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Choucair: Israeli Attacks on Lebanese Civilians Hurt U.S. Standing in Region

Interviewee: Julia Choucair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 31, 2006

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Julia Choucair, an expert on Lebanon for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says even though many Lebanese people and several Arab governments criticized Hezbollah for instigating the crisis with Israel, the Israeli air attacks, including the killing of many civilians, have now quieted the criticism, and in fact have worsened the already poor standing of the United States in the Arab world. "This has had a very negative impact on attitudes toward the United States in the Arab world, which already were not ideal," she says.

What do you think led Hezbollah to launch this attack in which it abducted these Israeli soldiers and brought them into Lebanon? Do you think this was inspired by some other party in the Middle East such as Iran, or were they trying to help Hamas?

I believe Hezbollah did not expect such retaliation from Israel; at least they expected Israel to retaliate by bombing certain southern villages, which they have in the past. But I do not think they expected the scale of response as in bombing Beirut and so forth. That is important to remember when you think about what their goals might have been. Hezbollah has been speaking about prisoner exchange for a really long time—six years. Ever since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah has put it as one of its goals to retrieve the Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

There are only three, right?

Exactly. Sometimes Hezbollah will speak about releasing Palestinian prisoners, which would make the number into the thousands. So they go back and forth speaking about all Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners or only the Lebanese prisoners. What is interesting of course is the timing of this operation. It came when tension in Gaza was at an all-time high and on the same day Iran was going to be referred to the Security Council. So that leads to speculation about whether this had been planned or maybe directed by Iran.

In the past, Hezbollah made its own strategic decisions. It is a political actor on its own, and it makes its own decisions. But I find it hard to believe Iran would not have known about this because it was such a major operation given the regional environment. So Iran probably knew and gave the go ahead, but whether this was orchestrated by Iran or orchestrated by Hezbollah is pure speculation.

We have to remember Hezbollah has acted on its own in the past. People thought there was solidarity with the Palestinians at a time when maybe Israel was busy fighting in the south and wouldn't launch a war on two fronts. These are some of the calculations that could have gone into it. In the past, Israel negotiated prisoner exchanges with Hezbollah. In 2003, there was a huge prisoner exchange. They might have believed there would be some bombing, and eventually there would be an indirect negotiation between Hezbollah and the Israelis. Hezbollah would get those prisoners back, and that would significantly strengthen their position domestically at a time when there have been Lebanese internal calls for Hezbollah's disarmament since UN Resolution 1559 [in 2004, calling for an end to armed militias in Lebanon] and in particular since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year.

What about the Syrian relationship with Hezbollah?

The Syrian relationship is more political, but also logistical in the sense that armament coming from Iran primarily go through Syria to get to Lebanon. So the way I guess you would describe it is that Iran provides financial and armament support and Syria provides logistical and political backing.

In 1985 there was a hijacking of a TWA plane which went on for weeks at the Beirut airport. Finally, President Reagan called on [then Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad to help, and Assad got Hezbollah to let the prisoners go. Does Syria have the degree of influence over Hezbollah now that it did then?

I don't think so. One of the biggest mistakes when looking at this current conflict is to assume Hezbollah is merely a proxy of Iran or Syria. After the Syrian withdrawal from Beirut in 2005, one of the things made clearest in this conflict is Hezbollah does not rely on Syria for political support. You can almost reverse the relationship; in fact [Syrian President] Bashar Assad relies on Hezbollah for credibility in Syria. There is a role reversal sort of: Hezbollah has become a very influential and powerful actor both inside Lebanon and regionally—symbolic of this struggle against Israel. Syria does not have the kind of power to basically pick up the phone and call [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and tell him what to do. Nasrallah makes his own decisions, Hezbollah makes its own decisions, and they have their own strategic interests at heart. It has evolved a lot since it was founded in 1982, and it is much stronger now than it was in 1985.

Let's talk about the current conflict now. There was criticism of Hezbollah early on. Is there now great unity behind Hezbollah? Is that a lasting unity? Does this make it harder to get a cease-fire negotiated?

For the first forty-eight hours there was a clear response from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that accused Hezbollah of what I think was called "recklessness and adventurism"—solely placing the blame on Hezbollah. This was a very significant departure in Arab politics not to put the blame on Israel. In many of the other communities in Lebanon there was clear condemnation that this was a very reckless act, that Lebanon was at a very fragile time right after the death of Hariri, that this summer was a tourist season, the Lebanese economy survives or depends on the summer season, and this was basically a very reckless act.

