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Israeli Forces Cross into Lebanon After Hezbollah Fight

July 12, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The new violence in the Middle East, this time between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israeli and Lebanese ambassadors to the United States were interviewed earlier today on CNN.

DANIEL AYALON, Ambassador, Israel: We have here a clear war situation. We have been attacked by Lebanon, from a Lebanese soil, by terror organizations.

This attack becomes much more brazen, after we have totally pulled out of Lebanon five years ago. We clearly moved to the other side of the border, the blue line.

The international-recognized border was endorsed by the U.N., which also called for the Lebanese government to exercise its sovereignty over the southern border with us, namely to disarm the Hezbollah, which is a terror organization operated from Damascus or Tehran.

The Lebanese government, in order to be viable, must exercise their sovereignty and exercise and also perform their duty and obligation according to international law. If they do not control the Hezbollah, we will have to do the work. And first and foremost, we would like to bring back our soldiers safely home.

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN International: But there’s no evidence that anyone within the Lebanese government has any control over what Hezbollah does. I just want to get back to the point…

DANIEL AYALON: No, no, but this is an important point. Let me remind you that Hezbollah is a part and parcel of the Lebanese government. They have ministers who sit on the Hezbollah, but this is…

ROSEMARY CHURCH: But we know they’re a divided government.

DANIEL AYALON: But even if they’re divided, I mean, you cannot put the onus on Israel. It’s the Lebanese problem.

If they cannot control Hezbollah, maybe they are not a viable government. This is their problem. And if they do not keep peace and quiet on our northern border, they cannot have impunity.

They have to understand one way or another. We hope it will be in peaceful means, and still there is a chance to do it if we receive our soldiers. And if we do not, we will have to exercise our right of self-defense.

But the onus and the responsibility is the Lebanese government’s, and there is no excuse to it.

FARID ABBOUD, Ambassador, Lebanon: We did not declare any war. It was declared on us when our country was occupied by the Israelis, when prisoners were taken from Lebanon into Israel, and when Palestinian refugees were pushed inside Lebanon.

We did not occupy Israel; we did not declare war; we didn’t do anything. We don’t want any escalations.

At this juncture, if there is any solution to be found, it should be around a negotiating table. And there should be negotiations to the withdrawal of the Israelis from the Lebanese-occupied territories and to the release of Lebanese prisoners. That’s the only solution that will, you know, be feasible.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN International: You say that you don’t want any escalations, but…

FARID ABBOUD: No, we don’t.

MICHAEL HOLMES: … but crossing over the border into Israel, killing and seizing soldiers, what did you think would happen?

FARID ABBOUD: I’m not sure where the location of the attack took place. I understand that there was another battle, also, where during which the Israelis crossed Lebanese soil and that the casualties that fell then were inside Lebanon territory.

But that’s not very relevant. The issue is now that there are prisoners of Lebanon, detained by Israel, and there are Israeli prisoners in Lebanon, and there should be an exchange of prisoners.

We do not want any escalation, and I don’t think we have ever attacked Israel. I mean, Israel has always occupied our territory, and we have always defended ourselves. Our position has always been very reactive, defensive.

Lebanese government's response

JIM LEHRER: After that interview, the ambassador was recalled to Beirut. The Lebanese government issued a statement saying the ambassador's comments were at odds with its policy to disavow the Hezbollah action.

Now, some analysis of the day's events from two frequent NewsHour guests. Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, and host of a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya, he was born and raised in Lebanon and is now an American citizen.

And David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, he's a former editor and diplomatic correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz newspapers in Israel.

Hisham, first of all, what can you tell us about the recall of the Lebanese ambassador?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, An-Nahar: Well, the Lebanese ambassador appeared to be adopting the Hezbollah operation at a time when the Lebanese government was in an emergency session to decide what kind of official position to take.

They came up with the statement in Beirut saying, essentially, "We had no prior knowledge of the attack. We are not responsible for the attack. We disavow everything that has taken place at the Lebanese-Israeli border."

