Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Shaken Landscape

A Shaken Landscape

With a cease-fire in place between Israel and Hezbollah, it's in neither party's interest to resume the fight. The reasons why amount to a dangerous new reality for Israel.
By Robert Padavick, Hot Zone senior producer, Thu Aug 17, 2:15 PM ET

Editor's Note: To better understand what's next for the Mideast in the aftermath of the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Hot Zone Senior Producer Robert Padavick spoke with Yahoo! News consultant Milt Bearden. In a career spanning three decades, Bearden headed the
CIA's Soviet and Eastern Europe Division and served as station chief in places like Pakistan and Sudan. He also ran the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan from 1986-1989.

With a cease-fire taking hold after over a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, parties loyal to both sides are claiming victory. For former senior CIA official Milt Bearden, the winners and losers are clear.

"Where it counts, Hezbollah is clearly the winner," Bearden says. "For Israel ... not winning is losing. And for an irregular force like Hezbollah, not losing is winning."

Now retired, Bearden serves on the board of directors of Conflicts Forum, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization that works to foster dialogue between Islamist groups and the West. That role has included talks with Hezbollah officials about the group's transition to a more political focus.

Bearden stresses that with fighting over it is in neither Hezbollah's nor Israel's interest to restart it — but for very different reasons. Those differences could partially guide the relative strategies for Israel and Hezbollah as the dust settles in the Middle East.

Hezbollah, Bearden says, now is in prime position for further political gain in Lebanon. The group already has a strong presence in the Lebanese parliament through an alliance with another Shiite group, the Amal Party.

"[Hezbollah] executed their side of the war to the extent that they are national heroes right now," Bearden says. "I think you're going to see that Hezbollah will be a big winner politically."

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is already taking steps to seize the momentum, announcing that Hezbollah will immediately begin repairing homes in southern Lebanon and even pay a year's rent to owners of damaged homes. The move underscores the extent to which Hezbollah is ingrained religiously and culturally in Lebanon, especially in the Shiite-dominated south, where the group runs an array of social services, including hospitals and schools.

Bearden says it's also possible that Hezbollah, even after sustaining a fierce Israeli barrage, actually could emerge with an expanded military presence in Lebanon — albeit in a different form.

"It seems to me that what we'd better be on the lookout for is the absorption by the Lebanese army of the military wing of Hezbollah," he says.

After a couple false starts the Lebanese cabinet approved a plan Wednesday to deploy 15,000 Lebanese troops in the south to bolster a United Nations force. Those troops began deploying Thursday. But neither Lebanon nor the U.N. seem to be concretely addressing the issue of disarming Hezbollah, even though a previous U.N. resolution calls for it. Bearden says it's a fallacy to consider that a possibility.

"The very concept of destroying Hezbollah or dismantling it is based on a faulty belief that it is somehow external to the fiber of Lebanon. It is not," he says. "There's nobody tough enough to disarm Hezbollah, or willing to do it if they are tough enough."

The scenario of a politically empowered Hezbollah, with militia remnants integrated in the Lebanese army, would present a dangerous new reality for Israel, which Bearden says is not in a position to restart hostilities against a foe that proved able to withstand its superior military might.

Hezbollah's stand against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), long regarded as a military superpower in the region, amounts to what Bearden calls the "demystification of the IDF." The implications for Israel are serious, in that Hezbollah's success could embolden other groups in the region, particularly the Palestinians, to overcome internal differences and unite against Israel.

"Israeli rule has just taken a huge hit," Bearden says. "I would imagine right now we're going to see serious discussions among Palestinians who say, 'Why not us?'."

Israel, it seems, has few options at the moment. However, there are reports in the Israeli press that Defense Minister Amir Peretz this week hinted at one of them: renewed dialogue with Lebanon, the Palestinians, and even Syria.

Bearden, a staunch advocate for dialogue, even sees the possibility for Israeli dialogue with Iran — although the country is a prime backer of Hezbollah and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel.

Still, those on the more "realist side" in Israeli politics, Bearden says, "are going to start saying, 'We need to talk with Iran; we need to talk with Syria.' But also, I can guarantee you, sooner or later they're going to want to talk with Hezbollah and Hamas." Hamas has already proven its political prowess, winning the Palestinian Authority general election in January.

The extent to which the landscape in the Middle East has been shaken is just beginning to emerge. But Israel's fight against Hezbollah, the intent of which was greater security, may have left the country even more on the defensive.

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