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Diplomats Work to End Mideast Fighting

August 11, 2006 at 1:05 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: New developments in diplomacy and war in the Middle East. Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: It was a day of apparent contradictions in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. The U.N. Security Council appears poised to approve a resolution to stop the fighting, but the shelling and the bombing accelerated.

Here to assess all these developments are Hisham Melhem. He’s Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and host of a weekly program on Al-Arabiya.

And David Makovsky, he’s director of 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.

Hisham, David, thank you both for being with us.

David, let me begin with you. The latest news is that Prime Minister Olmert has decided to go along with this emerging deal coming out of the United Nations. We think there will be a vote tonight. What’s behind this?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: Well, the big question during the week was: Would the U.S.-French diplomatic initiative be watered down? And would this multinational force that is supposed to help the government of Lebanon, as it takes control of the south — which Lebanon hasn’t had for 31 years — is it going to be real? Is it going to have teeth? Or is this just another UNIFIL, which in Israel is a dirty word, the U.N. force that monitors as the hostilities go on but doesn’t do anything to stop it?

And Olmert is taking a bet at the end of this week, really within the last hour it seems — and it could be brinkmanship, it could not be — saying that he believes that the resolution does have teeth to ensure that this multinational force of 15,000 people, working with the Lebanese government, is going to really try to stop Hezbollah from making these attacks. But there are skeptics, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What made him — do we know what has given him the assurance that this force has teeth?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: We don’t know exactly. I mean, we can speculate. There have been concerns at the issue of re-supply, that the borders — they say that the missiles were coming from Syria into Lebanon, that the multinational force and Lebanese government would do nothing to stop the re-supply because of what’s called Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, which says, if you violate this resolution, we’re going to sanction you, Iran, Syria, that are providing the missiles.

Once that was taken out, word was that Olmert said, “No way.” But apparently he got some assurances — I don’t know if it was from Condoleezza Rice or the president — suggesting that this force would have teeth.

I would also add one more point here: For Olmert, he went through 1982. In 1982, Israel went into Lebanon but didn’t know how to get out. And I think he felt, “Give this a chance.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying it’s about a sense of security for Israel?


The Lebanese view

Hisham Melhem
The Lebanese did not get everything they wanted, but they got a great deal of what they wanted, especially when they decided to dispatch 15,000 troops to the south.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hisham Melhem, from the Lebanese standpoint, from the standpoint of Hezbollah, what does this look like?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, An-Nahar: Well, the Lebanese did not get everything they wanted, but they got a great deal of what they wanted, especially when they decided to dispatch 15,000 troops to the south. The Lebanese got the resolution that does not include Chapter Seven, which would be enforced by force. They got the resolution...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would that have meant?

HISHAM MELHEM: That would have meant that the force will be given a mandate, the international force would be given a mandate to use force against Hezbollah, and maybe to disarm Hezbollah, to be robust, to use offensive means. That is not the case.

The Lebanese also got a beefed up UNIFIL. That's what they wanted. And they did not get, as I said, an independent force, as the Israelis and the Americans initially were pushing for.

So the Lebanese essentially got through the French mediation a great deal of what they wanted. They did not get a clearer position on the Shebaa Farms, which is that slivery of territory that's disputed between Lebanon and Israel. And also, in terms of the exchange of prisoners, it was left to a later date.

There's talk, not in the operative paragraphs of the resolution, that the two soldiers -- Israeli soldiers that Hezbollah kidnapped or captured, would be released unconditionally -- later on, encourage the Israelis and the Lebanese to do a prisoner swap.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We're flying through a lot of different points here, and we don't want to gloss over anything, but let's pinpoint the issue of these captured Israeli soldiers. Where does that stand?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, the resolution, again, not in the operative paragraphs, is calling for the unconditional surrender of these two. And I think that could happen because there is an implicit understanding that later on the Israelis will release those Lebanese that they kidnapped from Lebanon in the past...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Implicit understanding?

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, exactly. But the Lebanese got what they wanted the most, which is no diplomatic cover for continued Israeli occupation in south Lebanon. That's what the resolution talks about, the Israelis withdrawing in phases, while the French and the other international forces and the Lebanese will move in, in parallel. And that's something the Lebanese fought through the French and essentially they got.

And I think they got all of this and they forced the Israelis and the Americans to change their position slightly because of the poor military performance of the Israelis. For the first two weeks, the Israelis were flailing both politically and militarily, and that made it very difficult for the United States to maintain that kind of diplomatic political cover that they provided them in the first two weeks.

