Saturday, August 12, 2006

Financial Times Editorial - A dire toll in Lebanon

Financial Times Editorial - A dire toll in Lebanon
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 12 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 12 2006 03:00

A deal to end the fighting in Lebanon was reached at the United Nations in New York last night. But whether or not diplomacy can be made to stick, there is no escaping the magnitude of what has happened over the past month - for Israel, Lebanon and a US supposedly allied to both.

Israel, which intended through this conflict to re-establish the potency of deterrent power it believed was dangerously eroded, has not only failed to do so but given a very public exhibition of the limits to its otherwise overwhelming might. A weak and incompetent leadership has overreached.

Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, and Amir Peretz, his defence minister, are not from the warrior elite that has traditionally ruled Israel, and Lt Gen Dan Halutz, the chief of staff, is, most unusually, from the air force.

In spite of a long history of failed Israeli attempts to defeat Hizbollah, they appear to have convinced themselves that a combination of air power, massive attrition against Shia population centres and commando raids would crush the Islamist movement, which fields arguably the most effective guerrillas in the world, fighting on their home terrain, the mountains and ravines of south Lebanon.

As this newspaper pointed out on day one, it was foolish of the Israeli leadership to allow itself to be suckered back into asymmetric warfare. But, faced with Israel's failure, the US has with comparable hubris tried to achieve Israeli war aims by using its diplomatic muscle, while seeming to license its ally to do as much damage as possible while talks meandered on, the great majority of it to Lebanese civilians. The precise way hostilities will end is still being shaped, but it will not look like an Israeli victory.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, has agreed to the Lebanese government's plan to deploy 15,000 troops to secure the border area. But that becomes feasible only with an Israeli withdrawal; Hizbollah will not cease fire while Israel has troops in Lebanon.

There will also have to be a prisoner exchange (as there have been in the past), and the disputed Shebaa enclave should be transferred from Israeli control to international jurisdiction to remove it as a pretext for further trials of strength across the border.

Sheikh Nasrallah stands to emerge as the main winner of this bloody episode which, as Gen Halutz promised, has set Lebanon back 20 years. The Shia leader has become a hero of the stature of Gamal Abdel Nasser on the Arab street. But, like Mr Olmert, he too will face a reckoning at home.

A million Lebanese - a quarter of the population - have become refugees, tens of thousands of homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, as well as more than a thousand lives. Much of Shia Lebanon has been reduced to rubble.

While Hizbollah's state-within-the-state has been able to replace almost every pane of glass after past fighting, to do so this time it would in effect have to become the state - a recipe for sectarian conflict that may already be brewing. This month-long war has dangerously aggrandised Hizbollah while lethally wounding the pro-western government of Fouad Siniora.

Other Arab governments to which Washington professes friendship will take due note. Friends and foes in the region are concluding that the Bush administration - already regarded as dangerous adventurers after the Iraq fiasco - will always back Israel unconditionally, even at the risk of creating another failed state.


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