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The Dangers of Miscalculation in the Middle East

The cease-fire pact in southern Lebanon is no triumph for Israel or the US

The cease-fire agreement in Lebanon is widely depicted as a triumph of Israeli military force and American diplomacy. In reality, however, it represents the failure of both.

After 40,000 bombs and shells had fallen on Lebanon, killing more than 150 civilians and resulting in the flight of nearly half a million refugees, the agreement is essentially a reiteration of arrangements in place before this latest round of bloodshed began, which proscribed attacks against civilian populations.

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The major difference in last Friday's deal is that it puts the July 1993 agreement in writing and provides for outside monitoring without any enforcement mechanisms, hardly a dramatic breakthrough. Indeed, Lebanon and Syria had demonstrated their openness to just such a deal throughout the fighting. The only other new component is the understanding that Hizbullah would not assault Israeli occupation forces from civilian areas, which - despite Israeli claims to the contrary - it had generally avoided doing anyway.

At the outset of this latest round of hostilities, the Israeli goal appeared to be to force the Lebanese government to break from Syria - which currently exercises effective control of Lebanese foreign policy - and make a separate peace.

This explains why the Israelis attacked so many non-Hizbullah targets such as dams, power stations, fishing boats, and major highways. They hoped to inflict enough damage to force Lebanon to settle on Israeli terms.

With the United States tacitly supporting their bombing campaign, the Israelis had little incentive to pursue a diplomatic settlement. Indeed, Israel initially refused to receive the French envoy, saying the time was not ripe for diplomacy.

The massacre of scores of refugees at the United Nations post one week into the bombardment was a major embarrassment, not only for Israel, but also for the United States. Only then did the US engage in diplomatic efforts.

Israel's failed maneuver

Realizing that a separate peace with Lebanon was impossible, the Israelis enlisted the US to persuade Syria to make a new agreement. The Israeli goal was to ban attacks not only against civilians, but against Israeli occupation forces as well.

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However, even those who object to Hizbullah's fundamentalist ideology and history of terrorism recognize that a people under foreign military occupation have a legal right to armed resistance against occupation forces. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was not about to agree to such an arrangement with the Israelis, and even if he was, neither Hizbullah nor the Lebanese people would have let him.

Despite a lot of pressure from US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Mr. Assad refused to back down, and Mr. Christopher apparently let the Israelis know that they would have to accept the status quo ante.

Unfortunately, the result of these recent tragic events has been to enhance the prestige and influence of both Assad and Hizbullah in the Arab world, since they resisted enormous military and diplomatic pressures, forcing the United States and Israel to back down. This has hurt, rather than helped, Israel's security interests.

Turning Lebanese against peace

In addition, just as Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians turned many Israelis against the peace process, so have Israeli attacks against Lebanese civilians turned many Lebanese and other Arabs against the peace process. The US backing of Israel as civilian casualties mounted has severely weakened Washington's credibility as an honest broker in the peace process as well.

While the current cease-fire will probably hold indefinitely, the major issue remains the ongoing Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Hizbullah did not even exist until after Israel seized the territory in 1978, and it is not likely to disarm as long as any part of the country remains under Israeli control. Both the Lebanese and Syrian governments have agreed to disarm Hizbullah (as they have done with other militias) as well as to guarantee Israel's security, but only if Israel withdraws.

Israel's friends must be willing to pressure Israel to abide by its international obligations and withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Only then will Israel find the security it so desperately wants and deserves.

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