And people in Washington, American officials, were watching the ambassador. And they thought that he representing the Lebanese government's official views. And the Lebanese government wanted immediately to dispel any notion like this.

As you well know, the ambassador was on bad terms with the prime minister. And when the prime minister visits Washington recently, he sent the ambassador back to Beirut.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Just for the record, we had scheduled on our program back-to-back live interviews with those two ambassadors, the ambassador from Lebanon and the ambassador from Israel. And then when the Lebanese ambassador pulled out, we scrubbed it out of fairness. And, fortunately, CNN allowed us to broadcast what we just now broadcast.

HISHAM MELHEM: And you're stuck with their analysts.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right. Now we're stuck with the two of you, right.

Yes, right. David, Israel is holding the Lebanese government responsible for what happened. Whatever the statements are, the Israeli government says Lebanon is responsible. Are they correct to do so?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: I think they are, because Israel pulled out in 2000 completely. The U.N. demarcated the border. There was even U.N. Security Council Resolution 1310 which ratified that border.

And then, since then, the French and the United States, which weren't working together too well in the last several years, joined hands to pass U.N. Security Council 1559, which said that Hezbollah should be disarmed, all foreign forces should go.

And, in fact, Syria ended up leaving, but Hezbollah has not disarmed, and the Lebanese government is in this strange situation that it is not deployed in the southern part of the country, even though the 35,000 Syrians are out and you've got about 12,000 to 14,000 Hezbollah rockets perched against Israel right on that border area.

Hezbollah relationship with Lebanon

Hisham Melhem
An-Nahar Newspaper
Hezbollah today has one of the strongest, most disciplined political parties in Lebanon, with a military wing of its own, with a media empire of its own, with sources of income of its own.

JIM LEHRER: So there are no Lebanese troops along that border, right, Hisham?

HISHAM MELHEM: No, there are Lebanese units in the south, but...

JIM LEHRER: In the south, but not right there?

HISHAM MELHEM: They are not manning the borders...
JIM LEHRER: How would you -- help us understand the relationship between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. They do have ministers in there.

HISHAM MELHEM: It's a very complex situation in Lebanon. You have almost a national unity government, almost, in which Hezbollah is represented in the government by a number of ministers and their allies also are represented in the government.

Hezbollah today has one of the strongest, most disciplined political parties in Lebanon, with a military wing of its own, with a media empire of its own, with sources of income of its own, not to mention the money that they get from Iran and the weapons that they get from Iran via Syria.

They have cells all over the world, and they are almost self-sufficient. They can challenge the government militarily in the area of security. Taking them on in a frontal attack will lead to civil war probably. The Lebanese government, with their allies, are trying to convince Hezbollah, trying to lean, use the 1559 resolution, international pressure on Hezbollah, domestic pressure on Hezbollah to disarm through negotiations.

Hezbollah today changed the whole equation upside-down in Lebanon. And today, Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has already, whether by design or not, marginalized the Lebanese prime minister the way Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas in Damascus, marginalized the Palestinian president...

JIM LEHRER: Same thing, same thing.


JIM LEHRER: If the Lebanese government said to Hezbollah, "We want those two Israeli soldiers back, and we want them turned over to Israel," could they enforce that?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely not.


HISHAM MELHEM: And today, Nasrallah was ebullient in a press conference that he held in Beirut...

JIM LEHRER: He's the leader of Hezbollah.

HISHAM MELHEM: He's the leader of Hezbollah.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, we ran that in a clip. It was in Julian Manyon's piece, yes.

HISHAM MELHEM: Right. He's a very charismatic man. He's a very strong man. He knows what he wants. He has allies in Syria and in Tehran in Iran. And he has the power in Lebanon. He can challenge the government.

In fact, today he was asking the Lebanese government not to do anything that would weaken Hezbollah or strengthen the Israelis.

