Middle East


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After nine days, the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah still holds, though after fresh incidents today, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described the situation as explosive. During the war politics was muted on both sides of the border. But as soon as the fighting stopped a week ago Monday, disputes, protests and political maneuvers erupted.

Israelis, including some military reservists, demanded to know how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his top commanders had bungled the conflict. Many Lebanese wondered about the effectiveness of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, while Hezbollah guerillas tried to defuse criticism for starting the conflict by handing out cash.

We begin today with a look at the political fallout of the war in Lebanon and in Israel. Later, an extended Political Junkie segment with Ken Rudin and incumbent governor defeated in the Republican primary yesterday in Alaska. We'll talk with the forgotten candidate in Connecticut, and leave more room for you. So if you have questions about yesterday's results, upcoming primaries, or the fall election, send us an email now. The address is talk@npr.org.

But we begin with politics in Israel and in Lebanon. If you have questions about how this conflict has changed the relative strength of leaders and factions on both sides, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. That e-mail address works for your questions too, talk@npr.org.

We begin in Jerusalem, where New York Times bureau chief Steven Erlanger joins us.

Nice to have you back on the program, Steve.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, The New York Times): Hey, Neal.

CONAN: Criticism of Ehud Olmert has been little short of scathing in Israel. What are the chief complaints?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that he wasn't up to the job. That he was indecisive. That he couldn't decide whether to go to war or to seek a diplomatic solution, and he kept saying that one was a pairing to the other. But he stated big goals for this operation and then kept ratcheting them down. So there's essentially two criticisms, one for many people is he didn't let the army win. But the second one is that he went to war too soon and kept it going too long, when he probably could've had a similar diplomatic deal within 72 hours.

CONAN: It's interesting. Just about a month ago, I think, you wrote a piece which said that the capture by Hezbollah of the two Israeli soldiers and the incidents that led up to the conflict in Lebanon, that it almost came as a godsend to a prime minister who was floundering in Gaza. Now he seems to be, at least the criticism is he's floundering and--still floundering in Gaza, and had the same problem in Lebanon.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's true. I mean, basically the Gaza operation wasn't getting done what he wanted which was to free another soldier who had been taken in another cross border raid on June 25, and he was getting a lot of criticism from the rest of the world about disproportionate use of force in Gaza which of course has a very intimate relationship with the Israelis who until last summer had physically occupied it. But the Lebanon operation -because Hezbollah raided across an international border there was an immediate surge of support, and Israel seemed to have a very high moral ground. It was responding to aggression. It wasn't trying to clear up problems in it's own backyard. So that worked fine and support stayed very strong but no one really expected a 34 to 35 day war. And he's not done a very good job, he and his government, in explaining why the resolution is not such a bad deal for Israel. In fact I don't think it's such a bad deal for Israel as he's been very inarticulate about explaining why that is.

CONAN: Um-hum and there seems to be widespread believe in Israel that this is more of a breathing pause rather than a real seize fire.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, people feel that way a lot of that actually depends on whether the international community follows through on it's promises and gets troops into Southern Lebanon. Until that happens, Israeli troops will not withdraw from positions in Southern Lebanon. And as long as they're there, they are likely to be targets for Hezbollah.

My own assumption right now is that Hezbollah actually wants the cease-fire, wants to keep it. It doesn't want to go through this again. I don't think people of Lebanon want to go through this right now. And I believe, you know, the cease-fire, though shaky, may very well hold. After all, nearly 10 Hezbollah fighters have been killed by Israel since the cease-fire was announced, and Hezbollah has not resumed rocketing.

CONAN: Well, today the Syrians said that if international forces were deployed along their border in Lebanon, they would seal that border off, which would have tremendous economic implications for Lebanon.

Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Joining us from Beirut is -well, we'll bring that voice in as soon as we have that other voice. I apologize for that. He's not on the line yet from Jerusalem.

But, Steve, is from Beirut. But, Steve Erlanger in Jerusalem, as you look at this - the difficulties in enlisting foreign forces and the time it's evidently going to take - I don't think the meeting to again try to assemble an international force is now scheduled to take place before Friday.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's right. And, you know, the Israelis are very skeptical about it. They didn't want an international force of this kind to begin with. They wanted a more robust new force, if there was going to be any force at all. The idea of a force, you know, after all, came from Tony Blair and Kofi Annan to begin with.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ERLANGER: So they're hoping that this will work, and will help restrain Hezbollah and keep it on its side of the border. I don't think too many people in Israel expect Hezbollah to be disarmed, but certainly with the Lebanese army coming down south for the first time in perhaps 20 years, and joined by at least some foreign forces, even 10,000 would be great. It'll be very, very difficult for Hezbollah to move with the same freedom of action in its kingdom of southern Lebanon as it did before. I mean, its ability to move will be curtailed simply by the presence of all these other people.

