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As Conflict Continues, Israel Weighs Military and Diplomatic Options

July 25, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: It was the heaviest bombardment of Beirut in two weeks of
fighting. Five missiles shook the southern suburbs, targeting a Hezbollah
stronghold.

This was the scene in southern Beirut, where this man’s engineering business
was hit. He said Israeli bombs don’t discriminate between Hezbollah and other
Lebanese.

MOHAMMED EL KOMANI, Lebanese Citizen: They want to kill all
of the people here. I don’t know why. There is no Hezbollah here.

RAY SUAREZ: Next door was a preschool; it, too, was
destroyed. A missile strike near the Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh killed seven people in this house. Further
south, Lebanon
counted 100 more strikes.

In the ancient town of Tyre,
Israeli warplanes dumped 1,000-pound bombs. Surrounding villages were shelled
by heavy guns. Fierce fighting continues around the town of Bint Jbeil, where up to 200 Hezbollah gunmen
are reportedly holding out against Israeli ground troops.

Meanwhile, aid organizations delivered food and medical
supplies to displaced Lebanese, including these at a refugee camp near Tyre.

On the other side of the border, Hezbollah launched some 70
rockets into Israel.
The port city of Haifa
was hit again, and at least five people were injured there.

And in Maghar, a 15-year-old Arab girl was killed when one
rocket tore through her family’s home. Three others were injured in that town.

Israeli tanks pushed into southern Lebanon, near the border town of Maroun al-Ras later in the
day. In Jerusalem,
the talk in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, was direct and to the point.

SHIMON PERES, Vice Premier, Israel (through translator): It is
either us or Hezbollah. You do not have a choice, either. It is either you or
Hezbollah. As far as we are concerned, this is a war for life or death.

RAY SUAREZ: Diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict
continued, with Secretary of State Rice meeting with Israeli and Palestinian
leaders today and her European and Arab counterparts tomorrow.

Rice on a mission

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Secretary of State Rice's trip to Israel,we get two views. Ori Nir is Washingtonbureau chief for the Forward, a weekly newspaper that covers the Jewish world. He'salso a former West Bank and Gazacorrespondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

And Jon Alterman is director of the Middle East program atthe Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Previously, he served at theState Department on the policy planning staff and as a special assistant toassistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Let's start with both of your overall assessments. Ori Nir,what were Secretary Rice's objectives? And can she leave Israeli thinking sheaccomplished them?

ORI NIR, Washington Bureau Chief, The Forward: I think thather objectives in Israel, Lebanon,Palestinian Authority was to set the stage. I think that what's much moreimportant than her visit to the region will be her follow-up tomorrow in Rome with the core group meeting, trying to set some kindof a scenario that will bring about the deployment of a multinational force in Lebanon.

RAY SUAREZ: Jon Alterman, same question?

JON ALTERMAN, Center for Strategic and InternationalStudies: My understanding is that she went to deliver partly a message ofsupport to the Israelis, but also a message of urgency that this can't go onforever, that when the international community meets, and then she goes awayand comes back to the region, it's going to be time to really stop the fightingand get some peacemaking.

They have a fixed period of time to do what urgently needsto be done, and then it's going to be time, in a week or so, when thepeacemaking really kicks in.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how do you do that? How do you send amessage of urgency that has to be fulfilled a week or so from now? Aren't thosetwo things kind of in conflict with each other?

JON ALTERMAN: Well, it's my sense that there's a lot ofintelligence-sharing that's going on. There's already a lot ofintelligence-sharing between the U.S.and Israel,and there would be some sense of, "Let's talk about targets and objectivesand strategically where we're trying to go, and then let's talk about how muchcan be done."

I can't imagine she would have delivered that message ifthere was a sense that the Israelis really couldn't get done what needed to bedone in the near term.

I think there's a growing sense that there are a few thingsthat need to be done still, but that it's not an open book, and this can't goon for months and months, even if the Israelis may talk about an 80-day timeframe. That's really not realistic.

International casualties

RAY SUAREZ: Ori Nir, just before we came on the air Easterntime, word came from the region that U.N. observers had been killed in thelatest Israeli strikes. Does that change the situation on the ground? Does thatmake it harder to give Israelcover for doing what it needs to do -- the United States' administration believes it needs to do insouthern Lebanon?

ORI NIR: I think that such incidents can influence this timeframe that Jon was talking about. Yes, it can shorten the time frame. If there aremore such incidents that occur, with either harming, hurting civilianpopulation on a broader scale, or international targets, as happened today,yes, it can.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the U.N. killing change the situation?

JON ALTERMAN: It changes it a little bit; I'm not sure itreally changes the broader complexion of it. The world is impatient. The U.S.is understanding. I think we're going to be able to manage that through thenext week or so, but ultimately this can't go on indefinitely.

RAY SUAREZ: Jon Alterman, what did Israel want from this visit fromRice?

JON ALTERMAN: Well, I think they wanted this sense ofunderstanding. They wanted the partnership. They have an internal politicalproblem, a domestic political problem, which having the U.S. show the flag and show solidarity with Israel helpswith.

I think, in a broader sense, Israel has a strategicconundrum, because the Kadima Party came in on the idea that unilateralwithdrawal brings peace, and the two examples were Lebanon and Gaza. And now,the government is fighting a two-front war in Lebanon and Gaza, so they don'thave a new strategic framework, a new strategic paradigm.