"Israel will go after rockets"

David Makovsky
Washington Institute for NearEast Policy
Israel was in Lebanon for 18 years, 1982 to 2000, does not want to go back. But I don't think we should preclude the prospects of a ground operation.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now, David, the Israeli government clearly knows everything that Hisham knows, and now our audience knows. So what do they do about this? I mean, how are they going to handle this, attacking Lebanon, at the same time trying to get the Lebanese government to do a very difficult task, which is to influence Hezbollah?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Again, you know, you could make the point, you know, Hezbollah is a three-headed monster, that it's getting -- the rockets are coming from Iran, but it's going through Damascus airport. That's the Syrians. And then, from there, it goes to southern Lebanon.

And, you know, the Syrians have also been in the middle of things with the Palestinians, where Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas, says, "Yes, I did it." And he said it in a press conference from Damascus in front of television cameras in the last 48 hours.

So there are other elements here that also are connected to this. But I think with, you know, the 35,000 Syrians are out -- until the Syrians were out, what we always said was, "Look, they can't deploy in the south. Don't you understand? They've got 35,000 Syrians"...

JIM LEHRER: "They," meaning the Lebanese...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right, the Lebanese government cannot deploy their troops in the south. It's impossible because of the Syrian presence.

The Syrians are gone now. So now you have a U.N. Security Council Resolution 1310 that the Israelis are out. It's uncontested. Kofi Annan today condemned this attack in the strongest terms. And then you have 1559, also approved by the Security Council, also calling for Hezbollah to be disarmed.

With Syria out, I think now people want to know about Lebanon.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: How do you keep them in the government and say their cabinet ministers, and then say, "Oh, well, we have nothing to do with anything."

JIM LEHRER: All right. But my question is: What does Israel do about this now? I mean, they've launched very many military attacks. More apparently are coming?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: My information which -- you know, there's a very fluid situation; it could change -- I think is, you know, there will be some air attacks.

I think, on one hand, the ground attacks don't always look inviting. Israel was in Lebanon for 18 years, 1982 to 2000, does not want to go back. But I don't think we should preclude the prospects of a ground operation.

And I also believe that there's a chance Israel will go after those Hezbollah rockets that are perched on Israel's border.

HISHAM MELHEM: The problem is that the Israelis always overreact; their reaction is always disproportionate; and they always attack the infrastructure; and they are very extremely careless about civilian lives.

We've seen it today in Gaza. Seven children were killed. What they are doing in Gaza today, destroying the infrastructure, kidnapping elected officials, they have done it in Lebanon.

They kidnapped Hezbollah leaders. They kidnapped many Lebanese leaders. They destroyed the power plants in Lebanon. They destroyed the infrastructure.

They ended up radicalizing many Lebanese, just as they are now radicalizing many Israelis. And they did not succeed in the end, after 18 years of occupation. That's what the problem is...

JIM LEHRER: But what now?

HISHAM MELHEM: By taking on the bridges today, again, they are playing into Hezbollah's hands, because the immediate reaction of the Lebanese, especially Hezbollah supporters -- and there are many Lebanese who are appalled by what Hezbollah did today, because there is a schism now in the country between a large number of Lebanese who are unhappy with Hezbollah being or acting as a state within a state, undermining Lebanese sovereignty, if you will, and making decisions that will impact on Lebanese sovereignty, Lebanese future without consulting anybody, maybe except the folks in Tehran and Damascus.

The point is the Israeli way of settling issues like that, by tremendous use of power and in radicalizing many people. And the Israelis should think creatively about this whole issue and help the Lebanese government in many ways to deal with this issue. How does...

JIM LEHRER: Hezbollah.


An outbreak of war?

David Makovsky
Washington Institute for NearEast Policy
We're in this ridiculous situation that Israel is out of Gaza and Lebanon, and these two players, Hamas and Hezbollah, are trying to drag Israel back in.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, here you got a new prime minister, Olmert, who came to power because he wanted to pull settlers out of the West Bank. But, you know, Israel got out of Gaza, and there have been 700 rocket attacks. How would we, if we hit Detroit and, you know, Buffalo from Canada, how we in the United States would react if we had those 700 attacks.

