israelis did not achieve most of their initial ambitious demands or objectives, i.e., decapitate Hezbollah; destroy its military power in a significant way; achieve a political victory; return the two kidnapped or abducted soldiers; create a different reality.

So things are still in flux, but definitely the much-vaunted Israeli invincible army did not perform in a stellar fashion. On the contrary, they were failing militarily.

And Hezbollah, regardless of what you think of them ideologically and politically, did manage to create a huge hole in Israel's strategic deterrence. They fought well. They were disciplined, high morale, very effective, very shrewd, very determined. They knew the terrain. They really are the best non-state actor when it comes to military power.

There are supported, obviously, by the Iranian and the Syrians, and that's why they fire 4,000 antique, meaningless rockets in a strategic sense, but they did create the havoc and the terror that they were designed to create.

On the other hand, notwithstanding what they have done militarily, now Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has to reckon with the basic, undeniable fact that the Israeli war machine created a mountain of rubbles of the Lebanese economy, the Lebanese infrastructure.

Now, I know and you know Hezbollah will climb up to the heap and plant his yellow flag.

JIM LEHRER: And blame it on Israel?

HISHAM MELHEM: And blame it all on the Israel, and blame it on the Arabs, and blame it on the Americans, but it's going to be a pyrrhic victory, a pyrrhic victory because people are going to ask him, "What did you do? You did not have a deterrent factor. You could not deter Israel from destroying the Lebanese economy, killing more than a thousand people."

Now, there's another thing which is painful for me to say. There is almost, for lack of a better term, a nihilistic streak in the Arab street, so- called Arab street or Arab public opinion on the part of some people, some in Lebanon, but mainly in the Arab world, which says, because we live in the shadow of Israeli power, because we were humiliated by the Israelis repeatedly, anybody on the Arab side or the Iranian side who managed to inflict some pain on the Israelis, drive half a million people to their shelters, kill a hundred Israeli soldiers, it's a victory, without thinking for one moment who's paying the price.

Those guys who sit in the cafes of Damascus, and Cairo, and Amman, sipping coffee and tea, and like the Iranian regime, which is extremely cynical, like the Syrian regime, which is extremely cynical, they want to fight the Israelis to the last Lebanese and Palestinian.

Israel after the war

David Makovsky
Former editor, Ha'aretz
Israel is not a super power. Virtually every war we could go through this if we had time. It's always worked under some sort of diplomatic stopwatch of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's talk about Israel. The prime minister, Mr. Olmert, was almost apologetic today, in a way, today on the defensive, David. Why? Does he have political problems over this?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, he has a lot. I mean, clearly -- I mean, I agree with Hisham that this sense of failure of dithering that the Israeli public, 64 percent wanted Israel to go to the Litani...

JIM LEHRER: The river that...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: The river further up, where the buffer would be, believing that a multinational force won't really disarm Hezbollah. So, you know, there is some criticism, you know, why didn't he go to the ground early?

JIM LEHRER: The failed mission that the soldier said in the piece?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Well, yes, I mean that there are people that will wonder like this. They will say, you know, "Israel is not a super power. The United States can go for six weeks, bomb Iraq and Kuwait, and then, after six weeks, go to the ground."

Israel is not a super power. Virtually every war we could go through this if we had time. It's always worked under some sort of diplomatic stopwatch of the United States. And at a certain point, the referee kind of blows the whistle. And he didn't seem to be as attuned to that stopwatch.

JIM LEHRER: You mean Olmert didn't?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Olmert. And that's where there's a lot of criticism of him.

JIM LEHRER: But talk about the Israeli street now, comparing it with what Hisham was talking about in the Arab world. Do the Israelis think, "Oh, my goodness, the Israeli military should have gone in there and really destroyed these people, and they didn't do it, and it is in fact a failed mission"?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, we'll see on the polls in the coming days.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, sure.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: But, I mean, right now they felt that the military should have gone further. They believed in the legitimacy of the war, and they wanted a decisive outcome. And they felt they didn't get a decisive outcome.

Now, you could say -- compare this to the '67 war, and when they were fighting Arab armies, where the whole Egyptian air force is on one parking lot, and you just knocked it all out, and the war is over. Here you're fighting insurgents.

The United States is in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and it's very hard to do. Now, also people shouldn't mistake what a democracy is in Israel. In a democracy, there's a thrashing out. There's a reckoning. There's an accountability. But it didn't translate on the battlefield.

When there was fighting, the country was unified. I think the second war is beginning now, the war of the Jews, where Olmert is going to be facing a lot of these questions, second-guessing him, second-guessing the intelligence, second-guessing the military. But people shouldn't mistake that as Israel somehow coming apart at the seams. That's what democracy does. It's a healthy, therapeutic process.

