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A Cautious Optimism

will israel and hezbollah give peace a chance?

Cautious Optimism
A solution to the conflict would be to make Hezbollah's fighters part of the Lebanese military and thus restrained by the national government and the military chain of comand.

On September 19, barely a month after the bombs stopped falling on Israel and Lebanon, a forum was convened at Boston College to assess the possibility of a just peace between Israel and the government and people of Lebanon, including Hezbollah, the Shiite political and military group that had done the fighting on the Lebanese side. Considering the recent war’s bloodiness and its inconclusive ending, the two panelists sounded surprisingly upbeat about the prospects for a lasting and fair resolution.

Cosponsored by the multidisciplinary C Center for Human Rights and International Justice (CHRIJ), which is housed at the Law School, the forum drew an audience of 45 to Fulton Hall on the main campus. The session opened with brief remarks by Father Ray Helmick, professor of theology, and Tim Crawford, professor of political science.

Helmick was just back from Lebanon and Syria, where he had gone as part of an interfaith delegation led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He suggested that despite its extremist reputation, Hezbollah might be more inclined to deal than is commonly believed. “We hear Hezbollah described as a terrorist organization and an enemy of Israel, and it does talk a hard line, but [in recent years] its behavior doesn’t bear this out,” he said. A solution to the conflict, Helmick suggested, would be to make Hezbollah’s fighters part of the Lebanese military and thus restrained by the national government and the military chain of command. With Hezbollah under control, he argued, Israel would lose its rationale for blockading Lebanon or maintaining an occupation force in the country.

Crawford, an expert on international coalitions and humanitarian interventions, worked to dispel what he obviously saw as another common misperception: that Hezbollah had emerged as the war’s clear winner. He maintained that both sides had taken big political hits. Hezbollah, he said, will see its military reined in by the Lebanese army and the international peacekeeping force under the ceasefire agreement. He downplayed the group’s widely reported upsurge in popularity among Lebanese of all religions, calling it a temporary “rally-’round-the-flag effect.” For its part, Israel has lost its sense of military supremacy, which in turn “changes Israel’s calculations on how useful military options are in solving political problems,” Crawford said. Calling himself “reservedly optimistic,” he said the conflict had been “costly enough to both sides that they may step back from the brink.” Nonetheless, he admitted, “I’ve been wrong every time I’ve been optimistic” about Arab/Israeli peace prospects.

The bulk of the forum, which ran about an hour and fifteen minutes, was devoted to questions from the audience, not all of whom shared the panelists’ carefully hedged optimism. One audience member asked whether Hezbollah might not yet realize large political gains from its role in rebuilding Lebanon. Crawford replied that if the group restricted its rebuilding aid to its own Shiite constituency, its political gains would be correspondingly limited. If it reached out beyond the Shiites, Hezbollah might gain popularity. That would be a positive development because, he said, “the more they engage domestically, the tamer Hezbollah will be.”

Another attendee called the nascent UN peacekeeping force, which has struggled to find troops and leadership, “broken before it starts.” Crawford replied that if the force had to go in there and remodel political conditions on the ground, he might share the questioner’s concerns, but concluded that “conditions are conducive for even a ragtag peacekeeping force to be effective.”

From the audience, BC Law professor and CHRIJ codirector Daniel Kanstroom lamented the fact that no one in the room or anywhere else was calling for war crimes prosecutions of those in both countries who had targeted civilians. Did this signal an abandonment of the kind of international idealism that had led to the formation of the Hague tribunal currently hearing war crimes cases stemming from the 1990s Balkan wars? Crawford answered that the Israel/Hezbollah conflict is something of a special case and probably not a turning point of the kind Kanstroom fears. “Many states will not want to back the idea that states will be held responsible for their dealings with nonstate actors,” he explained.

CHRIJ codirector Donald Hafner, Crawford’s colleague in the political science department, said that Israel would define a just peace as the end of attacks from across the border. But, he asked, what would Hezbollah see as a just peace?

“Shebaa Farms?” ventured Crawford. Shebaa Farms, explained Helmick, is a sliver of disputed territory that, in his view, Hezbollah had used as a pretext for its refusal to disarm after Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000. But since 2000, all Lebanese factions had added their voices to the call for the return of the tiny territory.

An audience member who said he had been in Lebanon during the fighting called the forum’s attention to two more Hezbollah agenda items: a prisoner exchange and cessation of Israeli military overflights of Lebanon, which he called a sign of Israeli disrespect. The United States is the key, he said, because only the United States could get Israel to yield.

One last audience member rose to speak. Agreeing that the US holds the key to peace, he said, “During the war, the US position was, ‘Let the bombing go on until Hezbollah is neutralized.’” He also cited, disapprovingly, words from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called the war “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” The Bush administration, he seemed to be saying, was unlikely to lean on Israel. Yet without US pressure, Israel might restart the war, feeling it would win this time with a better strategy. “And so,” he told the panelists, “I hope you’re right to be optimistic.”

“Me too,” Crawford said, very quietly.

—David Reich

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