Escalating Mideast Tensions Dim Hopes for Peace
LYNN NEARY, host:
But first we turn to the fighting in the Middle East. The crisis in the Middle East deepened today. Israel, responding to the capture of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah guerillas, launched a wave of military strikes against Lebanon, including Beirut's International Airport. Hezbollah guerillas continue to bomb Israeli cities and rising tensions are beginning to strangle hopes for peace.
Joining me to talk about this dangerous escalation is Robert Malley. He is the director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group. And he joins us by phone from Connecticut. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): Thanks for having me.
NEARY: So these pictures we're seeing from Lebanon, frightening and familiar. What is this escalation? Is it likely to become a larger conflict?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, as you say, frightening and familiar both, with the risk as every new day goes by and a new threshold is crossed, today with the Lebanese or Hezbollah rockets hitting the city of Haifa and with Israel attacking targets within Lebanon, the risk exists that it's going to escalate both in intensity and perhaps in scope if, for example, Syria were to become the next target and if it were to retaliate.
NEARY: Mm-hmm. And the action against Lebanon comes as Israeli forces are fighting Hamas militants in Gaza.
Mr. MALLEY: Exactly. And this is really a nightmare for Israel, a two-front conflict. Even though both have their own dynamics, their own local logic, obviously from Israel's perspective their seen as one, and - or lived that way by Israelis. And it's, for them, exactly what they wanted to avoid.
NEARY: Of all those people - the sides in this conflict, Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah - who is most likely, or has the opportunity, to start to step back from the crisis? Who has the political will to do so?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, you know, everyone would say they're prepared to step back, but on their terms. Right now what's happening is each side - and this is really what this conflict is about - each side, Hamas and Israel and Hezbollah, is trying to set rules of the game which haven't existed now for some years. There's been a diplomatic vacuum, a political vacuum. So each side is trying to establish its deterrence and it - and wants to have a seat at the table.
They're not going to step back unless they feel that they have made that point. The only way that this will stop at this point is either if it gets really out of control or if a third party steps in and proposes some kind of diplomatic package deal. Unfortunately, the United States doesn't seem to be in a position to do that.
NEARY: Why not?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, they have basically taken themselves out of the game by not talking to all of those who are on the other side of the equation: Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. We don't have any dealings with them and therefore we can't propose anything that will resolve this diplomatically.
NEARY: What about other players in the Mideast - Iran, Syria? How are they playing into this situation?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, it's unclear to what extent they're behind this, but certainly Hamas and Hezbollah don't have too many friends. And among those friends are Iran and Syria. So to some extent, they certainly are involved if only because of the help and assistance they give to those two movements. And they also find themselves in this position where they've been under a lot of pressure from the United States and others in the West, and this for them is a way to remind the world that they can't simply be treated as pariahs and as targets of pressure. They also have to be taken seriously, because they have means of hurting others.
NEARY: Well, is there any third party that can step in and deescalate this situation?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, look at the case of Gaza. There were third parties: Egypt had played a mediating role, or was playing a mediating role. Turkey was trying to play a mediating role. Others were as well. It doesn't exactly have the same weight as the United States, but if Israel wants to deal, if Hamas wants to deal, if Hezbollah wants to deal, they'll probably take whatever mediation they can get.
As I said, at this point, even though they want a deal, they don't want it so badly that they're prepared to take a step back right now. They want to show that they're prepared not only to inflict pain, but also to absorb pain and to set these new rules of conduct - that they want to be on better terms for themselves.
NEARY: Kofi Annan is sending three veteran U.N. officials to try to diffuse the situation. What can they do?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, if they can actually start some kind of indirect dialogue between Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas on the terms of a deal - and it may not be a package a deal, that you may have to have one between Hamas and Israel, one between Hezbollah and Israel. Then again, at some point, they could be effective. What I question is whether we've gotten to that point, because Israel, I think, feels like it needs to show that it is not going to give in to blackmail, and Hezbollah and Hamas want to show that they're not going to give in to a military assault. So we're in a situation where diplomacy is going to have to play a key role, but it may have to wait.
NEARY: And what about the role of Lebanon in this? Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, but, I mean, what - and Israel is saying that they're holding the Lebanese government responsible for Hezbollah. Does that government have the power to have any control over Hezbollah?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, you know, it's basically the equivalent of holding a bystander responsible. I mean, that may sound odd, given that Lebanon is a sovereign government, but it does not have the capacity or the political or military will to bring Hezbollah under control. They obviously had nothing to do and no knowledge of this action, and attacking them truly is beside the point for now. Hezbollah is the one that was behind this, and the Lebanese government is simply watching.
