Arabs want unconditional ceasefire; Khatib in Rome

THE ARAB WORLD wants an immediate Mideast ceasefire without conditions but Israel won’t stop its bloody offensive until its captured soldiers are released and a defanged Hizbollah is pushed back from its northern border.

Among the possible solutions to be discussed at a meeting of key Mideast players in Rome on Wednesday is letting Arab leaders figure out what to do about Hizbollah’s weapons and assembling a strong international peacekeeping force along Israel’s border.

The meeting will have some common ground. Most of the participants — which include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, the European Union, Russia and others — agree on the need for a ceasefire and a beefed up multinational force on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib left yesterday for Rome to take part in the event, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

“There will be a clear Arab stance in Rome demanding an immediate ceasefire and strengthening the Lebanese government to allow it to assert its authority on all Lebanese territory,” Khatib said.

“We want an effective international presence that is capable of stopping the shelling and the war launched against Lebanon.”

Most also agree that something needs to be done about Hizbollah’s armed “state within a state” in south Lebanon, which it has used during the current crisis to launch nearly 1,300 rockets at Israel.

But Hizbollah, the Lebanese government and moderate Arab countries have said discussion of the above issues can only come after a ceasefire, not before — a position rejected by Israel and the United States.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that all the pieces of a ceasefire package must be implemented at the same time to avoid the same fate as other failed Mideast peace plans that relied on the “sequential approach.”

King Abdullah telephoned Annan yesterday and discussed the crisis, urging more UN efforts to end the fighting, Petra said.

The international effort to broker a ceasefire will not succeed unless Israel feels it has achieved its main goals: To remove the threat of future Hizbollah attacks and to secure the freedom of two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture by Hizbollah fighters precipitated the current crisis.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s calls for an “enduring” and “sustainable” peace during her visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday reflected the Bush administration’s support for Israel’s aims.

It’s more than just a matter of pride. Israel fears that any perceived weakness in its current fight against Hizbollah will be a boost to all Islamic fighters out to destroy it and to their main patron, the potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

“From the Israeli point of view to reach a ceasefire right now without reaching some or most of its strategic goals is not just counterproductive but dangerous,” said Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor.

Because of the near impossibility of beginning a negotiating process with either Hizbollah or its main supporter Iran — and considering the weakness of the pro-Western Lebanese government — Ganor argues that the right address for negotiations is Syria, which like Iran supports, arms and funds Hizbollah.

Arab diplomats reported some progress on that front over the weekend, saying both Egypt and Saudi Arabia — Mideast heavyweights which are struggling to combat the growing influence of Islamic fighters at home — were working to entice Syria to end its support for Hizbollah.

However, the Bush administration has made it a policy not to speak with regimes it doesn’t like, so it’s hard to see how diplomacy with Syria could end the fighting, which so far has killed 422 people in Lebanon and 43 in Israel.

During Rice’s visit to Beirut on Sunday, Lebanese politicians reportedly proposed to her that the country’s factions sit down together after a ceasefire to figure out how to implement the 1989 Taif Accord, which calls for extending the central government’s sovereignty throughout Lebanon, with a single army.

Having Arab leaders take charge of efforts to disarm Hizbollah is likely to be one of the options discussed in Rome on Wednesday, as is the creation of an international “stabilisation” force that could help the Lebanese army take control of areas vacated by Hizbollah.

Assembling such a force is likely to prove difficult.

Israel says it prefers a NATO-led coalition, but the alliance’s member states are already stretched in missions elsewhere. And the traumatic history of peacekeeping in Lebanon — often ending in bloody quagmires — works against nations committing themselves to another try.

The complexity of the required negotiations make a quick resolution of the crisis “almost unimaginable,” said Aaron David Miller, a former US Mideast negotiator who is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre.

However, Miller suggested that Rice use her influence with Israel to win a promise from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to halt fire as soon as Washington decides that basic conditions have been met, such as a Hizbollah-free buffer zone in south Lebanon, an international force and “maybe some sort of prisoner deal way out in the future.”

“She can use that leverage with the Arabs to get them to lean on the Syrians. She can use that leverage with the Europeans to get them to commit forces,” Miller said.

The feeling that the crisis is not likely to end any time soon gained credence on Tuesday when Olmert told a group of immigrants from France that Israel has “the stamina for a long struggle.” Each of the parties to the current conflict have different issues they’d like addressed in any ceasefire deal.

Lebanon, for instance, says Israel must withdraw from a tiny border region called Shebaa Farms, in addition to handing over maps of mine fields Israel laid during its 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.

Hizbollah wants to swap Arab prisoners held in Israel for the two Israeli soldiers, and insists its future role in south Lebanon be worked out — after a ceasefire — in an internal Lebanese conference.

Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, the director of the Palestinian think tank Passia, argues that negotiations on the Lebanon fighting should not be handled separately from Israel’s other crisis: A monthlong battle in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, which also captured an Israeli soldier during a brazen cross-border raid on June 25.

“I don’t see Hamas selling out Hizbollah for a separate deal,” Abdul-Hadi said, adding that the people are in no mood to give in to Israeli demands.

“People in Gaza as well as in Beirut are accepting the sacrifices, are accepting the pain and they are filled with steadfastness, with national pride and no surrender,” he said.

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