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Israel-Lebanon Fighting Broadens Middle East Conflict

July 13, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: We begin our Middle East coverage with Independent Television News reports from Lebanon and Israel. Beginning from Beirut, correspondent Tim Ewart.

TIM EWART, ITV News Correspondent: Suddenly, Beirut is on the front line again. Israeli jets shattered the early morning calm as they swooped on the international airport, bombing the main runways.

We had arrived on one of the last flights to land here, barely an hour earlier. There had seemed no reason for alarm.

A mile away, there was panic, as an Israeli helicopter launched a missile attack on a TV station controlled by Hezbollah. Yesterday, it had broadcast the announcement that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped in southern Lebanon.

It was in the south that Israel vented the worst of its furry. Lebanese officials said a series of air strikes killed 50 civilians, including 15 children, and wounded around 100 people.

Back in Beirut meanwhile, people in Hezbollah-controlled areas were warned by the Israelis to leave their homes ahead of more air strikes. The bomb craters have closed the international airport, and raids on two military bases have now shut down all flights in and out of the country.

The attack on the airport here is a severe blow to the new Beirut and its aspirations for a bright and prosperous future. It’s also a throwback to a bitter and painful past.

The scars of battle from years gone by are a reminder to affluent, modern Beirut of how fragile prosperity and peace can be. Lebanon should now be bustling with hundreds of thousands of summer tourists; instead, there are empty beaches, deserted cafes and restaurants, idle waiters, edgy soldiers, and angrily divided opinions.

LEBANESE CITIZEN: We are very strong, and we’re not afraid from anything. We can stay here, and we can do anything when the enemy come here. We will fight him.

LEBANESE CITIZEN: What was done was so reckless from Hezbollah, and their claims, I don’t really believe in it.

TIM EWART: Israeli bombs have shattered Lebanon’s bridges and are threatening to destroy its road network.

Fire breaks out after a Hezbollah rocket hits the Israeli town of Nahariya. Emergency workers rush to the scene, but fear that gas tanks could explode.

There is a badly wounded man who needs urgent evacuation. He’s rapidly carried out to a waiting ambulance and a high-speed ride to hospital. Moments later, more explosions. Two more rockets hit the town, and a woman who is sitting on her balcony is killed.

Amir Bukabsa owns two shops which were hit by the first rocket and employs the man who was rushed to hospital. He says it’s now time for Israel to go back into Lebanon with full force.

ISRAELI CITIZEN: I think that it is time to wake up and go inside.

TIM EWART: Go into Lebanon?

ISRAELI CITIZEN: Exactly, and to fix the mess, like we know how to do it.

TIM EWART: Further south, the town of Safed was also hit; 25 Israelis, including children, were hurt. The fear as this crisis escalates is that Hezbollah could use longer range rockets to attack cities further down the coast.

The Israeli chief of staff issued a warning.

DAN HALUTZ, Chief of Staff, Israeli Defense Forces: If rockets are launched towards Israeli cities, Beirut will be included among the targets.

TIM EWART: On the border, Israel is using its big guns to pound the Islamic guerrillas on the other side. Aerial surveillance has provided these gunners with the coordinates of suspected Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon, and now these 155-millimeter Howitzers are going into action.

From time to time, Hezbollah is firing back. One of their rockets landed right next to an Israeli army base just about a quarter of a mile away. But overwhelmingly, the heavy firepower is coming from this side.

Israel is striking at Lebanon with a full array of long-range weapons. The strategy is steadily mounting pressure, but the Islamic guerrillas are determined and well-organized, and no one yet knows how this crisis will end.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

"Iran is the common thread"

Richard Haass
Council on Foreign Relations
Here it is, six years after the Israelis left Lebanon unilaterally, and they don't enjoy security there. Hezbollah enjoys significant support from Syria, and in particular though from Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: And for an assessment of the escalating conflict and what can be done to tamp it down, we turn to two former State Department officials with deep experience in Mideast affairs.

Richard Haass was the State Department's director of policy planning from 2001 to 2003. He previously served as senior director for Near East affairs on the National Security Council under the first President Bush. He's now president of the Council on Foreign Relations and just returned this afternoon from Israel.

And Theodore Kattouf was U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003, his final posting in a 32-year foreign service career. He previously served in numerous Gulf states, and he's now president of AMIDEAST, a non-profit group offering education and training for Middle Eastern students and businessmen.

And welcome, gentlemen.

Richard Haass, beginning with you, what are we seeing here, in broader terms? How would you describe the scope of what has unfolded over the last 24 hours?

RICHARD HAASS, President, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, what we've seen, Margaret, is a significant deterioration of the security situation in the region that comes against the backdrop, as you know, first of all, of the growing Iranian nuclear challenge.