NEARY: Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.
NEARY: Robert Malley is director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group. He joined us by phone from his vacation in Connecticut. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.
NEARY: I'm afraid, are you still there Mr. Malley? Mr. Malley, are you still there?
Mr. MALLEY: Yeah, I'm here.
NEARY: If you could stay with us for a moment, we were about to go to another guest, the Prime Minister of East Timor, but I think we are having trouble getting him on the line. Could you stay with us for just a moment more?
Mr. MALLEY: Sure.
NEARY: Thanks so much. I did have one thought at the end of our conversation, unfortunately, which was that I felt, you know - to myself I was thinking, he's painting a pretty bleak picture here. You're not sounding very pessimistic - I mean very optimistic, about...
Mr. MALLEY: No, and the reason I'm not optimistic is I think at this point it doesn't really have to do with the tactics of releasing the soldier, which, you know, you could think of a deal that would achieve that. You could think of a prisoner swap, you could think of other things. Right now, what this is about is each side jostling for position, and each side trying to show that there's no blow hard enough that they can't withstand it, and there's always a harder blow that they can inflict.
And when you're in that dynamic, there's no logical stopping point until and unless the bloodshed becomes so great and the thresholds that have been crossed become so dangerous that somebody steps in and the parties are prepared to take the package deal.
We may have been - some people are saying that we were close to a deal on the Hamas-Israel front a few days ago. But when you add in the Lebanese variable to the equation, it just becomes that much more difficult.
NEARY: We're talking with Robert Malley. He's the director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Program. We're talking with him about the situation in the Middle East, the escalating tension between Israel and Lebanon. If you have a question for him, you can give us a call at 800-989-8255, or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just returning again, Mr. Malley, to the U.S. role. You were saying that they're really not in a position to influence this situation. On the other hand, who can influence Israel more than the U.S.?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, yes. I think if a third party came in and was prepared and was able to mediate with Hezbollah and Hamas, some kind of U.S. involvement at that point to weigh in or to give assurances to Israel may be perfectly logical and needed. But the kind of mediating role that the United States has played in the past - in a pretty analogous situation, if you go back to the mid-90s, when Hezbollah and Israel were fighting each other, and Secretary Christopher at the time came in and negotiated a deal through intermediaries that involved Hezbollah and Israel.
That kind of diplomacy is no longer possible, at least given the outlook of this administration, which believes that engagement with rogue actors - as they define it - is worse than ostracizing, isolating, and marginalizing them. But it does mean that at a time like this, the most the U.S. can do is resort to rhetorical diplomacy, which is to call for a release of the soldiers and to call for restraint.
NEARY: Now, this is occurring as this - Western leaders are gathering for the G-8 Summit. The U.S. will be there with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They have been talking about pressuring Iran on Iran's nuclear program. That was sort of expected to be talked about to some degree there. What about the diplomacy going on there with regards to pressure western nations could put on Iran, for instance, which might have some influence on this situation?
Mr. MALLEY: That might - you know, one could imagine that. I think we still need to think that these decisions - even though Iran and Syria, as I said, probably played some role in encouraging and in giving support to these movements - these decisions are made on the ground. The operations are decided at the operational level. Certainly if Iran put its pressure on Hezbollah to act in a certain way, it would have an impact, but I don't think that that's what the focus of the G-8 is going to be on. It's going to be on the nuclear file.
Now, one could imagine that for Iran, this is a way to tell the world that if things got much nastier in the relations between Iran and the West, it has allies as well that could inflict damage and could inflict pain on Israel and others. So in some ways, the two are connected, even though I don't think that Iran directly ordered this at an operational level.
NEARY: We're talking with Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Program. We're discussing the crisis in the Middle East -the escalating tension going on between Lebanon and Israel today. And if you'd like to join the discussion, you can give us a call at 1-800-989-8255.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We're going to take a call now from Fidel in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Fidel, go ahead. Are you there?
FIDEL (Caller): Yes.
NEARY: Go ahead.
FIDEL: Yes, I was wondering. When, as Americans, are we going to stand up and hold both sides of the country - you know, Israel and Lebanon and Syria and all these other countries that surround Israel including Israel - when are we going to stand up and hold all of them accountable for all the wrongdoings that they do for each other there? Or to each other, I should say.
