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Middle East Conflict Dominates G-8 Summit Discussions

July 17, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: That crisis dominated the weekend meeting of the G-8 nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, and reduced the focus on such issues as Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s missile launches.

For more on the Middle East situation and what options the outsiders have, we go to David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post. Trudy Rubin, she’s a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.

David Ignatius, to you first. We’ve heard two very different views here. The Israeli ambassador telling Jim that the entire region is being held hostage by Iran and Syria. And on the other hand, the Syrian ambassador telling Gwen that that’s a myth, that these are Lebanese fighters who are fighting for what they believe in and they are justified.

Which side is accurate?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, this is one of those situations where, you know, I don’t think an outsider should choose one side or the other. The whole point about a more active U.S. role as a mediator would be to try to bridge the enormous gap.

It is true that Syria and, to a much greater extent, Iran have great leverage over Hezbollah. It’s also true that Hezbollah is popular, is powerful in Lebanon because it has many, many hundreds of thousands of Shiite Lebanese followers. In other words, it’s not simply a puppet of outsiders; it has its own strength.

But I do think that this is a week in which we ought to think about the role the United States can play, traditionally has played in the Middle East as a mediator. It’s obvious that this is a part of the world that really needs outside help now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before we get to the U.S., let me ask you, Trudy Rubin, this role that Iran and Syria play here, how dominant are they? Are they pulling the strings or not for Hezbollah?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I don’t think Hezbollah would have done the kind of attack they did across the border unless they had a very clear green light from Iran.

When I was in Iran in late May, several senior officials said to me that the United States would never have peace and stability in Lebanon — and they emphasized that — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and they added Central Asia, unless they had a dialogue on regional issues with the Iranians.

And one has to think that this incursion by Hezbollah happened just before the G-8, which was going to discuss the issue of whether Iran should be taken back to the Security Council on the issue of freezing its nuclear program. And it’s hard not to conclude that Iran was sending a message: “If you think you can pressure us, we have the ability to pressure you.”

That doesn’t mean, as David said, that Hezbollah was a puppet, but I think it probably does mean that Hezbollah got the green light.

The role of Iran and Syria

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Kristol, what about the role of Iran here and the role of Syria? You're writing this week in the Weekly Standard that this war is different from other wars because it is a terrorist organization, you say, that Israel is fighting and not just states, if you will.

BILL KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: Well, it's not an Arab-Israeli war. You know, there's a tendency to say, oh, it's another issue, Israel, the Palestinians. Israel has no issue now with most of its Arab neighbors, and they in fact are publicly critical of Hezbollah and privately cheering Israel on as they destroy this terrorist organization or try to.

Israel has no issue with Jordan; Israel has no issue with Egypt. Saudi Arabia, not exactly a historic friend of Israel, is saying Hezbollah started this.

This is Hezbollah, which was created by the Iranian revolutionary guards, came across an internationally recognized border from territory that Israel had withdrawn from. There's no territorial issue between Israel and Lebanon. The U.N. certified Israel's complete withdrawal six years ago.

They came across a border to kidnap hostages. It's a proxy war by Iran against Israel. The Islamic Republic of Iran is committed to the annihilation of Israel.

Just today, the newspaper in Tehran that's closest to the supreme leader of Iran, Mr. Khamenei, called, reminded every Muslim that it is their duty to annihilate the Zionist entity in the Middle East.

Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that is pretty much at the beck and call -- certainly at the funding, and financing, and arms providing -- of Iran. And it's part of their war against Israel and I would say their war to drive us out of the Middle East.

The power of the United States

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given that, David Ignatius, you know, how much ability does the United States have to influence events here?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, we have limited ability. The United States' policy for the last year-and-a-half has been to try to build up the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

We speak of the Cedar Revolution, the uprising, really, of the Lebanese people that drove Syrian troops out and created a fairly strong, fairly democratic Lebanese government, in which we have a big stake.

One tragedy of what's happening now is that the Siniora government is being weakened by this very aggressive Israeli attack on Lebanese infrastructure. The idea is to put pressure on the Lebanese to crack down on Hezbollah, but unfortunately it's going to leave a much weaker Lebanon.

In my own experience in the Middle East, the way that you control non-state actors like Hezbollah, like Hamas as a terrorist organization, is to have a strong state that has a strong army and can impose security.