It comes against the backdrop of years of a deteriorating stability in Iraq. It comes against the backdrop of Israeli exchanges with Hamas, given the situation in Gaza. So it's not as though this is creating a problem; rather, it's exacerbating the problem.

And one of the common threads here, I think, you have to say is Iran. Here it is, six years after the Israelis left Lebanon unilaterally, and they don't enjoy security there. Hezbollah enjoys significant support from Syria, and in particular though from Iran.

And we have a situation where the Lebanese government is either unable or unwilling to fulfill the obligations of a sovereign state, which is not to allow acts of violence to be committed against a neighbor.

So Israel has taken this action. It's unlikely to resolve the situation, but it's one of those awful or frustrating moments, I expect, for Prime Minister Olmert where he knows, if he does these things, it is unlikely to resolve Israel's security dilemma, but he also knows that he must do these things, not simply for domestic political reasons, but to send a message to the region that Israel will not stand idly by if it is attacked.

Deterioration in the Middle East

Theodore Kattouf
President, AMIDEAST
I think the price is too high. I don't think it's necessary for Israel to have struck the airport and be going into Beirut right now. This is a real serious escalation.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Theodore Kattouf? Do you agree that it's a significant deterioration in the security situation for this whole region?

THEODORE KATTOUF, President, AMIDEAST: There's no doubt that it's a significant deterioration of the situation in the whole region. As Richard Haass pointed out, it comes against the backdrop of a lot of serious events in the region: the nuclearization of Iran; the war in Iraq, that frankly is not going well; the re-entry of Israeli forces into Gaza, with the high cost to civilian life and welfare there.

And now, as Richard Haass pointed out, Olmert is under a lot of domestic political pressure. The Israelis vowed when they withdrew in 2000, if they had any trouble from across the border, they would -- the others, the Lebanese would pay a high price.

But I think the price is too high. I don't think it's necessary for Israel to have struck the airport and be going into Beirut right now. This is a real serious escalation.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Haass, you said you didn't think Israel's action probably would succeed in tamping this down, but surely Israel has some game plan here. I mean, what do they think they're achieving, not just by going after Hezbollah targets -- military targets and others -- but going after the civilian infrastructure, like the airport?

RICHARD HAASS: I think what the Israelis are trying to say is this is, for them, an untenable situation. They are therefore going to make the government of Lebanon, and to some extent the people of Lebanon, pay a high price for it.

I believe therefore the Israelis are hoping that other countries, the United States, but also Lebanon and its neighbors, see this themselves as something that needs attention.

So if the Israelis make everybody uncomfortable, they're hoping therefore to get international intervention. By intervention, I mean diplomatic intervention -- pressure on Iran; pressure on Syria; pressure on the Lebanese government -- to essentially push Hezbollah back.

I think if there's a solution here, it's got to be to move Hezbollah north, away from the Israeli border, to essentially create a buffer zone there. And I think what the Israelis are essentially saying: This is unacceptable. We're going to raise the heat until you, the rest of the world, do something about it.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think the chances are of that working?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Very slim. The Security Council Resolution 1559 does call for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon. And, of course, Hezbollah says it's a resistance organization, a nice semantic twist.

But the fact of the matter is, is the Lebanese government is too weak and the Lebanese armed forces are too weak to make that happen. But we're also dealing with the law of unintended consequences. In 1982, then-Minister of Defense Sharon went into Lebanon to push the PLO forces back 27 kilometers so they could not fire into Israel. He succeeded in pushing the PLO forces back, and today we have Hezbollah.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the international community coming in and putting pressure on the situation? I suppose, though it seems like a very long-range solution, somehow trying to get either the Lebanese government or I don't know what other force to get Hezbollah back from the border, as Richard Haass was suggesting?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, the international community is already involved. I mean, we've had, since about 1979, a U.N. force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, that's renewed every six months. So there are people on the ground who are observing what's going on, who can report back to New York, and to New York and to other capitals, as to what's going on.

And the secretary general, Kofi Annan, has sent a high-level delegation with a couple of very experienced diplomats, Terje Roed-Larsen and Ambassador de Soto, to the region. Their first stop is Cairo, then Israel, then on to Lebanon.

But I think what's missing here is the -- if Israel thinks that, by putting pressure on the Lebanese government you're going to get a quick result from the U.N., I'm not sure that's going to work.

Iran is sending a message

Richard Haass
Council on Foreign Relations
The U.N. is never really more powerful than its principal states, including the United States.I would say the United States needs to be doing more, not simply rhetorically.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Haass, Condi Rice in Europe had a briefing this afternoon, and one of the things she apparently said was, speaking of the Kofi Annan delegation that's going, she called it the best opportunity for de-escalation of this crisis.

Does it appear to you that the U.S. is essentially subcontracting the mediator role to the U.N.? And is that a good idea?