NEARY: Mr. Malley? Thanks so much for your call, Fidel.
Mr. MALLEY: Well, holding them accountable, I'm not sure in what way, but I think the caller has a point in the sense that what's happening there obviously affects U.S. interests. It affects Western interests. It affects international interests. And at some point, there needs to be a push, but now probably is not the time.
To find some kind of comprehensive resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been going on for far too long, we're going in the wrong direction, absolutely. Not only in terms of the situation on the ground, but in terms of U.S. involvement, which for the past few years, has really taken a pass on trying to resolve the conflict. But the caller is right. This has a real price for everyone.
NEARY: Mm hmm.
Mr. MALLEY: And its time that some solution is found.
NEARY: Let's go to Judith in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Judith.
JUDITH (Caller): Hi. How are you?
NEARY: Good, thanks.
JUDITH: I was wondering if the guest would say something about what he might perceives as the role of the media. A while ago you asked him, you said it seemed very, sort of depressing and negative, and that struck me as being that both sides are also being very egotistical about it and not thinking terribly much about the people. You know, the common people.
And, maybe in the big picture, there's some concept that they are, in trying to gain the advantage to their side. But as the conflict goes on and on and on and on and on, I'm wondering how that - and your guest mentioned how, you know, at this point, neither one of them - one's wanting to show that it can keep taking the blow, and the other one says that they can, you know, deal as much back, or more. And I'm wondering, you know, who can change that and how can we change that perception that the two sides are having - and if the media can do something in that.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Judith.
JUDITH: Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. MALLEY: Well, the first point is that - it's accurate that the civilians today, Palestinian civilians, many of whom have been killed in the last week or so, Lebanese civilians, Israeli civilians - they're the currency that these, that are being used, that's being used to pay for this conflict. And that is really a tragedy. And both sides - as I said, or all three sides, are saying you can hit our civilians, but we can hit yours, too.
The role of the media, well, I think, you know, it's hard to say. In each of these places, the media needs to insist, of course, on the cost of this conflict and of what needs to be done to bring it to an end. But the calculation of the political leaders right now transcends anything that the media or public opinion can do. They, again, are determined not to have their deterrent capacity eroded. And they're determined to show the other side, whether its Hamas and Hezbollah or Israel. They don't fear the retaliation of the other.
NEARY: What about Olmert? What does this do for him politically? And a fairly new leader, is he equipped for this?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, I mean, part of what's happening, of course, is that you have Olmert as Prime Minister and Amir Peretz as the Defense Minister, both of them new at their positions. And both of whom don't want to appear in this first crisis as being weak, and that obviously adds to the pressures to mount a bold and aggressive military retaliation, which is what we're seeing first in Gaza and now in Lebanon. Obviously not the way they wanted to begin their term in office, but they have to prove now not only that they have the military skills, but they're going to have to show that they have the diplomatic wisdom and political wisdom to get the situation back under control.
NEARY: And the other question is, in Lebanon, how much support is there for Hezbollah among the public in Lebanon?
Mr. MALLEY: Well, it's a tough question. I mean, Hezbollah has a kind of mythical status which transcends to some degree sectarian lines: although, that seems to have been changing a bit over the last few years. But it does have a mythical status as the one organization that has managed to expel Israel from Arab territory. And to that extent, it enjoys more than Shiite support.
Part of what's happened over the last few years is that it's been identified more and more as a Shiite movement and less and less as a Lebanese national resistance movement, particularly since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in the year 2000. And some analysts believe that what, part of what this is about is Hezbollah trying to recapture that mantle of an Arab movement that in fact is asking for the release of Sunni Palestinian prisoners or Arab prisoners in Israeli jails - not just Shiite Lebanese prisoners. And to that extent, it helps their image.
But I suspect that also some in Lebanon today are wondering why they're paying the price when Israel is no longer occupying their land, and when they aspire, obviously, to a different kind of existence. But the more this becomes - the more Israel attacks Lebanese infrastructure and Lebanese targets, the more the Lebanese people are going to rally behind a Lebanese cause against Israel.
NEARY: All right. Well, thank you so much for being with us today, Mr. Malley.
Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.
NEARY: And for staying with us.
Robert Malley is director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Program. We had been hoping to have Jose Ramos Horta, the Prime Minister of East Timor, on today. We had trouble with that connection. We're going to hope we can do that program for you next week.
I'm Lynn Neary. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.