Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, will visit the Middle East this week, raising hopes of an American initiative to end the Lebanese-Israeli imbroglio. On the surface, a surprising consensus is forming about the necessary elements of that initiative: a comprehensive ceasefire; the Lebanese government's authority extended to southern Lebanon; an effective international force to help the Lebanese army keep peace on the border with Israel and prevent Hizbollah's rearming; a return to the 1949 Israel-Lebanon armistice agreement with a joint border demarcation committee to deal with outstanding territorial disputes; prisoner exchange negotiations between the Israeli and Lebanese governments; an international fund for reconstructing Lebanon; and implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 on disbanding and disarming all militias.
Most of these elements were outlined in the Group of Eight communiqué and statements by the Lebanese and Israeli prime ministers. It would not take much US diplomatic muscle to secure agreement among these parties. Missing from this framework, however, is any way to get Hizbollah – instigator of the crisis – to accept it. Hizbollah has been bloodied but not yet bowed. Why should it agree to cede its suzerainty in southern Lebanon as the precursor to its disarmament?
President George W. Bush and Ms Rice have demanded that Syria bring Hizbollah – its ally and recipient of logistical support – to heel. When Syrian troops occupied Lebanon, previous US secretaries of state would travel to Damascus to persuade it to curb Hizbollah. But two years ago, when millions of Lebanese marched in Beirut's streets to demand Syrian troop withdrawals, the Bush administration seized the moment to pressure Syria to leave. Mr Bush cannot now betray Lebanon's "cedar revolution" by inviting Damascus to intervene again in Lebanon. That is why Damascus will not be on Ms Rice's itinerary this week.
What about asking Iran to play a role? Hizbollah is a subsidiary of the Iranian regime, which funds, arms and trains it. But Iran will not agree to the dismantling of its Hizbollah foothold in the Middle East heartland, which it built up as a strategic deterrent against US or Israeli military strikes on Tehran's nuclear programme. Why should Iran give this up when it has never paid a price for continued defiance of international norms and treaty obligations? It would only agree if conceded a sphere of influence in Lebanon similar to the one it secured in Iraq. That is obviously a non-starter.
Israel's use of force to degrade Hizbollah's missile capabilities and operations in southern Lebanon does confer some leverage on Ms Rice's diplomacy. That is why Mr Bush has held back from demanding a ceasefire. However, it is unlikely that Israel's efforts to dismantle Hizbollah's infrastructure can alone force it to yield to international demands. Indeed, by burying its infrastructure among civilians, Hizbollah is making the cynical calculation that the international community, unwilling to tolerate the civilian deaths caused by Israel's military actions, will turn against Israel and demand it accept an unconditional ceasefire. That is already happening in the UN Security Council where American blocking actions will eventually be untenable.
Ms Rice needs a diplomatic strategy to overcome these obstacles. Her best option is to reach agreement in the Security Council on a ceasefire package. However, implementation should hinge on Hizbollah's acceptance of the Lebanese government's authority in southern Lebanon, and the permanent removal of its forces from there as the first steps in its disarmament. Then Ms Rice should go to Beirut with her counterparts in the Quartet group of Middle East mediators and the foreign ministers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (Lebanon's Arab patrons) and insist the Lebanese government accept the ceasefire package.
This would empower Fouad Siniora, Lebanese prime minister, to say to Hizbollah: "Gentlemen, we have no more need for your 'resistance'. The Lebanese people are paying too high a price. The international community demands an end to the fighting. We can secure Israel's agreement to a ceasefire, resolve the Shaba Farms and prisoner issues and secure the funds to rebuild Lebanon, but only if you cease operations, remove your cadres from the south and submit them to control by the Lebanese army".
Simultaneously, the Bush administration, with as many allies as it can muster, should send a clear message to Iran and Syria: if they do not stop supporting Hizbollah's military operations, they will be held responsible. Unfortunately only when Iran and Syria feel that they are about to be burned by the fire they helped ignite will they try to douse the flames. In this context, as the Security Council again considers sanctions against Iran for its nuclear programme, its support of Hizbollah should be added to the list of grievances with this rogue state.
Ms Rice's diplomatic initiative should aim to strengthen the Lebanese government and isolate Hizbollah, making clear it alone will be responsible for continuing the conflict. And if Hizbollah refuses to withdraw and commit to disarm, the US should not be expected to restrain Israel's efforts to eliminate Hizbollah's military capabilities by force.