CONAN: What is going on inside the Israeli military, including criticism that its operations, its tactics were all wrong in this conflict?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, this is really interesting because I think what happens is that the Israeli military - military people like to imagine themselves theoreticians. And they have this theory that, you know, old tired land wars are passé, and thus, you know, war is now done through surgical strikes and precision weaponry and I believe they let the reserve system and the armored system decline. They didn't spend the money on it and they didn't train people well enough and this is a big criticism.

And there is also a sense that the use of the army in the Palestinian territories where the fighting is very different it's more of a police action and police action and you're in cities - had with it completely different kind of training. And up against Hezbollah - which was trained by the Iranian army and which was very well fortified - it took the Israeli army quite a long time to adjust to the new kind of warfare. And because the government, you know, was half-hearted about letting an expanded offensive take place, there's just the feeling in Israel that, you know, there's something unfinished and, you know, maybe the next round is in five years, but people don't believe Hezbollah is going to go away or that the world is going to disarm them.

CONAN: And they have to be concerned that in fact Israel's ability to deter attack - that enormous military stick which it's held over its neighbors for so long - that that's been eroded considerably.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, they are concerned about it. It's a two-edged thing. On the one hand, they fought Hezbollah pretty well within their limits. And the air force performed extraordinarily well - not against short-range Katyushas, but it never said that it could do that. I think if you're Bashar al-Assad in Damascus you would be worried about the Israeli air force bombing your capital. After all, states have more assets than, you know, many states within other states like Hezbollah. I mean Hezbollah doesn't have a capital, it has very few buildings. It doesn't have responsibility for the rest of Lebanon. So its assets are kind of harder to bomb.

So that's the Syria thing, but a lot of people in Israel are looking toward Iran. And they do feel that Hezbollah had become very Iranized, that it was Iran's western front. And that all of this investment that Iran had put into southern Lebanon for Hezbollah was designed to be Iran's second front for the day that the West confronted Iran on its - on nuclear issues.

And Iran has argued at least - and it's not a bad argument - not too happy with the way all that investment got used for two Israeli soldiers. That's not why they spent all that money.

CONAN: Well, let's bring that other voice into the conversation now. And joining us on the line from Beirut is Jamil Mroue - editor-in-chief of the English language Lebanese newspaper, the Daily Star. Good of you to take the time to be with us today.

Mr. JAMIL MROUE (Editor In Chief, The Daily Star, Lebanon): Welcome.

CONAN: And while this in-fighting has been going on in Israel, in Lebanon, Hezbollah has been moving quickly to preempt the government in the south of the country in terms of reconstruction.

Mr. MROUE: Preempt is not the word, really. The Hezbollah had promised its constituency that it will deliver on this, and that it's part of cushioning the effect of - of the after-effects of the war. The government moves very slowly. We have really a nascent government that's six months old, as state before that for 15 years. We were under Syrian tutorage with American approval of that. So they did this in order to anticipate the political backlash that might ensue after the war.

CONAN: And this is Iranian money, people assume?

Mr. MROUE: Yes, of course.

CONAN: And they're distributing this - as you said the government is looking quite sluggish. At the same time committees are being formed, discussions are being held, very little is being done.

Mr. MROUE: Yes. They're trying. It's very difficult for a government to move when it's really - the states have been independent for just six, seven months. Yes, it is true that the Syrians have left in - last April 2005, but still we have a year of trouble. It's only from the beginning of the year, but you can really count the government as in the (unintelligible). So yes, it is cumbersome for them, and it is very difficult to move very quickly.

CONAN: We're talking today about the political fallout of the war between Israel and Hezbollah on both sides of the border. And when we come back, we'll take your calls as well - 800-989-8255. If you have questions - 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And from now until election day, we're going to expand our regular Wednesday: Political Junkie segment to leave more time for your calls and e-mails on those points too. So if you have questions about yesterday's primaries, give us a call 800-989-8255. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The U.N. cease-fire last week ended the heavy fighting in Lebanon and the rocketing of Israel. Then political battles began to erupt immediately on both sides of the border. Israeli leaders face criticism from within of their conduct of the war in Lebanon. Many question the effectiveness of the government especially in light of Hezbollah's influence in the southern part of the country.

