Israel looks ahead to a buffer force

Israel's defense minister said Sunday that NATO troops could help stabilize the Lebanese border.

After a week and a half of pounding Hizbullah targets in Lebanon to push the Iranian-backed militia away from the border and score a "decisive" victory, it is becoming increasingly clear that Israel understands that its military gains will quickly erode if it isn't shored up by a diplomatic resolution endorsed by the international community.

On the eve of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's arrival in Israel to discuss ending cross-border fighting, Israel's defense minister said Sunday he supports a multinational force to ensure Hizbullah no longer threatens Israel.

Israel wants a strong international peace force – preferably NATO – and eventually the Lebanese Army to help to create a stable border. But whether the Israeli endgame is a realistic one is an open question, analysts and officials acknowledge.

"This is a diplomatic challenge, I think we all recognize that," says one US diplomat.

On the Israeli side of the border Sunday, a salvo of Hizbullah rockets in the city of Haifa killed two and wounded 13. Since the fighting began, more than 1,000 rockets have landed in Israel, the army said.

Israel began an emergency call-up of thousands of reservists over the weekend as it stepped up ground operations in southern Lebanon to destroy Hizbullah bunkers and weapons caches along the border.

Trying to lower expectations for a cease-fire agreement resulting from her first visit to the region since hostilities broke out, Ms. Rice warned over the weekend that a diplomatic quick fix was liable to unravel and allow Hizbullah to resume rocket attacks on Israel.

Seeking the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 – which calls for disarming Hizbullah and the deployment of the Lebanese Army in the south – Israel wants to weaken Hizbullah both militarily and politically in the hopes that Lebanese government will assert itself. But it is far from clear how that will happen, say analysts.

"It's a bit murky and it's going to take time to sort itself. That's what happens when you fight a nonstate actor in a weak state" like Lebanon, says Bruce Maddy Weitzman, a Middle East expert at Tel Aviv University. "The arrangements are much more convoluted and take time to evolve. It's not like fighting Egypt on the Suez Canal and negotiating a cease-fire."

Although Hizbullah operates as a proxy for Syria and Iran, the organization is deeply enmeshed in Lebanon's mosaic of rival religious political constituencies. Hizbullah has a network of grass-roots social welfare activities and draws on a political constituency of Shiite Muslims in Lebanon. That will make it difficult for the already weak Lebanese Army – many of whom are Shiite – to assert itself against the militia, said a retired Israeli colonel.

"You can't neutralize Hizbullah" militarily, says Yuval Dvir, a member of the dovish Council on Peace and Security, a forum of ex-Israeli military officers. "You can reach a political agreement that will neutralize its activities, but you can't throw it out" of Lebanon.

Until the Lebanese government is strong enough to assert itself, an international force could be called on to fill the security vacuum in the south and prevent weapons reaching Hizbullah via the border with Syria.

Whether or not such a force would pose a credible check on Hizbullah's power depends on the mandate such a force would receive and whether it would win the backing of the Lebanese government to confront the guerrillas, say analysts.

That's a tall bill in a region where international peacekeepers have a decidedly mixed track record in averting Arab-Israeli flare-ups. Israel has traditionally been skeptical about introducing multinational forces in the region to serve as a buffer, but this time Israel appears to have signed on to the idea.

"Because of the weakness of the Lebanese Army, we will support a multinational force with enforcement responsibilities, which can deploy in the south and carry out its mandate," said Defense Minister Peretz, the daily newspaper Haaretz reported.

It sounds like a far cry from pledges of "decisive" victory against Hizbullah made by Mr. Peretz and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week. Whether or not Lebanon's government could accept a force with such a mandate is also uncertain.

But an Israeli diplomat said his government thinks it can revive the coalition of moderate Arab countries, anti-Syrian groups inside Lebanon, and third-party powers that joined together against Syria's presence in Lebanon.

"The same coalition of forces that forced the Syrians out of Lebanon can be used to implement UN Resolution 1559," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

"We are aware of the challenges, but we think that the international community understands the importance of never allowing this extremist group to orchestrate a regional crisis," he added.

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