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U.S. Cynicism Delayed the Lebanon Ceasefire

Secretary of State Condoleezza's Rice's declaration, several hundred mangled children ago, that it was "premature" for a cease-fire in Lebanon will haunt the Bush administration for the rest of its term.
 
 
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After thirty-one days of war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, more than 1,000 dead and a week of haggling between France and the United States, the United Nations Security Council finally approved a cease-fire resolution on Friday.

With visible exasperation, Kofi Annan, beyond American retaliation as his term finishes at the end of this year, told the Council, "my disappointment and sense of frustration are shared by hundreds of millions of people around the world. For weeks now, I and many others have been calling repeatedly for an immediate cessation of hostilities, for the sake of the civilian population on both sides who have suffered such terrible, unnecessary pain and loss. All members of this Council must be aware that its inability to act sooner has badly shaken the world's faith in its authority and integrity."

And that that was just frustration over the time it took to get the resolution. An actual cease-fire will take longer. One reason is that acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his American friends want to disguise the unpalatable truth that they have achieved nothing that could not have been done within days of the Hezbollah kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, which sparked the conflict.

While the US delegation included the Israelis, the Lebanese surrogate was France, which ironically was one of the major movers of earlier UN resolutions designed to hobble Hezbollah. Israeli actions in Lebanon, however, have created such a constituency for Hezbollah in Lebanon that Paris ended up negotiating on its behalf.

The tie-breaker in the deadlocked negotiations was the Lebanese offer to send in 15,000 troops to match a phased Israeli withdrawal, although Friday's attack on a refugee convoy under Lebanese Army escort -- yet another murderous "accident" -- seems designed to show what the Israeli Defense Forces really think of them.

In the same insensitive vein, knowing that an agreement was near in New York, Olmert's government launched a new offensive on the very day the draft was coming to fruition. Even as he professed support for the resolution, he announced that the offensive would continue until the Cabinet could meet on Sunday to decide whether to call it off. Olmert called Bush early Saturday morning "to thank him for the concern he showed for Israel's interests in the Security Council."

The Israeli leader has reason to be grateful for the Bush Administration's callous and foolish procrastination of a cease-fire in order to give time for Israel to "finish the job" with Hezbollah. However, beyond the ruined infrastructure of Lebanon and hundreds of new graves, it is difficult to see what the Olmert administration achieved. Hezbollah now enjoys immense prestige across the Arab and Muslim world for standing against Israeli arms longer than any of the national armies of the region.

UN Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown, due with Annan to finish his term at the end of the year, also showed that lame ducks have teeth by drawing attention to the almost irreparable damage that George W. Bush and Tony Blair have done to both American and British diplomatic standing by making themselves subservient to Olmert's political interests. Bush could have rescued Olmert from his own folly by supporting a cease-fire, but caught up in the same Manichean mindset, encouraged him in his folly. In a concentrated version of Vietnam, the Israeli military almost daily claimed impending victory, declared free-fire zones, and lost the hearts and minds of a nation as it shattered their bodies. And the Katyushas kept coming.

The resolution itself has plenty of hostages to fortune, taking diplomatic ambiguity to its outer limits. At American insistence, it contains no criticism of Israeli actions, and makes few demands. It calls for "the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations." Yet Israel's continuing offensive already shows a very flexible definition of immediacy, and according to its representatives, everything that its forces do is "defensive."

The resolution calls for "the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers" but merely encourages "the efforts aimed at urgently settling the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel." In case anyone forgets, Israel kidnapped these prisoners in incursions into Lebanon every bit as illegal as the Hezbollah incursion that the UN has agreed sparked the current hostilities.

In fact, as even Tony Blair admitted, the conflict goes back much further and cannot be resolved without a general settlement of the Middle East issue, including Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. One almost has to admire the chutzpah of Israeli spokespeople demanding the immediate implementation of Resolution 1559 to disarm Hezbollah, while ignoring the numerous resolutions about annexation of Arab territory. It is perhaps illustrative of Israeli attitudes that six years after its last withdrawal from Lebanon, the resolution urges Israel to hand over maps of the minefields it left behind.

The cease-fire resolution offers some hope, however, assuming the Bush Administration will pressure Olmert to help redeem the tattered reputation of American diplomacy by implementing it.

The last UN commission, acting on Mandate-era maps, decided that the disputed Shebaa Farms were Syrian territory. Syria, which has difficulty recognizing Lebanon, let alone its boundaries, claimed that the farms had been handed over to Lebanon, which has provided Hezbollah's militia with its raison d'etre as a national liberation movement.

Lebanese or not, this is not Israeli territory, and a solution that puts an international force in place there would indeed allow Hezbollah to claim victory again. But it would also deprive Hezbollah of its last excuse to remain armed, and direct it into politics.

With a resolution cobbled together from two such differing worldviews, one side trying to implement international law and the other holding that such law does not apply to Israel (or the United States), there are some genuine difficulties.

The augmented UN force is charged to enforce and defend Lebanese sovereignty and control over its own territory. The resolution calls for an arms embargo for all military material not requested by the Lebanese government.

The US and Israeli side sees this task simply as disarming Hezbollah. The augmented UN force, with potential contributors like France and Turkey, may well see the task as restraining Israeli impingements on Lebanon and defending civilians against their attacks.

Additionally, Israeli actions have mainstreamed Hezbollah, which has become the most popular force in the country. It is easy to see some permutation of the movement's influence in the government and the incorporation of its military wing into the Lebanese Army that would quickly frustrate any such enforcement.

The cease-fire resolution charges the UN with much of the detail of implementation, including settling the Shebaa Farms dispute, marshaling international troops, monitoring Israeli and Hezbollah withdrawal, exchanging prisoners and returning refugees. We can only hope that the UN is not being set up for failure. After all, the US stance at the UN over this conflict has weakened the one organization that can provide a framework for it.

We should remember not only the resolution that took so long to pass, but those that fell to a threatened American veto, which has, for example, implicitly legitimized bombing UN peacekeepers in Khiyam.

The fundamentalists in Washington have shown that they have not learned a thing from the murderous fiasco in Iraq. US behavior -- from expedited delivery of cluster bombs to an Israeli Army, mainstreaming a fundamentalist militia in one of the new Middle Eastern democracies, alienating even "friendly" Arab regimes, and making a mockery of international law and the UN itself -- puts the Bush Administration's "war on terror" in perspective.

Secretary of State Condoleezza's Rice's declaration, several hundred mangled children ago, that it was "premature" for a cease-fire, should come back to haunt the Administration each time it tries to rally support for its amoral adventures abroad.

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Nation and Salon. He is also the author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 .