Israel's response

David Makovsky
Wash. Institute for Near East Policy
[Israelis] see the main question as security, that you've got 2 million Israelis that have been in bomb shelters in northern Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, David, is that interpretation that Hisham is reflecting from the Lebanese standpoint how the Israelis see it from their perspective?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I mean, they see the main question as security, that you've got 2 million Israelis that have been in bomb shelters in northern Israel. Parts of northern Israel have emptied out, but still you've had 68 percent -- in today's Yediot Aharonot, which is the main newspaper -- pushing, saying, "Go further. Go to the Litani River, because we don't believe that a multinational force will really disarm Hezbollah."

Olmert is taking a big role of the dice. He's under a lot of criticism at home. He's going against public opinion, and he's going against the military, essentially. And he's putting his faith basically in George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice and believing these two people when they say, no, this multinational force is robust. This isn't UNIFIL II. This is something different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That says he's getting a lot of pressure from the United States?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I don't know. It could be. Certainly it's been very well-kept. You know, like I said, he remembers '82. You know how you go into Lebanon; you don't know how you go out. Whatever marginal damage you get for extra military incursions, are you going to -- maybe here there really is a political windfall that you could be the first prime minister in 31 years who's going to stop these missiles flying over the border. And I think he thought it's worth a chance.

Will resolution hold?

Hisham Melhem
I think everybody wants it to hold, because there are no clear-cut winners here. The Israelis did not win it; Hezbollah did not win it; and the Lebanese people, Lebanese society paid the ultimate price.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Hisham, from your perspective, does this look like -- assuming the U.N. votes on this tonight, and we're told that that's very likely, the Israeli cabinet will vote on Sunday. The Israelis are saying they'll fight through the weekend. Does this look like it's something that could hold?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think it will hold. I think everybody wants it to hold, because there are no clear-cut winners here. The Israelis did not win it; Hezbollah did not win it; and the Lebanese people, Lebanese society paid the ultimate price for actions of players that were not under the control of the Lebanese government, unfortunately.

So what you have now is a new reality on the ground. And Hezbollah now would have to and the Lebanese government would have to deliver on what is in this resolution, i.e., to disarm Hezbollah and to create that zone in the south free of armed groups.

At the same time, Hezbollah managed to escape defeat. And now Nasrallah can claim tactical victory, if you will. And also Nasrallah had to accept this resolution because of mounting pressure from his own community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're talking about the leader of Hezbollah?

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, Hassan Nasrallah, there's mounting pressure from his own group. Half of his own constituency are displaced. The whole country has been destroyed. And when the dust settles, many Lebanese, including some Shia, are going to ask him some hard questions. You know, there will be accountability, one would hope.

But the Israelis today found themselves fighting a war that is new, finding a tough, non-state actor -- they've never tried this before -- armed with rockets provided by a regional power, like Iran, and probably because you have a different leadership in Israel. And that may account for their confusion, their flailing both militarily and politically in the first few weeks.

More fighting?

David Makovsky
Wash. Institute for Near East Policy
Everyone should be clear here: If this doesn't work, this is just the baseline for the next round of fighting. And we hope that tragedy will not unfold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, just quickly, you agree no clear winner here, and that's why this could hold?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Each one is going to claim a victory. The Israelis will claim for the first time the government of Lebanon is actually going to deploy people in the south. There wouldn't be this destruction in Lebanon if they would have stopped the amassing of missiles.

So they will say this is a new chance, and let's give it a chance. And if not, let's be clear here. Everyone should be clear here: If this doesn't work, this is just the baseline for the next round of fighting. And we hope that tragedy will not unfold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just as a final comment here, what has to happen now after this? Assuming the Israeli cabinet votes, assuming everybody agrees, what has to happen next?

HISHAM MELHEM: The beefed up UNIFIL, the French will send their troops, probably the Turks and others, beef up -- the UNIFIL now only have 2,000 troops.


HISHAM MELHEM: They will go to 15,000, along with the Lebanese army will go be deployed in the south. Everybody agrees no return to the status quo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What has to happen?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: The Israeli government on Sunday has to adopt Ehud Olmert's recommendation. And if it votes for it, then, as UNIFIL and the Lebanese government take up their positions, Israel will turn over the baton to them. And if it works, great. And if not, it's just the prelude to the next round of fighting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of people are holding their breath.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. David Makovsky, Hisham Melhem, thank you very much.