Our guest is Steven Erlanger - Jerusalem Bureau chief of The New York Times, and Jamil Mroue - editor-in-chief of the Daily Star, the English language newspaper in Beirut. Of course you're invited to join us 800-989-8255 800-989-TALK, our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And Jamil Mroue, let me return to you for a moment. After this conflict has Prime Minister Siniora emerged in better light or are people questioning his abilities?

Mr. ERLANGER: They are questioning the ability of the government. But he has emerged as his own man from the shadow of his friend and mentor, the slain ex-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Certainly his performance has shown that he is now his own man and stands tall, really, with an achievement that is very sizeable in terms of the negotiations that he conducted and the maneuvering that he did to accommodate the local demands as well as the international levels, or various levels, European, American and others.

CONAN: But if he has international respect, clearly the hero on the streets at least for many Lebanese is Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.

Mr. MROUE: Yes, there are heroes and there are supporting actors. He is certainly very high and close to the hero diplomatically in the sense of being the major or the primary supporting actor in this. And his status is no less diminished. It's a different field that they are planning at this stage and Siniora has certainly proven himself to be his own man in his capital.

CONAN: Steve Erlinger, let me ask you, how do people in Israel view the political situation in Lebanon? Surely their goal was not to bring down the government there?

Mr. ERLINGER: No, and they thought things were going very well until they managed to bomb Kana which, I think, changed a lot of the mood, not just in Lebanon but around the Arab world. Israel sees itself with the chance of making a peace with Lebanon but it can only make a peace with a Lebanese government that has authority over its own territory and so one of the better results of this war, at least from the Israeli point of view is, with international help, the Lebanese army will extend its authority to the south. And Israel will then have a government to talk to and not just sort-of a mini-state that doesn't take the responsibilities of a government, like Hezbollah. I mean, we'll see if that works. They're very eager that Mr. Siniora succeed and they're very eager that the West help Mr. Siniora help the Lebanese people recover from this war. I mean, that may seem ironic but that's simply the way they feel.

CONAN: And let me ask you, Jamil Mroue, as people in Beirut look south to Israel and see the criticism leveled against Prime Minister Olmert, how do they view politics in Israel at this point? His is a new government, too.

Mr. MROUE: Well, I don't agree our politics and their politics are as toxic and as venomous as politics can get and the Lebanese understand very well what is going on over there. When a failure - when the cow is down, the butchers with the knives are out. And that would have been the case here in Lebanon if the situation were reversed.

They don't see, however, what Steve has mentioned as the helpful wishes of the Israelis vis-à-vis the Lebanese government because if that was the case, they would have helped Siniora well before this war six, seven months ago when he asked Condoleezza Rice and President Bush for them to tackle Shebaa Farms and the response of the Israelis at the time was well, what's in it for us? And they just dropped it.

We don't see them helping at all, Lebanon, because of this constant bombardment of the infrastructure. What does it have to do with Hezbollah? There are many ways of defeating Hezbollah or challenging Hezbollah on its own turf politically but not in the manner that the Israelis conducted the war. That was criminal.

CONAN: And let me ask Steve Erlinger about the Shebaa Farms situation. That's an area that the U.N. regards as part of Syria and Lebanon regards as part of Lebanon, or at least some in Lebanon regard as part of Lebanon. It's occupied by Israel and it's still a point of contention. Is that on the table here?

Mr. ERLINGER: Well, Israel doesn't want it to be on the table. It is, as Jamil knows, very complicated in the sense that it was considered part of the Golan Heights on a French map, a part of Syria, even though the people in it really have their hearts in Lebanon. And because the U.N. verified the border it's considered part of the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed.

Syria, which doesn't really like recognizing the existence of Lebanon since it used to be a colony, says the Shebaa Farms is Lebanese but has never actually done any formal effort to hand it over. So to some degree Shebaa Farms has been a great pretext for Hezbollah and one that Israel has done nothing to solve, which Jamil said quite rightly. I think partly people in Israel fear that if they solve Shebaa Farms, Hezbollah will find some other reason. There are these famous seven villages in the north of Israel that were also Lebanese that were taken over and mostly destroyed in 1948. They fear that Hezbollah will use those as a pretext, but that Hezbollah will always find some pretext not to recognize the border as the U.N. has drawn it.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners on the line, and this is Chuck. Chuck calling us from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi.


CHUCK: I'm wondering what your guests think how Mr. Siniora has emerged from this situation? Because on the one hand, it seems like the deal that was reached is based on strengthening the Lebanese state. But on the other hand, Hezbollah seems to have emerged as the winner in the eyes of many in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. So I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about Mr. Siniora's influence as a result of what happened.

CONAN: Jamil Mroue?

