U.S. has little leverage in situation


WASHINGTON — Israel knows whom to blame for starting the conflict now raging on two fronts. The question is whom to call to stop it.

Iran, the main beneficiary of the violence on Israel’s northern border, is remote from the consequences. Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader who instigated fighting in Gaza, is safe in Syria. And Syria, Iran and Hamas all are outside the sphere of influence of Israel or its closest ally, the United States.

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The likely consequence may be that fighting continues for the foreseeable future.

“This is a major, major escalation,” said Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, interrupting his own press briefing Thursday with news that Katyusha rockets had reached Haifa for the first time ever. In response, Israeli planes targeted areas around Beirut.

In both Lebanon and Gaza, the fighting began with Arab raids into Israeli territory in which some soldiers were killed and others kidnapped.

In both cases, the groups are demanding the release of prisoners, but Israel says it will not negotiate with terrorists.

It was hard to see who could break the impasse. President Bush called on Syria to intervene.

“Syria needs to be held to account,” Bush said in Germany, where he was meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Syria’s housing the militant wing of Hamas. Hezbollah has got an active presence in Syria. The truth of the matter is, if we really want this situation to settle down, the soldiers need to be returned and President Assad needs to show some leadership toward peace.”

The problem with such an approach is that Bush cannot make the appeal to Bashar Assad directly, since the United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria last year because of Syria’s unwillingness to secure its border with Iraq and expel Palestinian terrorist groups.

That signals a larger problem, said David Mack, a vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, and a deputy assistant secretary of state in the administrations of President Bush’s father and of President Clinton.

Mack said the Bush administration’s tendency to override regional sensitivities — both in pursuing the Iraq war and in pressing hard for democratization — leaves it vulnerable.

“The United States is increasingly irrelevant,” he said. “At our own initiative, we threw away any leverage we have in Syria.”

It was left to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to dispatch a mediation team to the region. In previous Israel-Lebanon crises, U.S. envoys had taken the lead.

Even with the right incentive, it’s not clear how much Syria could do: Its leverage in Lebanon has decreased considerably since it withdrew occupying forces a year ago under international pressure.

The resulting vacuum was ripe for exploitation by Iran, which is feeling increasingly cornered by the international community’s attempts to stop its nuclear program, said Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at Hebrew University.

“The whole thing coincided with the recent pressure on the Iranian regime with regard to its nuclear program,” Aronson said. “The Iranians through Hezbollah are warning that if pressure is being put on them, they can bring the Middle East to an explosion. And they are losing nothing, not paying one iota for their behavior.”

World powers had set July 12 as a deadline for Iran to respond to economic and development incentives to open its nuclear program to inspectors, or face the likelihood of sanctions. When the deadline passed, the powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China — referred Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

Iran is Hezbollah’s principal backer and reportedly helped the terrorist group develop the longer-range rockets that now have reached Haifa, 20 miles from the Lebanese border. Israel also is concerned that Hezbollah will spirit the kidnapped soldiers away to Iran.

The timing was exquisite from Iran’s point of view: Bush is to join other leaders of industrialized nations this weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Iran’s nuclear development was on the agenda. Hezbollah’s attack now clouds the issue.

Aronson said he didn’t believe Israel would take the conflict to Syria or Iran because it risked an uncontrollable escalation.

Instead, Israel was pounding Lebanon from the sea and air and was believed to be preparing a ground invasion.

Israel’s actions were aimed at forcing Lebanon’s government, led by Fouad Siniora, to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to disarm Hezbollah and exercise control in the southern part of the country.

“Take responsibility as a country,” Maj. Gen Uri Adam, the Israel Defense Forces’ northern commander, said in a press conference near the border.

That might not be realistic, given the fragility of Siniora’s government and the fact that it includes Hezbollah Cabinet ministers.

Bush, for his part, is invested in the viability of a Lebanese government that can function without Syria.

Whatever Israel does “should not weaken the Siniora government in Lebanon,” Bush said. “We’re concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon.”

Democrats in Congress signaled that they would resist pressures on Israel to end its attack.

“Israel has an inherent right to defend itself, and the United States supports our ally,” said a joint statement from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)., the U.S. House of Representatives’ minority leader, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip.

For now, Israel’s actions were uniting Lebanese behind Hezbollah, said Bassel Salloukh, an assistant professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University.

“I don’t see any pressure in Lebanon to hand over the soldiers,” he said. “Even figures like Walid Jumblatt,” the Druse leader who has called for Hezbollah to disarm, “are coming out and saying we need to close ranks now that there are foreign forces in Lebanon.”

Further down the line, though, there may be political repercussions for Hezbollah, Salloukh said.

“Hezbollah has a lot of questions to answer about the timing of the operation,” he said, noting the fragility of Siniora’s coaliton. “In their constituency in Lebanon, they have not lost credibility. With others, it’s another story — but Hezbollah may not care.”