Having the U.S. say, "We understand," means thecurrent Israeli government is not flailing, and that's very, very important onthe domestic political scene.

RAY SUAREZ: Ori Nir, what do you think the latest situationdoes to the Kadima promise to move ahead with land for peace?

ORI NIR: Well, I think it's shelved for now or, if you want,deep frozen for a long time. A disengagement in the West Bank is not on theagenda, at the moment at least, and everyone knows that in Israel.

What everyone in Israel is now focused on is the war inLebanon. There is a very strong urge, supported by an overwhelming majority ofsomewhere around 90 percent of the population, including the Arab minority of20 percent in Israel, that this is a just war that should go on, in order tocrush Hezbollah as much as possible.

As brutal as it may sound, that is the overwhelmingconsensus now. And this is what Israel,I think, sought from Secretary Rice: a commitment to allow Israel to do asmuch as possible within the broad time frame that Jon was talking aboutearlier.

Keeping vs. making peace

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today, during the conversations, PrimeMinister Olmert discussed a security strip on Lebanese territory, just north ofIsrael.Secretary Rice agreed. Is this a workable, near term?

ORI NIR: I think it probably is workable, near term. The bigconundrum now in Israeltactically is how to maintain such a security zone without constant Israelipresence, military presence on the ground throughout that zone. If you do that,it comes with a great deal of death toll, in terms of Israeli troops.

So that's at the moment the conundrum. The purpose, however,what Israel is trying to say is, "We will hold this, and we will hold thissecurity zone, and we will establish this security zone by trying to root outas many Hezbollah elements as possible," so that an international forcecan, at some point, come in and deploy.

RAY SUAREZ: Jon Alterman, does that security zone move thepressure, once Israel's established in southern Lebanon, onto the internationalcommunity to form this force and get it transferred to the region?

JON ALTERMAN: You know, it does two really interestingthings. One is that it buys Israel time to get out, because they can say,"We're just waiting for the Europeans to come in. So the only reason we'restill here is because the Europeans aren't fast enough." So it takes thepressure off them.

The other interesting thing it does is it means that theEuropeans have an interest in Israel weakening Hezbollah militarily as much aspossible before they come in. So it reorients the European interest from,"We have to stop the fighting right away," to, "We have to letthe Israelis clean up the military capacity of Hezbollah, because if they don'tfire at Israelis, then they'll fire at Europeans later."

But there's a broader question as to whether you canactually have an effective peacemaking force in southern Lebanon. I've seenpeacekeeping forces work; I've never seen a peacemaking force work.

And if you're sending European troops in to a place wherethere's still a war, where there are still people fighting, I'm not sure howwell that's going to work, even in the immediate term, let alone a year or twodown the line.

RAY SUAREZ: Can a peacemaking force work, Ori?

ORI NIR: Well, but that's exactly the issue. What Israel issaying -- there's kind of a dance going on here, kind of a behind-the-scenes, Ithink, negotiation.

What Israelis saying to the Europeans, to the international community, is, "If yougive us the time, and if you give us a little more breathing room, we can go inand do the job for you. We can make -- not the peace -- make the war againstHezbollah, in order to try to weaken it as much as possible, so that you,whatever international force, European force, NATO force, whatever comes inwon't have to do that very, very difficult, bloody job."

An enduring Hezbollah presence

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the United States has made it clear it's not going to be part ofthat multinational force, but it did talk a lot, through Secretary Rice's voicetoday, about the humanitarian effort in Lebanon. Does saying that, alongwith the Israeli prime minister right next to you at the lectern, oblige Israel to be more careful in southern Lebanonuntil those corridors and that humanitarian aid flow is set up?

ORI NIR: It probably does. It definitely does commit Israel -- and Israel was committed to doing thateven before the secretary came and before her trip was announced -- to let inhumanitarian reinforcement shipments and things of that sort.

I agree with you that it also probably implies that Israel will have to be somewhat more careful,more conservative, in terms of civilian casualties in Lebanon.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about Hezbollah? You know, we'retalking about these time frames, letting Israel go on and achieve itsmilitary objectives. Can you root Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon?

JON ALTERMAN: I don't think you can root them out militarily.Militarily, they can do a rope-a-dope. They can take hits. They can gounderground. As long as they can survive in any way, they survive.

Ultimately, it seems to me, the solution to Hezbollah has tobe a Lebanese political solution. It has to be domesticated in some way. Youhave to create a split between the people who insist on fighting and the peoplewho want to be just pure politicians, and Hezbollah has an awful lot ofpoliticians in it.

But if you really want to fix the problem, it seems to me,you have to fix it politically. You can treat the military problem, but thatproblem is going to come back, maybe not in a year, but in five or more, andthat's exactly what Israelhas found in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Ori Nir, do you agree? Is Hezbollah still goingto exist in one form or another after this operation's done?

ORI NIR: Absolutely. And I have to tell you that what I'mhearing from Israeli politicians is, publicly, is that they do expect that tohappen, that they do expect Hezbollah to maintain a presence in Lebanon. Butwhat very much they hope -- and I think that that's probably going to happen --that they will still be a robust political force, a political party, with a presencein the parliament, but not a militia, not an armed militia.

RAY SUAREZ: Ori Nir, Jon Alterman, gentlemen, thank youboth.

JON ALTERMAN: Thank you.