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Published: Wednesday, 7/26/2006

Rice's latest mission a real high-wire act

FOR the Bush Administration, attaining the objectives that Israel has set for the United States in the Israel-Lebanon conflict - especially the disarmament of Hezbollah - is an operation comparable to doing a root canal on a rattlesnake without getting bitten.

Securing the return of the two Israeli soldiers that Hezbollah captured is, in principle, relatively simple. The Israelis hold several hundred Hezbollah prisoners and there is ample precedent across the years for exchanges.

If Hezbollah were not already sufficiently enraged at the United States, the news Friday that the administration is speeding up delivery of satellite and laser-guided bombs to Israel, to permit it to pound Lebanon even harder without fear of running short, had to have been the last straw.

There is the question of the military wisdom of the bombing. There is also the impact of the knowledge that the United States is supplying the bombs that are wreaking such havoc in Lebanon, killing civilians, including children, in that wretched country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gets full marks for flying into Beirut Monday to talk with the Lebanese, providing a small measure of symbolic sympathy, although it was an act entirely at odds with the accelerated bomb-supply action.

The next act of the drama is scheduled to take place today in Rome, since no Arab capital would host it. Ms. Rice will try to persuade the Europeans to ante up troops for a peacekeeping force in Lebanon. It would be deployed presumably after Hezbollah has been pounded into an appropriate state of quiescence, or Syria and Iran have agreed to rein Hezbollah in, assuming they have that level of control over the organization.

Syria and Iran are, of course, the snakes in the back of the cave. Neither of them like the Bush Administration, although both would almost certainly be willing to talk with the United States. That would involve the administration somehow wriggling away from all of the axis of evil and state sponsor of terrorism stuff and dealing with Iran and Syria as sovereign states.

Clearly, in both cases, it would be necessary for Ms. Rice to have enough confidence-building measures in her kit bag to make dialogue with the United States interesting. Stranger things have happened.

It will also be necessary for Ms. Rice, or someone, to do some heavy lifting in terms of getting cooperation from the Iranians and the Syrians in the deployment of European or other forces in south Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah. The populations of the European Union countries, too, have seen the television coverage of the bloody tragedy in Lebanon, and in Israel as well although to a lesser extent, and are also aware of the weapons supply relationship between the United States and Israel. On that basis, they are not going to be eager to put their troops in harm's way at the behest of the Bush Administration.

It cannot be lost on the Europeans that to a degree this is a proxy war between the United States and Iran and Syria. Iran and Syria arm Hezbollah; America arms Israel. Those two duke it out and, as in the African proverb, when the elephants fight the grass gets crushed. In this case, the Lebanese are the grass.

This aspect of the situation virtually guarantees that the moderate Arab states - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates - are neither going to involve themselves directly in solving the problem nor are they going to accept the responsibility of trying to bring Syria, not to mention Iran, on board a "neuter Hezbollah" strategy.

Finally, it is worth noting that the explosions in northern Israel, as well as the continued fighting in Gaza, have almost certainly put an end for the time being to the process launched by Israel's ailing former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw Israeli settlers from the West Bank, as they were withdrawn from Gaza.

The objective of that exercise was to give the Palestinians something to call their own, imperfect though it was, and fraught with difficulties as the West Bank portion of the withdrawals was going to be.

For now, that and the quartet of peacemakers - the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union - are basically out of business in pursuing a comprehensive resolution of the problems of the area. When the nightmare in Lebanon is ended, it will be absolutely vital to try to return to that quest.

I suppose we could hope that at that point the people of the region will be so sick of war that they will be more interested in peace. I know, dream on.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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