Diplomacy: Babel on the border

International peacekeepers in S. Lebanon is one idea, but where can they be found?

unifil 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
unifil 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A number of long-held assumptions about the Israeli-Arab conflict have been thrown overboard during the first two weeks of the current battle. The first is that this is an Israeli-Arab conflict. Wrong. It is fast turning into an Israeli-Islamic conflict, as the true power behind the throne is not located in Bnit Jbail, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh or any other Arab capital, but rather in Teheran. And the Iranians are not Arabs. Another comfortable assumption was that the conflict is over territory, and that if Israel would just cede territory, the conflict would dissolve. Wrong. Hizbullah's attack on Israel two weeks ago had nothing to do with territorial claims, except maybe claims on Haifa, Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona and Safed. And, finally, the war has put paid the notion that Israel learned the lessons of May 1967 and would never again entrust its security to the hands of an international force that could be withdrawn at a whim. Wrong again. After initially pooh-poohing the idea of a multinational force moving into southern Lebanon once Hizbullah is ejected, Jerusalem is now quite seriously considering an international force as a major ingredient in the post-war arrangements in Lebanon. Indeed, in the space of two weeks the situation has evolved from where a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel was "not even close to the point" of talking about an international force, to talking about it at great length with the parade of foreign dignitaries who marched through Jerusalem this week, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And the acceptance of this idea - even its near embrace in some circles - is a major departure for Israeli policy makers. "Israel," said one senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem "is for the first time in its history opening itself to the idea that foreign forces will be placed on a border to defend us. This has never happened in the past." Indeed, past experience made Israeli policy makers fundamentally allergic to the idea. UN Secretary-General U Thant's quick acquiescence to Egyptian President Gamal Nasser's request to remove the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) from Sinai and the Gaza Strip in May 1967, just before the outbreak of war, seared into Israel's collective consciousness the notion that international forces could not be trusted. The dismal experience Israel has had with the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) since 1978 has only reinforced the idea. Interestingly enough, the largely positive experience with the multinational force that supervises the Israeli-Egyptian agreement in Sinai has not altered the negative overall view of international forces, and the MFO is largely chalked up as an aberration whose success can be attributed to the large US involvement. Shimon Peres has been a major voice throughout the years against the introduction of foreign monitors, arguing that terrorists could effectively fire over the monitors' heads, and that the only job they would be left with would be protecting themselves and preventing Israel from chasing after the terrorists. For instance, in July 2001, when the Mitchell Committee was considering the idea of introducing an international force into the area in the wake of the Palestinian violence, then foreign minister Peres told Dan Kurtzer, the US ambassador at the time, that "observers won't be able to enter the headquarters of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or the places where booby-trapped cars are being prepared or where explosive-laden belts are being placed on the bodies of suicide bombers." The only thing they will be able to do, he said, "will be to report on the Israeli response." This week Peres, in a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, pretty much repeated the same argument - only the places and faces have changed: "No international force can prevent the existing situation in which the entire area adjacent to the Israeli-Lebanese border, on the Lebanese side, is lined with large explosives and unmarked mines. An international force cannot stop missiles flying in the air." The Lebanese government, Peres argued, needed to eject Hizbullah. "If the existing 50,000 Lebanese soldiers will not stand up against this, and thus enable 7,000 Hizbullah terrorists to rule Lebanon, we will not tolerate such a situation." That was stated at the beginning of the week. By the end of the week, however, Israel's tune had changed - even dramatically - with Israel now discussing not only agreeing to the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon, but also in eastern Lebanon to prevent the rearmament of Hizbullah from Syria and Iran. The reason for the shift, explained one senior diplomatic official, was because of the lack of any better option. "What is the alternative?" he asked. "We don't want to go back in and sit in Lebanon, and the Lebanese army doesn't have the ability to move south, or for that matter even north, from Beirut. This is the third choice, but there is no other." So the discussions moved this week from the "if" of an international force, to the "how," with officials discussing under whose aegis the force would operate, what its mandate would be, and what countries would fill its ranks. Hammering out these details, however, will not be easy. Countries are not exactly falling over themselves waiting for the opportunity to send their sons to southern Lebanon. The foreign ministers of France and Germany were here on Sunday, as was Britain's Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Kim Howells, and, according to one Israeli official, "The French foreign minister explained why the Germans needed to man the force, the Germans explained why the British needed to be there, and the British argued in favor of both the Germans and the French." Everyone realizes, he said, that the Americans, already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, will not be putting "boots on the ground." Israel's dream team, then, has the following components: the force will be under NATO's command, because of the involvement of the Americans in the NATO command structure; it will receive its charter from the UN Security Council, to give the force international legitimacy, but not be a UN force; it will be battle tested and ready to intervene if necessary, like forces in Kosovo; it will be temporary, deployed only as long as it takes for the Lebanese army to organize itself and move south to take up positions along the border. Much has been written this week about the likely composition of the force, and its mandate, and much of that has been wishful thinking. For instance, sources in Jerusalem said that although there was talk of certain "moderate" Arab regimes taking part in the force - countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - such talk is completely divorced from reality. "King Abdullah is having enough problems just surviving himself," one official said, "let alone sending troops to Lebanon, and Egypt is not looking to get into any complications with Shiites." The official laughed when asked about the possibility of Saudi Arabia sending forces. "Maybe they will fund the force, or send money to reconstruct Lebanon, but they won't send troops." Regarding Turkey, which has said it was interested in taking part, the official said that Israel should weigh very carefully whether it wants Turkish troops on its border, and how an incident of the type that killed four UN observers this week could impact negatively in Turkey on the country's strong - but emotionally complicated - ties with Israel. As far as European countries are concerned, there are serious political problems in Britain, France and Germany that could preclude a major immediate role for each of those countries. France, for instance, is going to elections in nine months, and the specter of French peacekeeping soldiers coming home from Lebanon in coffins - as was the case in 1983 - is something each of the candidates wants to avoid on the eve of elections. In Britain, contributing forces would likely cause domestic trouble for Prime Minister Tony Blair, already widely perceived as too much of a puppet of US policy. And in Germany, as its Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said this week, "The participation of Germany is a particularly sensitive discussion. The difficult common history between Germany and Israel always comes into it." Russia is another option, but so far the Kremlin has been non-committal. Regardless of the force's final composition, senior Israeli officials dealing with the issue admit that Jerusalem's acceptance of the idea of an international force in southern Lebanon will - in the not too distant future - lead inevitably to a Palestinian demand for a similar type of force in Gaza and even in the West Bank. Some officials, pointing to the European monitoring force at the Rafah border crossing, are even suggesting that this may not be a bad idea, and that if Israel does not want to go back into Gaza permanently, and if the Palestinian Authority does nothing to stop the Kassam rockets, then the next best option may be for an international force to do the job. While Israel has fervently rejected such calls in the past, saying that Palestinians were always trying to internationalize the conflict by suggesting outside forces, if the front door to such a force is opened wide in Lebanon, it won't be long before there will be calls demanding that a similar back door be opened in Gaza. Stay tuned.