'Now, the hard and urgent work of implementation begins," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was August 11, and the United Nations Security Council had just passed Resolution 1701, calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon and promising to quickly send a large enough international force to the area to prevent Hizbullah from settling in again.
Apparently, though, the work of implementation has been either much harder, or much less urgent, than the international community first assumed.
A key element of the cease-fire - for both Lebanon and Israel - was the establishment of an international force in southern Lebanon many times larger than UNIFIL, and with a mandate strong enough to give those troops the means to effectively monitor the truce's conditions. It would be, according to the resolution, "a United Nations force that is supplemented and enhanced in numbers, equipment, mandate and scope of operation." This new force would total 15,000 troops, adding 13,000 to the woefully inadequate UNIFIL mission deployed hitherto.
Following the failure of UN member states to commit to sending anywhere near these figures, however, foreign ministers from the European Union will meet in Brussels on Friday to discuss the crisis. But that crisis is actually largely one of their own making. Hopefully, France's announcement on Thursday night that it would dispatch an additional 1,600 troops to the force is a step toward its resolution; it is certainly not the last word.
As it is, France comprises the largest contingent of foreign troops in UNIFIL. "We are today the most committed and most present country on the ground," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pointed out on Wednesday. But that was not saying much: Only 200 French soldiers were there to begin with, and Paris had sent just 200 others since the cease-fire. Italy, which has offered as many as 3,000 troops, has a mere 50 in Lebanon now.
After good talk about providing leadership, France and the rest of Europe have been hesitant to put muscle behind their words, and that hesitancy is dangerous.
"It may signal weakness of the foreign and security policy of the European Union if we, the Europeans, are not able to contribute in a larger scale to an international military force," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen correctly said on Thursday.
Such weakness has a price. Without a formidable international force in southern Lebanon ready to show Hizbullah that it means business, there is every probability of a return of the situation in Lebanon that, as Resolution 1701 states, "constitutes a threat to international peace and security." The imposition of Lebanese sovereignty throughout the country would be impossible, and any hopes of a lasting cease-fire dashed.
But the likelihood of Israel consequently being forced to maintain its military presence in southern Lebanon and continue to engage Hizbullah fighters is only the immediate danger. For the long term, the EU and the UN risk destroying the integrity of the internationally-recognized border between Israel and Lebanon.
In fact, without a strong show of will here, they risk losing their credibility in Jerusalem altogether. The question of whether they can be trusted to support Israel - in actions, not just in words - for adhering to the conditions of internationally-mediated agreements with our enemies will become moot. If Israeli withdrawal from territory from which we have been attacked is not rewarded with a vigilant foreign commitment to keeping the peace, then the entire land-for-peace formula that has been so widely supported in Israel and that lies at the heart of international Middle East diplomacy will be debased.
On the Lebanese frontier, at least, it is not too late for a robust force. If France and Italy now make good on their promises, there would still be many thousands more troops to be found, in addition to the 2,000 blue-helmeted soldiers already there. But between the numerous other nations considering contributions to the mission - Spain, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Turkey, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand and China, not including Muslim countries that do not recognize Israel - the goal would not be unreachable. The question then would be whether the force has the mandate and the capacity to constitute an effective obstacle to Hizbullah.
The European governments, together with the UN, need to realize that they are confronted not by a problem, but by an opportunity. For their sake, for Lebanon's and for Israel's, they must seize it.
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