Unfortunately, as happened in the Palestinian territories, as the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas was weakened, the ability of the Lebanese government to crack down on Hezbollah or even to draw Hezbollah into some kind of more peaceful arrangement, control its use of weapons, is less today than it was a week ago because of Israel's action. That's unfortunate.

The United States enmeshed in Iraq

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so given that, Trudy Rubin, what should the U.S. do? What can the U.S. do? And let's bring in these other countries. We mentioned the G-8 summit meeting this weekend, whether it's Russia or any of these other countries, that used to be thought to have some influence?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that the U.S. is at a tremendous disadvantage now. The Syrian ambassador mentioned that the U.S. used to send out a special emissary, and it's true. And that emissary would go to all the capitals involved, Israel and Arab countries, and usually would manage to get a cease-fire.

The United States is in a very odd position now, because we are enmeshed in the Iraq war. First of all, because that war is going so badly, there is a perception of U.S. weakness, no question. But we are also not in a position to talk with the two governments that are the indirect supporters of Hezbollah and sometimes the very direct supporters, which is Iran and Syria.

Now, the United States is not in a position, I believe, to take military action against Iran or Syria because we are bogged down in Lebanon and because such military action, even if it were aimed at nuclear weapons or a nuclear program -- we don't know if there are weapons, but programs in Iran -- it would not change the regime in that country. And Iran could retaliate in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying there are no options for the U.S.?

TRUDY RUBIN: No, I think there are options, but because I don't think there is a military option, I think the U.S. is at a great disadvantage, because we are not in a position to talk to Iran and set out red lines, to set out clearly carrots and clearly sticks, which may be economic sticks, sanctions.

And I think that's quite unfortunate, because it limits the leverage. And there are very few intermediaries. The Arab governments, Sunni governments who are angry at Hezbollah, are not in a good position to exert leverage with Iran or Syria, either.

What can the U.S. do?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Kristol, as one who has supported the conduct of the war in Iraq, Trudy Rubin is saying that weakens the ability of the United States to do anything in the Middle East.

BILL KRISTOL: I don't think so. I mean, I've been critical of the execution of the war in Iraq myself. But, no, if Saddam Hussein were still in power supporting terrorists, would we feel safer? There would be more support for Hamas and Hezbollah, not less.

This is a moment of opportunity. Iran and Hezbollah have overreached. They got cocky. David Ignatius made this point in a column late last week. I would argue they got cocky because we've been weak over the last six to nine months.

Iran is developing nuclear weapons. We're sort of slapping them on the wrist. Iran is sending IEDs into Iraq to kill American soldiers. We say we're upset about it and do nothing.

Hezbollah builds up rockets in contravention to the U.N. resolution and their commitments, and we do nothing much about that. In any case, Iran and Hezbollah, I think, now have overreached. Israel is hitting back.

This is a chance to defeat a terrorist organization and give Iran a black eye to rally other Arab nations in the region who may not love Israel and may not love our intervention in Iraq. But they know that a radical Islamist group like Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, are really dangerous to the future.

So I'm actually thinking this is a moment of opportunity for Israel, for the U.S., and to really turn the tide on the terrorist organizations and their sponsor states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Ignatius?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, you know, on this question of, "What can the U.S. do?" I think there are a couple of things that really do matter.

The demand that the Lebanese government should extend its authority throughout all of Lebanon, including the south -- this area that's now controlled by a guerilla group that, you know, whenever it feels like can plunge this whole region into the kind of warfare we're seeing -- that has to end.

So that's an entirely appropriate demand, and it would serve to strengthen the authority of the Lebanese government over time.

I do think that we need to find ways to engage Syria. I think it's crazy in a period like this for us not to have an ambassador in Damascus, not as a concession to the Syrians, but because it's important to speak to the Syrian people and be there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think the Bush administration is close to considering something like that?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think, Judy, that the Bush administration is pre-occupied by Iraq. I think that other elements of its Mideast diplomacy really have not been aggressive enough. And I think, unfortunately, we're seeing some evidence of that now.

And this is a time to really kind of -- got to get more serious about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We are going to have to leave it there. David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post, Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Bill Kristol with the Weekly Standard, thank you, all three.

BILL KRISTOL: A pleasure.