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Ross: Israeli Escalation of War Might Hasten UN Action

Interviewee: Dennis B. Ross, Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow, the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 9, 2006

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Dennis B. Ross, former chief Middle East negotiator for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, says the Israeli Cabinet's decision to authorize a widening ground offensive in Lebanon might hasten diplomats at the UN Security Council to come up with a resolution acceptable to the various parties.

Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the best outcome would be a political one. He says what the Israelis "always have to keep in mind is there is not going to be a military outcome in Lebanon that is going to satisfy them."

What do you make of the decision by the Israeli Cabinet today to step up their ground war in Lebanon?

I see it almost as a direct response to the Arab League effort to support the Lebanese government's rejection of the Security Council draft resolution put together by the Bush administration and the French. The Arab plan would produce an outcome where Israel has to get out immediately and where there is no international force to take its place. This would allow Hezbollah to reconstitute itself, to be resupplied, and to go back to exactly where it was prior to the war, notwithstanding the presence of a Lebanese army, [which is] almost there to support Hezbollah as opposed to replacing Hezbollah. From an Israeli standpoint, if that is the way the outcome is going to look, then they are not going to permit that. In effect, it gives them the incentive to do more on the ground, clear out more of a buffer, create a presence that creates its own leverage, which then says, "All right, we'll get out, but now you have to bring an international force in."

Do you think the Security Council in New York can come up with a plan at this point that would meet the Israeli needs?

It is going to be difficult because it is pretty clear Hezbollah has a veto over what the Lebanese government is prepared to offer. [Lebanese] Prime Minister [Fouad] Siniora is not an independent actor right now. In effect, what the Israelis are trying to do is create a counter-leverage to Hezbollah. Since Hezbollah is in a position to say no to the Lebanese government right now, the Israelis are trying to create a reality on the ground that builds pressure on Hezbollah to want to find an end to this. In a sense, what we now have the Israelis doing is saying "All right, if Hezbollah is going to create that leverage, we can create leverage." Maybe that is when at some point we'll see both sides looking for a way out.

That would first require really heavy fighting I suppose.

I suspect what you are going to see now is a much more serious effort by the Israelis to do something more on the ground. Now it is possible also that the decision itself is part of a coercive strategy that creates a different pressure in New York, in Lebanon, and in the Arab world to say, "All right, let's see if we can find a bridge between the two positions right now." The essential bridge is going to be that you will put together an international force very quickly that could go and be deployed so there would be a very rapid Israeli withdrawal. But Hezbollah does not want to be constrained and therefore does not want an international force. The possible bridge would be an international force other than the current UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] combined with the Lebanese Army. That way you maintain what would be a response to Lebanon's need to express its sovereignty, on the one hand, with an international presence designed, basically, to promote that sovereignty rather than to be in place of it. I do believe what the Israelis have done, objectively speaking, is weaken Hezbollah; what they can't do is actually destroy Hezbollah as a military force, as a social force, as a political force within Lebanon.

The other thing is how much of the public relations war is Israel ready to lose? In the article you wrote for the New Republic a couple of weeks ago, you pointed out the dangers of Israel overdoing its military response. Do you think they have now passed that point?

There was always going to be a kind of tipping point, where the strategic interests of the Arab regimes—in not seeing Hezbollah win and not seeing, therefore, an Iranian win —was going to be constrained by the emotional backlash of the imagery that is broadcast into the Arab world daily of Lebanese suffering. Now all those regimes are on the defensive. That helps to explain why the Arab League position is for an immediate Israeli withdrawal—a rejection of the current resolution.

I do believe what the Israelis have done, objectively speaking, is weaken Hezbollah; what they can't do is actually destroy Hezbollah as a military force, as a social force, as a political force within Lebanon.

For the Israelis, what they always have to keep in mind is there is not going to be a military outcome in Lebanon that is going to satisfy them. There has to be a political outcome in Lebanon that satisfies their needs, and that would be that Hezbollah is no longer free to resume this kind of activity at a time of its choosing. None of what I just said says Hezbollah would be disarmed because I don't see anybody who can disarm Hezbollah. I do believe what the Israelis have done, objectively speaking, is weaken Hezbollah; what they can't do is actually destroy Hezbollah as a military force, as a social force, as a political force within Lebanon.

I know the danger of using history as commentary on current events, but back in the Clinton Administration when there was heavy Katyusha firing from Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel, you and Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher went into Syria to try and stop the fighting. This administration seems to feel it is of no value at all to talk to anybody outside of Israel and Lebanon. Is that wise?

