The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution held a press briefing on July 17, 2006 to discuss the crisis between Israel and Hizbollah. Nahum Barnea, Saban Center Kreiz Visiting Fellow and Senior Political Analyst of Yediot Aharonot, gave the Israeli perspective, Hisham Milhem, Washington Correspondent for An-Nahar, gave the Lebanese perspective, Shibley Telhami, Saban Center Nonresident Senior Fellow and Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland, commented on the view from the Arab world, and Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center, presented policy options for the United States.
Nahum Barnea said that both Israel and Hizbollah were surprised at developments during the previous week. Israel was taken off guard by Hizbollah’s ability to conduct a cross-border raid and its use of an unmanned drone to attack an Israeli warship (some reports suggest that Hizballah used an anti-shipping missile). Similarly, Barnea argued that Hizbollah was surprised by the magnitude of the Israeli response to its actions.
Despite the violence, Barnea contended that the situation presents an important opportunity. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli and Lebanese citizens have no dispute with each other the issues. A majority of the Lebanese public does not support Hizbollah and there is no disagreement between Israel and Lebanon over territory. This presents a rare opportunity for the United States and other members of the international community to work together to promote an immediate cessation of violence and long-term solution to the underlying issues. Barnea warned, however, that one of Israel’s primary demands – the removal of Hizbollah from southern Lebanon –will not change Israel’s security situation, even if implemented. Because Hizbollah possess long-range missiles, it does not need to be stationed along Lebanon’s southern border to strike at Israel.
Barnea concluded by explaining Israel’s two core objectives: the return of the kidnapped soldiers and the intervention of the United States and European Union. The conflict along Israel’s northern border, as compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is unique when compared to previous conflicts in that Israel wants the international community to become more involved. In the past, Israel has been wary of international involvement One reason Israel’s response to the kidnapping was harsh was to force an international intervention that would be aimed at dismantling Hizbollah’s military infrastructure.
Hisham Milhem said that while Israel has stated that a primary goal is to dismantle Hizbollah, its actions prove otherwise. Israel, Milhem argued, has a history of articulating a position of targeted strikes, but implementing broad-based strikes that harm social infrastructure. Milhem warned that Israel’s actions will radicalize the Lebanese population, and pointed, as an example, to 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. Milhem said that Hizbollah’s emergence in Lebanon was a direct result of this invasion.
Milhem said that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, is among the most articulate and charismatic leaders in the Middle East. He has delivered a calculated message to the Arab world, one that states that Hizbollah and Hamas are the answer to the Middle East’s history of failed Arab states that have not delivered reforms to their populations. In addition, Hamas and Hizbollah, two non-state actors, have achieved what no Arab state has been able to achieve: strong attacks against Israel that cannot be deterred.
Shibley Telhami echoed Milhem’s comments, saying that while Syria possesses a well-stocked arsenal, it has not attacked Israel because it has an address against which Israel will retaliate. By contrast, Hamas and Hizbollah are more able to use their weapons against Israel because there is no centralized state authority against which Israel can respond.
Telhami argued that there is a large gap between the opinions of established states and the opinions of the public within these states. The governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia do not want a strengthened Hizbollah. Saudi Arabia took the unusual step of criticizing Hizbollah’s actions. However, the citizens of these countries feel a connection to Lebanese civilians who are affected by Israel’s military strikes. The issue of civilian causalities, Telhami said, has a strong influence on reducing moderation in both Israel and Lebanon. While large majorities of both publics may have supported peaceful relations between the two countries, once population centers come under attack, these same majorities turn to supporting a military response. As such, it is imperative that the United States demonstrate more empathy for the civilian casualties.
Telhami said that Israel must examine the likely outcome of its actions. When it takes actions that weaken state institutions, a power vacuum is created that non-state actors will fill. Telhami warned that if Israel defeats Hizbollah, it will do so at the cost of dismantling Lebanon’s government.
Martin Indyk analyzed the manner in which the Bush Administration has responded to this crisis. Indyk contrasted the Bush Administration’s policies in the Middle East to those of the Clinton Administration. The Clinton Administration’s model was to maintain stability in the region and to engage countries through peace efforts, with the aim of using such diplomacy to force terrorist groups to disarm. The Bush Administration has shunned this approach, stating that the pursuit of stability and peace negotiations was a mistake because it upheld authoritarian governments. Instead, the Bush Administration model is one that rests on transforming the region through regime change and democratization. Indyk argued that this has in effect backed the United States into a corner. The United States cannot turn to Syria or Iran, the two countries most closely associated with Hizbollah. Therefore, if the Bush Administration wants Hizbollah to disarm, the only option it has is to support Israel’s military strikes—a policy that is a blunt instrument.
Indyk said that an agreement to end the fighting would have to include a number of points, many of which were articulated by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in his speech on July 15, 2006. These elements include:
- The return of the kidnapped soldiers to Israel;
- A cessation of Hizbollah rocket attacks against Israel;
- The replacement of Hizbollah with International and Lebanese Army forces in southern Lebanon;
- Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004);
- An end to Israeli military strikes.
Indyk noted that Siniora indicated that the Lebanese and Israeli governments should implement what would in effect be non-belligerency pact between them.
During the “question and answer” session, one participant asked for clarification on Iran’s role in the crisis. Milhem said that Iran and Hizbollah share a world view. As such, the relationship between the two is more of a partnership than one in which Iran controls Hizbollah. Indyk said that Iran likely had a role in the crisis, noting that it articulated its support for a ceasefire and prisoner deal. As such, Indyk argued Iran may be trying to reestablish itself as a major player in the Middle East.