Mr. MROUE: Well as I mentioned earlier, he has emerged as a competent, diplomatic maneuverer. As a competent organizer of a diplomatic and political drive. He certainly was able to, if you like, jump on the stage. Not upstage Hezbollah, of course, but with the surge of Hezbollah caused by the really weird way that the Israelis have dealt with this issue one would have thought that Siniora had no chance. Yet he is there, as I said earlier, as a major player in this drama and he is looked at as a major supporting actor on the Lebanese scene. And so yes, he has emerged as an individual. But the situation has not helped the institutional government. The institutional government needs to be looked into now, reexamined, reformulated, reorganized, redirected. That situation has just started, or that case has just started. But Siniora has emerged from the shadow of Rafiq al-Hariri, his erstwhile friend and mentor into his own man and he is definitely respected and thought of as full fledged prime minister.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks for the call.

CHUCK: Do you see a role for Hezbollah in the new state?

CONAN: Hezbollah has a role in the new state. It's got two cabinet members, at least at the moment as I understand.

CHUCK: A much stronger role?

CONAN: Oh, I see. I didn't hear you, Chuck. Jamil Mroue, what do you think? Is Hezbollah going to get a stronger role?

Mr. MROUE: The Lebanese system is a very unusual system. It is fluid within rigidity. If Hezbollah demands a larger chunk it will be upsetting the apple cart. In upsetting the apple cart, it will be sort of cutting its nose to spite its face. It cannot do that.

CONAN: Let me just explain. There's only a set number of seats for Shiites and if Hezbollah was to take more that would mean fewer for Nabih Berri and his party.

Mr. MROUE: That is within the Shiite. That is fine. But they cannot be stronger by demanding a reduction in the Druze seats or the Orthodox seats or the Maronite Christian seats. They cannot do that. And if they start doing that, as I said, they would be shooting themselves in the foot politically and more than politically, really, because they will get all the countries groups against them.

This is not on the agenda. Hezbollah will not demand more. But the fact that Hezbollah grew and got to the power it did under the Israeli noses, under the Israeli occupation from 1985-2000, the fact that it was able to manage what it managed and because of armament preparation and so on and conduct the military - itself militarily in the manor that it did, bloodying Israel's nose, has brought to Hezbollah a character of professionalism, a level of professionalism which is new to the Lebanese system.

This is the part that - it is not the fact that they are Shia, it is the fact that they are highly professional that is going challenge the nation's Lebanese government and the lackadaisical way that the Lebanese (unintelligible) politics.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much.

CHUCK: Thank you.

CONAN: And one last call. This is another caller from San Francisco. This is Roger.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

ROGER: I think one of the biggest hits in this conflict has been the air forces, and not only the air force of Israel but the air force of the United States. We supplied them the best munitions in our inventory. Relying on air force to take out hardened targets, ground targets, is extremely difficult. The one way to do that is by ground forces.

What I'm concerned about now, and I'm hearing it on a lot of talk radio, even so-called moderate or liberal talk radio, is a preemptive attack in Iran using air force - our Air Force or the Israeli air force - to accomplish that mission. This is a grave mistake. And I can't emphasize how much I feel that if we do such a thing, we're just going to enlarge the whole Middle East conflict.

CONAN: Well, certainly an attack on Iran would be an expansion of the Middle East conflict by definition, Roger. But, Steven Erlanger, you were talking earlier and saying the fault of the Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon were not so much in terms of the hardware or the execution of the Israeli air force but really military doctrine and their decision to go in using air as opposed to ground forces, and the fact that they hadn't trained ground force properly.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's right. I mean, you know, they had planned at least -or they made it up as they went along - but the army had a plan for about two weeks of air attacks followed by a ground attack that would take at least seven days to get up to the Litani.

Now that was, you know, army planning, and the plans never quite work. And Hezbollah fought very, very well, and they were very well equipped and they had very modern weapons and they had very good bunker systems and very sophisticated equipment, and they didn't run away. And they acquitted themselves very, very well.

So, you know, I mean it's - there was a real fight. I think if Israel had wanted to go push ahead at great cost to itself, let alone to the poor Lebanese people, it could've done that. But I think even Israel is better off with a cease-fire that holds than with another 300 Israeli dead and another thousand Lebanese dead. I don't think it would've accomplished very much.

CONAN: Steven Erlanger, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thanks.

CONAN: Steve Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. Our thanks as well to Jamil Mroue, editor-in-chief of the English language newspaper The Daily Star. Thanks. Appreciate your time today. And he joined us on the line...

Mr. MROUE: Thank you...

CONAN: …from Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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