July 20, 2006

July 20, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Olmert's course

What better illustration of the hopelessness of converting terrorist movements to political parties than the escalating violence, tending toward outright warfare, between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah? And, yet, the world keeps hoping against hope that groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the PLO can be transformed and absorbed by civilian, civilized society.

We have now had each of these three groups elected to the governing bodies of the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon, with pretty disastrous results. Hezbollah obviously has no intention of giving up its terrorist ways, as its kidnapping of Israeli officers showed, even while assuming a veil of political legitimacy. In the case of Hamas, one has to be extremely charitable to find room for optimism in its attitude toward Israel, and the PLO under Yasser Arafat, of course, ran the PA as a kleptocracy while failing to rein in suicide-bombing campaigns against Israel. Thinking that we can civilize such groups by giving them a place on the ballot is a bad mistake.

The case of the Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army of Northern Ireland is often given to show that the transition from terrorism to politics is possible. The Sinn Fein is supposedly the political, non-violent arm of the terrorist IRA, which conducted bombing campaigns against Britain for decades. Yet, agreements brokered by the British and Irish governments, with the help of the United States, have fallen through because Sinn Fein either could not or would not guarantee that the IRA would lay down its arms as promised in return for political power.

The hope for a political settlement with terrorist groups derives mainly from the fact that there are precious few other obvious courses of action when terrorist support among the civilian population remains fairly strong. The only alternative is what Israel is now doing -- disarming and destroying their strongholds by military means.

Whether Israel will succeed remains an open question, and its strategy is high-risk -- it could lead to a wider regional conflict if Syria and Iran decide to engage Israel directly rather than through their Hezbollah proxy.

Surprising perhaps is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is the man who has chosen this course. Mr. Olmert's military record does not compare with those of many of his predecessors, and after the announcement of withdrawal from the West Bank as the dovish first initiative of his tenure as prime minister, he has now struck hard at Israel's enemies.

There is, however, nothing unreasonable about Mr. Olmert's demands of the Lebanese government: the return of the two Israeli officers, an end to Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel and deployment of the Lebanese army along the border with Israel to keep Hezbollah in check. The oddity of the situation is that Israel is fighting a faction within Lebanon, not the Lebanese government itself, which could hold the key to stabilizing the situation if it had the power to influence or stop Hezbollah.

Another complicating factor, of course, is that Hezbollah is acting as a proxy for two of Israel's enemies, Syria and Iran. At this time, Syria seems highly reluctant to get directly involved, being no match for Israel's well-equipped military. Yet, as long as the border between Lebanon and Syria remains open, the military blockade of Lebanon's Mediterranean coast and air lanes imposed by Israel will have a gaping hole. There is no indication that Syria intends to close the border, and Damascus has indeed been earning international brownie-points by allowing foreign nationals and Lebanese citizens to flee to Syrian territory.

Iran is a different matter. Iran is a staunch supporter of Hezbollah. Iranian-made rockets have been raining down on the Israeli city of Haifa. Some rockets in the Hezbollah arsenal have a range of up to 120 miles and are thus capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Iran also has a great stake in changing the subject from its nuclear program at this time.

If the international community -- be that the leaders of the G-8 or U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- wants a constructive role in ending the conflict, it could start by pressuring Syria and Iran to end their support for Hezbollah and demanding that Lebanon take responsibility for reining in terrorists on its soil.

It is, of course, easier to demand that Israel "act with restraint." But until there is a credible alternative for dealing with Hezbollah, who could blame Israel for not listening?

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Washington Times