I certainly understand the administration's desire not to look like they are rewarding Syria and inviting Syria back into Lebanon. That is completely understandable. What the administration has to grapple with is that you have to find a point of leverage on Hezbollah. Who is able to influence or shape what Hezbollah does? In 1993 and 1996 we negotiated what were in fact cease-fires, and, in the case of the 1996 understanding, which took eight and a half days to resolve through a shuttle, [the negotation] was triggered by an Israeli shell hitting Qana. That attack by the way had four times as many fatalities as what just happened in Qana last week.

We worked with the Syrians because, in the end, the Syrians were the only ones who could stop Hezbollah. Truth be told, Israelis also understood they could not bring the Katyusha fire to an end militarily. For all those who seem to have a very short memory, this is not new. In 1993 and 1996 there was no military way to stop the Katyusha fire. Moreover Israel was in Lebanon then and had a security zone in Lebanon and still could not stop the Katyusha fire. They are too many, too mobile, they are too small, and they are too easy to fire on the run.

The question is can you put a strong enough international force in Lebanon to ensure Hezbollah is contained and prevented from being resupplied; that takes a big force with not just military capability but almost a policing capability in terms of checkpoints and inspections.

There will have to be a political answer at some point. The question is can you put a strong enough international force in Lebanon to ensure Hezbollah is contained and prevented from being resupplied; that takes a big force with not just military capability but almost a policing capability in terms of checkpoints and inspections. I don't hear anybody talking about that kind of force. If you can't put together that kind of force, then you also have to look at whether or not to deal with Syria to try to affect that.

The question is—here is where I think the administration is right to have doubts—you don't want to somehow convince the Syrians that by having the Hezbollah card, they have made themselves very important. On the other hand, you have to also think "Is there a way to influence Syrian behavior? Is there a way to wean them away from the Iranians?"

My own feeling is there could be, but it requires a very strong coordinated policy, especially with the French and the Europeans, who would have to initially go in and tell the Syrians they are prepared to cut the economic lifeline if they are not prepared to cut of Hezbollah. We, in the aftermath of that, would go in and say, "Look, we are prepared to implement the full scope of the Syrian Accountability Act, which would cut off the ability of any company to do business with us that does business in Syria." The combination of those two threats would truly isolate Syria economically. That might give the Syrians enough of an incentive to say, "What do we get for cutting off Hezbollah?" And then you would have to begin to talk about what they would get for cutting off Hezbollah. It is not a simple thing—don't get me wrong. The president said, "The Syrians know what they have to do." But they are not going to do what we want unless they see there is something profound they have to lose and also something to gain for doing it. Right now they don't see the consequence of not changing their behavior, and they do not see the benefits of doing so.

What about Iran? You are one of those who think this whole thing was started by Iran.

I do. The problem is they are a long way away. It is hard to bring home the nature of the cost to them. It would be good to be able to use what they are doing in Lebanon to coalesce even greater pressure against them on the grounds that they have transferred military material and weaponry no one knew they had, including the Israelis. This should send off some alarm bells about what they might do if they had a nuclear capability. Moreover, they have engaged in incredibly reckless behavior when they don't have a nuclear shield. You can imagine what it would be like if they did have a nuclear shield.

Tactical military gains that come at the expense of strategic political outcomes are not what you want.

But you can use it to try to create greater pressure and coalescence for dealing with what is a nuclear issue. It is hard to see a lot more that can be done against them right now for what they are doing in Lebanon. They started this conflict, but they are not paying any price for it. The best outcome in Lebanon ought to be an outcome where they have not gained because they used the Hezbollah card and the Hezbollah instrument. It is very important that at the end of this Iran sees that by playing this game they did not benefit, they did not gain. Right now, I think they feel they are winning because I think they feel they have created an atmosphere where Hezbollah is very popular. They can use this to continue to mobilize passions for the regimes that favor their radical agenda.

Do you think all this is going to lead to much more pressure for military action against Iran in the United States and Israel?

I think we are going to have a period of assessment after the fighting is over. In Israel, I think, there will be a lot of soul searching on why they were caught by surprise by how much capability Hezbollah had. What does that say about their intelligence on Iran? If anything, it will also sharpen the sense of the existential nature of the conflict with Iran. Here, there will also be again the kind of hard look at what the nature of the Iranian threat is and how best to deal with it. There will also be a corollary, which is the use of the military in a way that is not connected to political objectives has to be very carefully thought through. Tactical military gains that come at the expense of strategic political outcomes are not what you want.

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