As the conflict continued and as Lebanese civilian casualties increased, this view started to shift. Within Lebanon, the primary response right now is criticism of Israel and opposition to what Israel is doing to Lebanon as a whole. Within the Shiite community, there is increasing support for Hezbollah: Basically even people who initially criticized Hezbollah at some point channeled their criticism to Israel because when somebody bombs your house you don't think, "Who started this?" You think, "My house was bombed."

This is a clear shift that only strengthens Hezbollah's support inside Lebanon. In terms of the regional dynamics, increasingly the focus has shifted to condemnation of Israel and also to horror at the humanitarian disaster. And there has been a shift among the Saudis and Jordanians in their discourse because they are trying to appease public anger at their initial response, basically because their position was no longer sustainable after these images of Lebanese dead children are appearing on everybody's TV screens around the region. They have started to call for an immediate cease-fire, which is a departure from their original position. Also, they have been trying to give a lot of humanitarian aid to Lebanon to sort of compensate for what they initially said.

Is there likewise similar criticism of the United States?

Yes, and this has had a very negative impact on attitudes toward the United States in the Arab world, which already were not ideal. The United States already did not have much credibility, at least among the Arab public. But the U.S. government's response to this particular crisis has severely damaged its reputation further, and I cannot overstate that enough. The U.S. government's opposition to an immediate cease-fire has isolated it because at this point there is an almost universal demand for cease-fire by the United Nations, by European countries, and by the Arab governments who initially did not support it.

The United States is left with Israel in not calling for a cease-fire at the time when there is an increasing number of Lebanese civilian casualties. This position is perceived by Arabs across the region as callous and indifferent in the face of Arab suffering. This is very counterproductive for the U.S. administration's attempt to win the hearts and minds of the region's people.

It also discredits the United States' declared push for reform in the region, and also has basically rendered all public diplomacy efforts useless because when images of civilians dying are on everybody's screens, it is really irrelevant what [Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy] Karen Hughes says.

But isn't the United States taking the lead in trying to get a cease-fire?

Now it is, but for most of the Arab public it is a little too late. There was a golden opportunity for the United States to take the lead in diplomatic efforts in terms of its position in the region and in terms of its ability in the region. That opportunity was missed. It has been already two weeks and only now after Sunday morning's massacre in Qana are we seeing this call for a cease-fire.

I think another major question is that the U.S. plan for cease-fire is not simply, as you know, an immediate cease-fire to take place, but a negotiated cease-fire with rather elaborate agreements by Hezbollah to let the Lebanese army replace it in the south and outside forces come in to help out. Do you think this at all possible?

Well, the Lebanese government was discussing such a package with the United States. The Lebanese government was negotiating with Hezbollah at the same time. Nasrallah said in a statement he would be willing to negotiate through the Lebanese government—which was a big step forward in this crisis. Yes, the cease-fire is going to come as part of a larger comprehensive package. At this point unfortunately the presence of an international force has become a necessity. But of course I do not believe you can have an international force in Lebanon without Hezbollah's acquiescence or agreement because I cannot imagine any country willing to be part of this force if it entails fighting Hezbollah.

Despite the general Arab perception the United States is solidly behind Israel, the United States was also solidly behind a new Lebanese government.

Yes, and this is very damaging to the U.S. call for reform because Lebanon had become the poster child of a new democratic order in the Middle East. Washington called it "the Cedar Revolution." In Lebanon it was actually called the Intifada for Independence. This movement was very inspiring for many reasons. It could have served as a model for the U.S. call for democracy in the sense that it is a country that has severe sectarian divisions. Basically if the Lebanese model was successful, it could provide inspiration for other Arab countries with sectarian divisions. The United States played a successful role in the transition after Hariri's death, but this has all been lost now because in the eyes of the Arab world, the United States abandoned Lebanon. They abandoned its vision for Lebanese democracy when this vision did not coincide with Israel's interest. It is a very black and white view, but unfortunately that is how it is being viewed in the region.

The fact Hezbollah started the current fighting is lost now?

Exactly. For about two day there was criticism of Hezbollah inside Lebanon; there was criticism across the Arab world. But as civilian casualties increased, and as the United States basically remained silent for the first couple of days and then came out strongly in support of Israel and refusing a cease-fire agreement, that nuance has been lost.

In addition to what I said about the split in the region between some Arab regimes and others—for example between Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on one side and Syria on the other—although they were traditionally allies, there is also a very interesting split domestically in these Arab countries between the regimes and their public, particularly between the regimes and the Islamist parties. A lot of Islamists parties, who are the main opposition parities in these countries, have rallied behind this cause and organized huge demonstrations. The basic goal of the demonstrations was to criticize Israeli aggression and American policy, but indirectly they also criticize Arab leaders for their complacency and lack of political reform.

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