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Photo: Abigail Uzi
Ephraim Halevy
Photo: Abigail Uzi
Time to talk to Iran
No international force is going to disarm Hizbullah. Israel must combine victory on the battlefield with diplomatic creativity

Proposals are making the rounds to impose an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hizbullah, and to send an international force to Lebanon to serve as a buffer between the warring sides and to prevent Hizbullah from accessing areas from where they can fire at Israel. 

 

This "effective" force is supposed to prevent the transfer of arms to Hizbullah from Syria by deploying along the Lebanon-Syria border. This arrangement is supposed to allow the Lebanese army to deploy along the southern border, bring about the disarming of Hibzullah and removing the threat of Syrian and Iranian Katyushas and missiles from Israel. 

 

But this plan is fraught with danger for Israel. 

 

History lesson 

 

More than 20 years ago there was another, similar, attempt. An international force, consisting of 1,800 US Marines, 1,500 French foreign legionnaires and 1,400 Italian soldiers came to Lebanon to help stabilize the country's leadership.  

 

Hizbullah decided their presence stood in opposition to Iranian and Lebanese interests, and a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into the forces' barracks, killing 241 Marines and 58 French soldiers.  

 

It didn't take long for the presidents of France and the United States to pull out of Lebanon: Overall, the Americans lost 265 soldiers and 159 casualties, France lost 89 men and 110 wounded, and Italy lost one soldier.  

 

Israel was left alone to face Hizbullah, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and the Syrian army in Lebanon.  

 

Correct assessment  

 

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's initial reaction to the suggestion of an international force in south Lebanon was correct: No international force can protect Israel's security. The multi-national force separating Egypt from Israel, like the UN force between Israel and Syria is intended only to use its presence to ensure the balance of forces and the interests of each side.  

 

When an attempt is made to deploy forces with supposedly different charters – UNIFIL, for example – they have served as an umbrella for Hizbullah to gain strength in the areas in which the force is deployed.  

 

There is no chance an international force will be deployed in Lebanon with any enforcement power. French President Chirac has already said the force would not disarm Hizbullah, and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has declared Iran a stabilizing force in the region. It is therefore clear that the French soldiers who are supposed to form the backbone of the international force will operate according to these sentiments.  

 

Israeli policy  

 

Israeli policy rests on one of two approaches: One, that the current diplomatic effort will fail; therefore, there is no danger in cooperating with it. The other is that Israel's relations with the United States require us to go along with it, lest we find ourselves threatening Israel's overall strategic interests.  

 

If the first assumption is correct, there is no reason not to go along with a temporary tactical activity, during which the military campaign to demonstrate Israel's superiority over Hizbullah can continue. But if there is any basis to the second assumption, the situation is fundamentally different.  

 

Calls by Hizbullah and Iranian leaders for a ceasefire point to their growing troubles. Iran has built an impressive strategic arm in Lebanon. Hizbullah has proved its mettle and ability to clash directly with the United States and France, and to eject them from Lebanon.  

 

Building Hizbullah  

 

Iran has also developed Hizbullah's international arm, and has enjoyed several successful terrorist attacks, in Argentina, Turkey, Southeast Asia and other places. They have built infrastructure in Africa and several European countries, and Hizbullah is well-armed with strategic missiles.  

 

Over the last year the organization has taken on a political face as well. Hizbullah representatives now sit in parliament and are members of the Lebanese government. Such a power base – overlooking southeast Europe (the Balkan Peninsula) with a large Muslim population, as well as Western Turkey, including Istanbul and its 2 million Iranian Shiite residents – is certainly within reach.

 

Therefore, we need more time. Nasrallah's operation screwed it all up.  

 

Iranian nukes 

 

Hassan Nasrallah has admitted publicly that he did not expect the intensity of Israel's reaction. It dragged him to respond in kind, at a time and in circumstances he would not have chosen.  

 

The timing also made problems for Iran as it tries to meet deadlines that require it to respond to international demands to freeze its nuclear program, and the threat of sanctions if it does not comply.  

 

If Tehran actively supported/initiated Hizbullah's campaign in the hope it would divert international attention away from the nuclear issue, it couldn't have been more wrong. The strategic asset called Hizbullah that it built and developed is now truly threatened, and Iran has no choice now but to deal immediately with demands about the nuclear issue.  

 

President Bush's desire for a real settlement in Lebanon is in Israel's interest. Any other outcome besides a clear Israeli victory over Hizbullah will play mainly into the hands of Hizbullah and Tehran, and less into the hands of Damascus. Events like Qana village make it difficult for the United States and the few European countries who understand the seriousness of what is at stake.  

 

The "package" to be discussed by the UN Security Council will fail. Even if it is approved, it cannot be implemented, just as Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hizbullah, could not be implemented. No foreign force is going to disarm Hizbullah.  

 

Talk to Iran  

 

What is left to do? Two things. First, we can allow the IDF to continue the current operation, and to attain strategic goals against Hizbullah and against Iran.  

 

Secondly, we can initiate negotiations with Iran, together with the United States, as Israel continues to batter Hizbullah without pause.  

 

Iran will refuse at first. After all, Iran wants Israel wiped off the world map.  

 

But the more Iran feels its strategy is failing, it will begin to understand the limits of its power.  

 

Iran's distress is clear. It has suffered a real blow to its regional standing and international image. These are sensitive issues for Iran.  

 

US reversal  

 

Two months ago Iran scored an impressive diplomatic victory: On May 31 Secretary of State Rice announced a dramatic shift in US policy towards Iran, and reversed a 25-year-old boycott of Tehran.  

 

Washington said it was prepared to sit with Iran (and European nations), if Tehran would suspend its uranium enrichment program.  

 

No decision has been made. Iran is supposed to respond to this proposal/demand by the end of August.  

 

Why should Rice hold talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a man with little power? What real value would there be in an agreement signed by the Lebanese government? With Israel at her side, why not hold talks with the Iranians? They are the true bosses of Hizbullah.  

 

And what is there to talk about with Iran? When they sit together the distance separating them on the issues at hand will shrink.

 

But to get to that stage, we first need a clear IDF victory on the battlefield, and a dose of diplomatic creative thinking.  

 

Some will say this is an absurd dream that can never come true. But those who believe an international force will disarm Hizbullah are living a fantasy world. 

 

Ephraim Halevy is a former Mossad chief

 

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