Spinning both sides of the war

David Makovsky
Former editor, Ha'aretz
Look, Sharon was in power for much of this, while, you know, he inherited this at the last moment, in many respects, while these 12,000 missiles were being amassed. He also knows, during the Lebanon war, how you go into Lebanon not how you go out.

JIM LEHRER: Is it your feeling, Hisham, that if Israel had gone in, in a more stronger way, and it had actually added more people on the ground quicker and even bombed more, and maybe satisfied some of the critics who are now speaking up in Israel, that the end result would have been worse for them in the long...

HISHAM MELHEM: For the Lebanese, definitely.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

HISHAM MELHEM: I mean, more bodies, and more destruction, and more mayhem, and a much, much, much weaker Lebanese state. And probably Hezbollah will claim, as its leaders claim right now, "We are the sole defenders of the country." The problem is, as we said on the first day of the fight...

JIM LEHRER: We sat here that first day.

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, exactly.

HISHAM MELHEM: We should stop meeting that way.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right, based on this subject...

HISHAM MELHEM: That this is going to radicalize people. It is already radicalizing the Shiite community, now that they see that the Hezbollah is the sole protector. Today, Hassan Nasrallah was talking today as if he is the minister of housing, telling people, "We'll give you a financial stipend" to rebuilding their homes. He's already playing the role of the state instead of leaving it to the government. So what you have...

JIM LEHRER: So the state within a state that Olmert claims he no longer exists, you don't think that's correct?

HISHAM MELHEM: Look, Olmert has to paint it as a tactical victory, if it's not a strategic victory, because it's not. He's assuming that Hezbollah will be driven out north of the Litani River. But even if not Hezbollah is north of the Litani River, they will remain the most potent both military and political force in the country. And Hassan Nasrallah is not...

JIM LEHRER: Damaged though they may be, they're still be...

HISHAM MELHEM: Exactly, they're still potent in Lebanon.

JIM LEHRER: Bottom line here?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think, to be a little fair to Olmert, if we could, if it's all right...

JIM LEHRER: It's quite all right.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: ... even it a little bit.

JIM LEHRER: Take 10 seconds. I have to ask you one final question before we go.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I would just say this. Look, Sharon was in power for much of this, while, you know, he inherited this at the last moment, in many respects, while these 12,000 missiles were being amassed. He also knows, during the Lebanon war, how you go into Lebanon not how you go out.

And if it works, this is the first time in 31 years of these cease-fires that the Lebanese army has actually said that they would go to the south and secure the southern part of their country. If indeed they do it, it's a huge victory, not just for Israel, for Lebanon, for the entire world. And the biggest loser would be Hezbollah. The question is: Will it be implemented?

JIM LEHRER: And Israel could work with that Lebanese government...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: ... if it got power back in the south...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: ... or got power, period, in the south?

Keeping a peace in the Middle East

Hisham Melhem
An Nahar
They have to contend, not only with a power like Hezbollah, which is a state within the state, but with a cynical government in Damascus and a more cynical government in Tehran.

HISHAM MELHEM: It's going to be very difficult for the Lebanese government to work with Israel after what they have done to the country. I mean, you are not going to find too many...

JIM LEHRER: Aren't they kind of in a box now, because of the cease-fire, the U.N., and 15,000 outside troops?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, not really. I mean, if anything, the prime minister of Lebanon, his government have been enhanced, because they did play it well, as much as they were weak. They came up with the seven-point plan. They came up with the initiative to deploy the army into the south.

But the problem for the Lebanese government, per se now -- keep in mind this is a fragile government in an overall brittle political order. They have to contend, not only with a power like Hezbollah, which is a state within the state, but with a cynical government in Damascus and a more cynical government in Tehran.

And the United States that did not really support Lebanon in its time of need, because the country of Lebanon, which is a friendly country to the United States, was being pulverized. And the Americans appeared to Lebanese and Arabs as if they are providing Israel with a green light.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I just -- go ahead. We've got to finish here.

HISHAM MELHEM: I mean, what you have is that there is a different thinking in Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, which is says essentially America's moment in the Middle East has come to an end, that Bush's project in the Middle East has come to an end. And unless you look at the whole region...

JIM LEHRER: OK, we...

HISHAM MELHEM: ... in a pan-Arabic way, you're not going to settle this issue.

JIM LEHRER: You all raise about 35 issues here. We didn't get to them, only about three or four of them. And the question I wanted to ask is whether you now thought this cease-fire was going to hold. And I think we've heard each of your answers, and we'll sort through them. Thank you both very much.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.