More than a cease-fire needed

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July 21, 2006

Lebanon needs more than U.S. marines to evacuate Americans. It needs the fighting to stop and the international community to step in and guarantee the security of Israel and Lebanon. That will require not only a cease-fire and peacekeepers but also a guarantee that Hezbollah will be forced to halt its attacks on Israel permanently and disband its militia.

Israeli officials, with strong backing from Washington, are saying privately that it could take days or even weeks more of pounding to destroy Hezbollah’s huge missile stocks, cut off its supply lines from Syria and Iran, and prove to the Lebanese people the high cost of sheltering the terrorist group. It’s doubtful that air power will ever be able to achieve those goals, and Israel should not repeat the mistake of occupying Lebanon.

More fighting will mean more suffering on both sides of the border, more anger toward Israel in the Arab world, and more problems for those Sunni Arab leaders who have been trying to distance themselves from Hezbollah.

The United Nations called on Hezbollah to disarm nearly two years ago. But the United States and Europe never brought real pressure to bear, believing that Hezbollah would shed its weapons as it was drawn deeper into electoral politics. It did not. Hezbollah, which sparked this crisis, believes mayhem is in its long-term interest, especially if it further weakens the Lebanese Army and government.

So it is not surprising that the Israelis are skeptical that another Security Council resolution will make any difference. A robust resolution is nevertheless a prerequisite for robust diplomacy and clear threats of punishment for all who resist. Ideally, the resolution would not only require all sides to stop fighting and authorize the deployment of a peacekeeping force, it would also order Hezbollah to withdraw from Israel’s borders and begin to disarm — and order Syria and Iran to stop supplying their client. The price for refusing should be international sanctions and complete isolation.

The resolution should mandate the return of Israel’s kidnapped soldiers and, finally, pledge major international contributions to help Lebanon rebuild from the destruction of the last week and bolster its weak democratic government. If the Security Council isn’t willing to issue such explicit demands or link them to clear punishments, the United States, Europe and key Arab allies, who are also eager to see the fighting end and Hezbollah contained, will have to bring serious pressure on their own. While the Council negotiates, Western powers and responsible Arab leaders, who more often than not sit on the sidelines, should begin a major diplomatic push in the region.

Everyone’s first stop needs to be Damascus, to tell President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that he will be persona non grata if he keeps meddling in Lebanon. The same message needs to be delivered to Tehran. The Europeans have resisted placing Hezbollah on their terrorism list, with the attendant denial of visas and freezing of bank accounts. They need to make clear they will do so now if the group doesn’t immediately bow to international demands.

The United States will have to take the lead, not least because it’s the only country Israel trusts. That means Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — who has been dragging her feet to give Israel more time to fight — needs to get on a plane and visit Damascus as well as Jerusalem. The longer she delays the more lives will be lost, and the harder it will be to build a lasting peace.