Condoleezza Rice Must Push for a Lasting Cease-Fire in Lebanon

Originally published with the title: . . . Rice’s Moment

With the tragic accidental Israeli attack killing some 40 Lebanese children in Qana, what should have been obvious throughout has become crystal clear — the current Israeli strategy in Lebanon is seriously flawed, categorical U.S. support for it has been a mistake, and things must change immediately.

To be sure, as Israel’s U.N. representative told the Security Council in an immediate meeting on Sunday, the reactions to this tragedy by Hezbollah, Iran and Syria have been totally cynical. Hezbollah may even deserve much of the blame for collocating civilians in places it was using for military purposes.

But Israel and the U.S. also should have known this was coming, as an almost inevitable byproduct of the nature of lethal military operations against civilian targets — combined with the hatreds and mistrust of Mideast politics. It is why an air campaign aimed largely at Lebanon’s infrastructure and economy was a major strategic mistake; attacks should have been much more discriminate from the start. Sunday’s tragedy might still have happened, but it would have been in the context of a concerted Israeli effort to avoid harm to civilians, lessening the global outrage.

It is time for things to change, not over the days and weeks of deliberations characteristic of even “emergency” negotiations over security crises, but within the 48 hours during Israel has agreed to respect a temporary cease-fire.

First, Washington must pressure Israel to drastically scale back any attacks that may resume after the 48-hour window. The debate over a cease-fire has focused excessively on the extremes — whether Israel and Hezbollah should accept a complete and immediate cease-fire. Regardless of one’s views on that, there is little case for Israel to continue massive bombardment. Any further attacks should focus only on the south from this point on, and they should decline in number. Those two overdue decisions will not guarantee prevention of future tragedy but will lower the odds and change the international face of Israel’s actions.

Then the real work begins. Having enjoyed an unusually long political honeymoon of 18 months, during which she was seen as moderating American policy and reinvigorating diplomacy while maintaining strong ties to President Bush, it is time for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to rise to the historic challenge of the world’s top diplomat during a moment of extreme crisis. Other problems she has either inherited, or been able to take a slower approach to, or been constrained by the obvious fact she works for an administration with many known views it cannot be expected to change overnight. But from the American viewpoint at least, this crisis is hers — it developed on her watch, and it is the sort of moment when the nation’s great secretaries of state can shine.

What to do? The Lebanese have now said, in the wake of Qana, that they cannot negotiate absent a cease-fire. This would seem to be a show-stopper, preventing conclusion of a durable cease-fire just when the unified actions of Lebanon’s parliament had, a day before, given hope that Hezbollah, like Israel, would now accept an international peacekeeping force in the south of Lebanon. Israel’s temporary and short cease-fire may not provide enough time to complete talks of the classic variety before bombing resumes and the situation deteriorates again.

Miss Rice should instead say that, rather than wait for negotiations to resume, they are over. She should declare victory. The sum of what Tony Blair first floated, Lebanon’s parliament has recently endorsed, Israel had earlier supported, the Saudis had earlier proposed, and the international community writ large had been demanding comes close to a consensus — with a mutual cease-fire and deployment of a strong force the main elements.

Sure, important second-order issues remain unresolved. What to do about Shabaa Farms, who will be in the international force and who will lead it, what rules of engagement it will employ in the face of any violations of agreed terms, how much verifiable disarmament Hezbollah would need to carry out.

Miss Rice should work with Kofi Annan publicly, and the Lebanese, Israelis, Saudis and others privately, to iron out reasonable compromises on the above and then present them to the parties essentially as fait accomplis.

To have a good chance of retaining Lebanese support, Shabaa Farms might well have to be restored to Lebanese control, but despite its long history this is a strategically small issue that Israel should be able to concede in the context of a broader package. In addition, the United States might have to deploy at least a modest force of its own, as Brent Scowcroft recently suggested.

This is unusual: a solution is near and yet traditional diplomacy is unlikely to attain it in an acceptable time. Strong American leadership is crucial. It is not unilateralism because it responds to a problem all recognize and builds on an emerging consensus most already support. But it cannot be created in the coming days — when action is needed — by anyone else.

The great secretaries of state would probably have tried to play this kind of role now; we will soon have our first test of whether Miss Rice can join their league.