RICHARD HAASS: Pretty much. And, as Ambassador Kattouf said, the U.N. has been on the ground and diplomatically for years. But that said, the U.N. is never really more powerful than its principal states, including the United States.

I would say the United States needs to be doing more, not simply rhetorically. But one thing it could do here is to think about its Iran policy. It is inconceivable to me that Hezbollah would be doing what it is doing without the blessing of Iran.

And the United States needs, I believe, to rethink its policy in two ways. One is simply an emphasis on Iran's nuclear programs, as significant as they are. And, secondly, it's only a conditional willingness to talk to Iran.

I actually would be willing to have American representatives sit down with Iran and have an across-the-board dialogue, dealing with Lebanon, dealing with the Hamas situation in Gaza, obviously dealing with Iran's nuclear situation, dealing also with Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think what we're seeing here, Margaret, is Iran sending a message, two messages. One is that nothing in the Middle East now can happen without Iran playing a significant role. And, secondly, it's reminding the United States that, if the United States is to use force ever against Iran's nuclear program, Iran retains many different avenues for countervailing pressure.

And what we're seeing with Hezbollah is simply one of them. Iran retains many ways of making life very uncomfortable for the United States and for Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that idea? Do you think that's the answer, that the U.S. has to get Iran directly engaged here?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, as a former ambassador to Syria and as somebody who had served there on previous tours, we used to have a saying, which was, "The only thing worse than dealing with Syria is not dealing with Syria."

And I think we're seeing a pattern with North Korea, with Iran, with Syria. When they don't feel they're getting respect from the United States, when they don't feel there is a dialogue, when they don't feel they have much at stake, they cause problems.

And they're intent on showing us: You can't get your way in this region, and you certainly can't get even part of your way unless you deal with us.

MARGARET WARNER: But wouldn't some people say, "Well, that's rewarding Iran"?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, it may be in some way rewarding Iran, but I think we need to look out for our own interests. And if it's in our interests to deal with Iran, even though Ahmadinejad is a very reprehensible character, but there are a lot of other leaders in Iran. He is not the only one.

On the brink of war?

Theodore Kattouf
President, AMIDEAST
Israel would be tempted to strike Iran, because it's an existential question. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it's made it very clear it thinks Israel shouldn't exist.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Haass, there is a lot of talk today about, could this balloon out into a wider regional war? One, how likely do you think that is? And what is the scenario through which that might happen?

RICHARD HAASS: I think the odds of it are, unfortunately, fairly high. And the way it would happen is the Israelis would quickly come to the conclusion that attacking Lebanon is not the answer. By that, I mean that the Lebanese government is essentially too weak to reign in Hezbollah completely, so no amount of punishment there will do the trick.

And then the Israelis would have to think about two of their neighbors, obviously, Syria and Iran, to think about ways of making the situation uncomfortable for them. I think the odds of that happening are probably less than even, but they are not negligible.

Right now, again, we've got a bad situation here growing worse in the north. We've got also a situation with Gaza, essentially the two places that Israel has withdrawn from. Neither one has emerged as a more stable front for the Israelis. So it's putting enormous pressure on this government to act.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. And just briefly, because I need to get back to Ambassador Kattouf, but do you think, if Israel were to take military action against Iran or Syria, they would respond militarily? Is that what you're saying?

RICHARD HAASS: They being the Iranians or...

MARGARET WARNER: Iran or Syria, yes.

RICHARD HAASS: Conceivably. But again, they've got proxies. We've seen Hezbollah. We've seen Hamas. They've got lots of avenues, including terrorism in all forms.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think is the likelihood of it ballooning out into a wider war, and what would be your scenario?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, there's always a danger. I mean, this is a very, very serious situation.

On the other hand, I get the impression sometimes that the Israelis might be worried what would happen in Syria if Bashar Assad's government were to fall. As bad as they might view him -- and it's certainly true that he's caused them a lot of problems with Hezbollah, with Hamas, through the Hamas office in Damascus -- but you have to ask yourself: Do you want a failed state on your border?

Do you want a state that's Islamist? Do you want al-Qaida operatives there? The Syrians and the Israelis have been in conflict over the years, but they sort of understand the rules. And indeed, the cease-fire agreement and the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, negotiated by Henry Kissinger way back in the 1970s, has held up all these years.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about -- briefly, do you think Israel would be tempted to strike Iran?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, certainly, Israel would be tempted to strike Iran, because it's an existential question. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it's made it very clear it thinks Israel shouldn't exist. The Israelis will certainly have to be thinking about what their military options are, vis-a-vis Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: Grim picture. Theodore Kattouf, Richard Haass, thank you, both.

THEODORE KATTOUF: You're welcome.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you, Margaret.