As the conflict in Lebanon continues one word is on most lips: ceasefire. A catchy word, ceasefire, has become substitute for policies needed to rid the Middle East of the root causes of violence and stabilise its state structures.
This is not the first time that major powers and those involved in the fight use the fig leaf.
Ten years ago, following another tragedy in the Lebanese village of Qana, the wheels of diplomacy were set in motion to obtain a ceasefire that ended the first Israeli attempt at uprooting Hezbollah. That ceasefire lasted for almost a decade during which Israel felt secure enough from Hezbollah attacks to withdraw from a strip of territory it had held in Lebanon for almost two decades.
However, as we now know, that ceasefire did not address the root cause of the problem that is the inability of the protagonists to accept each other’s existence.
Hezbollah wants Israel wiped off the map. Israel repays the compliment by seeking the elimination of Hezbollah as a military organisation. This fight is prompted by existential threats, not territorial disputes that could be sorted out through diplomacy.
Even then, many would still seek a ceasefire as a least-bad option because it might offer a respite to organise humanitarian relief.
The trouble is that those who have circulated the ceasefire idea do not appear to have thought out the problems involved. Contacts with the United Nations, the European Union, and the French government, all of whom are promoting the ceasefire idea, have failed to provide answers to the key questions posed.
The first question is: who will be the parties to the ceasefire?
The obvious answer is: Israel and Hezbollah.
Such a deal, however, would require Israel to recognise Hezbollah, which it regards as a terrorist organisation, as a substitute for the Lebanese state. After all, ceasefires are based on concrete geographical realities. The question is who controls and represents the areas in which Hezbollah would be observing a ceasefire?
One solution would be to have the ceasefire signed by the Lebanese government. But that option, too, entails major problems.
To start with the rival branches of the Lebanese government have different attitudes with regard to the current conflict.
President Emile Lahoud, speaking in a French television interview last week, made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Hezbollah, not the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, represented Lebanon in this conflict. The Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, for his part, wants to reduce the role of Hezbollah without giving the Siniora government a boost. The position of the Siniora government is even more complicated. It wants a ceasefire but is not prepared to guarantee its enforcement unless and until the Lebanese army takes control of southern Lebanon, something that Hezbollah has vowed never to allow.
There is also talk of the European Union and the United States guaranteeing a ceasefire.
That would require the EU and the US to abrogate their laws, under which Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist organisation, something easier said than done.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to have bought the idea of his generals that Hezbollah has been mortally wounded and, given another two weeks, would be ready for coup de grace.
So far, however, there is little evidence to back that analysis. Hezbollah has adopted the tactic developed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini and perfected inside Iran and later in the Iran-Iraq war. This consists of preserving the armed militants by hiding them among civilians.
Three weeks into the current fighting one can witness the success of that tactic once again. Hezbollah admits the loss of 48 fighters while the number of civilians killed is close to 800. By most estimates Hezbollah has a total of 8000 fighters. To “eliminate” them, Israel would have to kill almost a quarter of the Lebanese population.
As for Hezbollah’s losses in terms of weapons, thee could be easily and speedily replaced by Iran, as indicated by Admiral Ali Shamkhani, head of the newly created Defense Policy Board in Tehran.
There can be no meaningful ceasefire unless one question is answered: who controls territory in southern Lebanon deep enough to provide Israel with a credible glacis.
In 1986 it was exactly that question which faced Hervé de Charette, then France’s Foreign Minister who was trying to broker a ceasefire after the first massacre at Qana.
De Charette immediately realised two things.
First, there was no Lebanese government strong enough to control the south and enforce the ceasefire. Secondly, it was naive to expect Israel and Hezbollah to abandon their mutual hatred and guarantee a ceasefire. In such a situation there would always be the risk that more radical elements on either side would use the ceasefire as cover for setting new markers for future attacks.
De Charette’s solution was to bring in Iran and Syria on one side and the United States on another as guarantors of an Israel- Hezbollah ceasefire. He also involved the UN Security Council for diplomatic cover. De Charette and his Iranian counterpart at the time, Ali-Akbar Velayati, became de facto chairmen of the ministerial committee that guaranteed the ceasefire.
By all accounts that was a brilliant tactical success for diplomacy. It provided almost 10 years of calm on the frontier. Four years into that period of calm, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak, decided that time had come for evacuating the strip of land his country controlled in southern Lebanon. De Charette’s initiative showed that, given time and calm, the Lebanese could obtain what they had failed to do through years of violence.
Can history repeat itself?
Although the post-Qana outrage is a weird reminder of 10 years ago, it is too early to tell. The risk is that if history repeats itself, it would, as Marx once observed, do so as a caricature.
The world is not what it was in 1996. Both Israel and Hezbollah have more powerful weapons and have perfected their tactics for dealing with one another. Israeli military planners are adamant that they can do away with Hezbollah once and for all. Hezbollah leaders for their part are equally adamant that, by simply not losing, they could win this round against Israel, thanks to international support, especially from Europe and the global anti-war movement.
Syria is bitter towards the West and in no mood to revive the late President Hafez al-Assad’s policy of keeping Washington sweet under all circumstances.
More importantly, perhaps, Iran appears to be in no mood for diplomatic finessing of issues. Its new leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is convinced that the West is in retreat and that, once George W Bush is no longer in the White House, the Americans will run away, leaving the Islamic Republic and its allies to reshape the Middle East.
If a ceasefire emerges this time, it is likely to be a temporary stalemate in the bigger struggle to set the agenda for the region, not a prelude to a decade of tense calm on a remote border between two tiny states.