US image in Arab world won’t improve

WASHINGTON — A US-backed diplomatic pact to end more than a month of war between Israel and Islamist fighters in Lebanon may stop the worst of the killing and retire the daily television images of burning buildings and suffocated children.

It will not do much to improve the image of America in the Arab world.

This war is widely viewed as a joint US-Israeli venture that slaughtered innocents and wrecked homes, roads and businesses in a fragile democracy the Bush administration has said it supports.

President George W. Bush on Saturday urged world leaders to turn the words of a UN ceasefire deal into action, even as Israel staged wide-ranging air strikes across Lebanon and sent commandos into the Hizbollah heartland.

Air strikes killed at least 19 people in Lebanon, including 15 in one village, while Hizbollah rockets wounded at least five people in Israel in the hours after the unanimous UN vote.

Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who has become a folk hero across the Arab world for taking on Israel, agreed to the deal Saturday, but said the fighters will continue fighting as long as Israeli troops remain in south Lebanon.

The Lebanese Cabinet was in session to vote on whether to agree to the UN resolution. And Israel’s parliament is to take it up Sunday.

The deal would stop the fighting, perhaps next week, and authorise deployment of 15,000 foreign troops to help the Lebanese army control the country’s southern swath, along the Israeli border.

Israel would begin withdrawing the forces that have invaded Lebanon over the past five weeks “in parallel” with deployment of the peacekeeping force.

Hizbollah is directed to stop all attacks, but Israeli forces could defend themselves so long as they are there.

The terms of the peace deal may only reinforce twin perceptions in the Arab world: The United States did too little too late to rein in Israel and end the fighting, and friendship with the United States is worth little because the United States will back Israel no matter what, foreign policy analysts said.

“The US reputation as an honest broker has been eroding under this administration for some time. This just crystallized what the Arabs thought,” said Jonathan Clarke, a former British diplomat now at the Cato Institute. He said the Arabs had grown to believe “the US and Israel had become one country.” The United States backed Israel without public reservation from the first moments of the war, when Hizbollah fighters crossed the Lebanon border and killed and captured Israeli soldiers on July 12.

Bush laid blame on the fighters and their Syrian and Iranian backers in his statement welcoming the ceasefire blueprint.

“The loss of innocent life in both Lebanon and Israel has been a great tragedy,” Bush said. “Hizbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors have brought an unwanted war to the people of Lebanon and Israel, and millions have suffered as a result.” The Bush administration has set expansion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East as the signal call of a foreign policy that Arab, European and other governments still view with suspicion more than three years after the widely unpopular US-led invasion of Iraq.

Although inspiring to some Arab reformers, the Bush policy was always seen as naive by many leaders in the region and elsewhere.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was ridiculed in the Arab press when she characterised the war as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” during a diplomatic trip to the region that outwardly accomplished little.

The Lebanon conflict has heightened anti-US sentiment in the region, with frequent protests in moderate US allies like Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the region say the bloodshed only fuels radicalism.

“We would like to return to the old Middle East, because we don’t see anything in the new Middle East apart from more problems,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal remarked.

The war has undermined the Arab reformers and political moderates Washington has courted.

The democracy movements in Egypt and other countries were already struggling as their governments rolled back on promises of change.

“The Americans are shooting themselves in the foot,” Abdel Moneim Said, head of Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, based in Cairo, said last week, before the UN deal. “The only beneficiaries of the ongoing conflict are the fundamentalists.” The United States pushed for the peace deal approved by the United Nations Security Council on Friday to stop fighting that threatened to topple Lebanon’s tenuous democratic government.

The deal does not accomplish the disarmament of Hizbollah, the key goal that Bush and Rice said they sought.

The deal also does not guarantee that Lebanon can extend political control to the southern part of the country where the armed Hizbollah movement held greater power than the Beirut government.

Nor does the deal make Israel more likely to cooperate toward the wider Bush administration goal of peace with the Palestinians and a viable independent Palestinian state.

Analysts said they see little prospect that Washington can help broker a real peace settlement for years to come.

“Condi talked about a new Middle East,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser on the Middle East to both Republican and Democratic administrations. “There will be new Middle East, but it will be a nastier and messier one.”

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