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Mideast: Many Questions, Few Answers

Smoke billows in the town of Khiam, in southern Lebanon, July 20, 2006. Israeli jets raided a detention center in the town of Khiam in south Lebanon Thursday, witnesses and local TV said. The notorious Khiam prison, formerly run by Israel's Lebanese militia allies during its occupation of south Lebanon, was entirely destroyed in four bombing runs by Israeli jets, they said. (AP Photo/Lotfallah Daher)
AP Photo/Lotfallah Daher
CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News. He now covers the State Department.

John Bolton, the Bush administration's ambassador to the United Nations, hit the nail on the head: "I want someone to address the problem (of) how you get a cease-fire with a terrorist organization." That is only the first of many questions on the agenda of the international community as diplomats try to bring peace out of war in Lebanon and Israel. No one has a ready answer.

Everyone wants to see the hostilities end, but some would be satisfied with just a cease-fire. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Security Council, "I repeat, hostilities must end." Not so fast, says the Bush administration.

All week, spokesmen have said they do not want to see a situation which is just frozen in place, where Hezbollah could resume its activities in three months or six months. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used other language when asked about a cease-fire. "We all agree that it should happen as soon as possible, when conditions are conducive to do so," Rice said. For Washington and Jerusalem, "when conditions are conducive" seems to translate into "at such time as Hezbollah's ability to resume rocket attacks on Israel is greatly reduced or eliminated."

In the meantime, the Bush administration refuses to seriously press its ally to halt its bombing and shelling in Lebanon, since Hezbollah still has the ability to inflict serious damage on Israel.

Rice is expected to go to the Middle East soon, although it is unclear just how much leverage she has. She will go to Israel and perhaps even to friendly Arab states like Egypt and Jordan. But don't look for the kind of serious shuttle diplomacy that several of her predecessors (Kissinger, Christopher) once engaged in. Why not? Because the Bush administration refuses to talk directly with either Syria or Iran, the only governments believed to have leverage over Hezbollah.

In the past Damascus was always an address American diplomats could call on to ask the Syrians to use their leverage, but that is no longer the case. And talking to leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas — which continues to battle Israelis in Gaza — is out of the question as well, because the United States, by law, does not negotiate with groups it has labeled terrorist organizations.

Lebanon, from whose territory Hezbollah operates, is too weak to stop Hezbollah. In short, there is nowhere that Rice and the Israelis can go to directly deal with Hezbollah. While Rice probably would like to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Sinoira, it is not at all clear she can do so on her upcoming trip because of the ongoing security situation.

Martin Indyk, a former assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and a former ambassador to Israel, cautions against Rice traveling to the region now. "She shouldn't go until she has a way of getting Hezbollah to stop (its shelling) ... She can get Israel to stop but the problem is Hezbollah," Indyk says. If she does go to the region, he says, and "if she leaves the region and rockets keep falling, her mission is a failure."

How the international community brings about long-lasting calm in Southern Lebanon prompts other questions. Does the U.N. beef up its existing UNIFIL mission? Should a new, armed mission of international troops be inserted into the area to keep the peace? Who would provide those troops and how fast could they get there? Even if such a force is inserted and keeps a wide buffer zone, what is to prevent Hezbollah from launching its long range rockets over the territory and into Northern Israel?

And there are more questions. What can be done with Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza, a force Israel also has to deal with militarily but, like the United States, refuses to deal with politically.

Israel claims that it is fighting Hezbollah as part of the global war on terrorism, and that's the main reason the Bush administration supports its continued effort. If Hezbollah's military capability is degraded sufficiently, it is not only less of a threat to Israel, but also to the rest of the international community — and that would not make anyone in Washington unhappy.

Washington's hope is that others who deal with Damascus and Tehran will use their influence to get those governments to use their leverage to force Hezbollah to stop. Until that happens, Israel can be expected to maintain its military operations to reduce Hezbollah's military capabilities. Civilians on both sides will continue to pay the price so long as diplomats and political leaders are debating answers to the questions of how to make peace between a recognized international state and a terrorist organization.

In Martin Indyk's phrase, the Bush administration is "caught between our need for stability and our heart for democracy."

By Charles Wolfson