But Olmert feels he's being tested by Hamas and by Hezbollah at a time that he wants to move Israel in a moderate direction. And the Israeli public says, "If we don't like the book, why would we see the movie?"

If the result of Israel getting out of all these places is more attacks and more strikes, then just don't go forward, just continue the occupation. We're in this ridiculous situation that Israel is out of Gaza and Lebanon, and these two players, Hamas and Hezbollah, are trying to drag Israel back in.

JIM LEHRER: So who solves this? I mean, how does this thing get resolved? Or can it be resolved? Are we looking at another outbreak of real war?

HISHAM MELHEM: Jim, in the Palestinian context, they should have dealt with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who represents a moderate faction, a moderate vision, if you will, of a fair settlement with the Israelis.

In Lebanon, they cannot attack the infrastructure, ending up strengthening Hezbollah at the expense of the Lebanese government and the sovereignty of Lebanon and the Lebanese government.

Now, the Lebanese situation is very complex. The American government is very aware of the fragility of the Lebanese government, the French, I mean, the international community. And the Israelis should think about these things.

Their old tactics in Lebanon did not succeed. And we in Lebanon, most Lebanese don't want Hezbollah to act as a state within a state and be reckless the way they have been today.

JIM LEHRER: Sorry, fellows, but you're saying that the Lebanese government doesn't have the power to keep this thing from escalating. You're saying the Israeli government doesn't have a need to keep it from escalating at this point, or politically it would be difficult. So who keeps this thing from escalating?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I think the key -- the way out, it seems to me, is a couple-fold.

First of all, you need the U.N. Security Council, which has made clear its views. And I think it should condemn these attacks and make clear that Hezbollah needs to be disarmed, that the Lebanese government needs to deploy in the south.

You need a Security Council resolution, I think, on Gaza that makes clear that the Israelis are out -- they're gone -- and that attacks from there are illegitimate. Now, I don't think that's irrelevant.

And also, we got to go to all roads leading to Damascus, because they all do lead to Damascus. And we've got to...

JIM LEHRER: But meanwhile, we got people dying over there. And you're talking about a solution that is in long term, not immediate.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: No, I think it should be in the shorter term, too, that there has -- well, if the leadership is going to come from Washington or it's going to come from the E.U., that has economic...

JIM LEHRER: ... from the outside.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Someone has got to go from the outside and make clear that this has to stop.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree it's got to come from the outside?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, the outside has a role, and they have to play a role, obviously, and you need mediation, whether Arab, European, American, you name it. I mean, the point is there's a context here.

Part of it is the prisoners. I mean, the reason you have 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, that issue resonates with every Palestinian family. It's an emotional issue. Many of these prisoners have no blood on their hands. Why the Israelis keep them, God knows why.

They had an exchange, major exchange with the Lebanese three or four years ago, but they left three of them in Israel. Hezbollah used them as an excuse, because Hezbollah needs excuses to maintain its control of weapons and to maintain its current status as a state within a state.

So also the Israelis should behave creatively or think creatively and not to resort to knee-jerk reaction and use the same tactics that were proven wrong over the past decades. I mean, you have to deal with moderate governments or parties on the Palestinian side or on the Arab side.

JIM LEHRER: Is that going to happen, David, in a word?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think you need a diplomatic approach from the outside that deals with both of these issues or else...

JIM LEHRER: You mean Gaza and Lebanon together?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Gaza and Lebanon, and...

JIM LEHRER: Hezbollah, Hamas?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: ... and that makes clear that the Lebanese government has responsibilities and deals with these Security Council resolutions to end this problem.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I guess we pretty much solved this thing tonight. Thank you both very much.

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you very much.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.