Saturday, July 22, 2006

Nearly two weeks later, what now?

Princetonian editor-in-chief Chan Sethi '07 wrote today to Dan Kurtzer, Wilson School professor and U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, seeking his views on the latest developments in the Mideast conflict, including whether ongoing military action will help Israel achieve its objectives and whether the United States should now intervene diplomatically. Professor Kurtzer writes from Israel.

Dear Chan,

The debate in Israel is intensifying as to whether military action alone -- as opposed to diplomacy -- can achieve Israel's objectives in this confrontation with Hizballah. Public support for the government's actions remains incredibly high, surpassing the 90 percent mark. However, commentators and pundits cannot agree on next steps.

The question at stake does not revolve around objectives, as there is broad agreement that Hizballah must be "defeated" so as to remove the Damoclean sword hanging over the heads of Israel's citizens in the north of the country. Rather, at issue is whether further action by the Israeli military can weaken Hizballah to the point of insignificance or whether diplomacy would be more efficient.

The proponents of military power argue that the Israeli army has, in the past ten days, degraded Hizballah's military strength by more than half. Hizballah's resupply routes -- overland from Syria, and by air and sea -- have been cut off, and Israel has destroyed a significant number of Hizballah's most potent longer-range rockets. The argument contends that intensified Israeli action in the air and in special operations on the ground in south Lebanon will effectively wipe out Hizballah's military capabilities for the period ahead.

The proponents of diplomacy, agreeing on the assessment of Israeli military success to date, argue that an organization like Hizballah cannot be defeated in the conventional meaning of the word. At some point, they contend, Hizballah fighters will lay down arms and merge into the population at large, believing that new weapons will become available later to resume the fight. The advocates of diplomacy say that the international community can be mobilized now to augment Lebanese government capabilities and help Lebanon take control of its southern border. By pushing Hizballah away from the border, a major strategic shift will have taken place.

I've talked to political and military officials on both sides of the debate and do not yet see a clear preference emerging among decision-makers. Thus far, Israeli casualties have not been so high as to become a driving force for diplomacy. On the other hand, the immobilization of the entire northern section of the country increasingly is weighing on peoples' minds.

Secretary of State Rice is due here next week, but the signalsfrom Washington do not suggest she will be bringing specific proposals. From this distance, it appears that Washington policy makers are supportive of continued Israeli military action and thus far unwilling to support a diplomatic process. If this proves to be the case, it will have a major impact on the debate here in Israel and could lead to the proponents of continued military activity gaining the upper hand.

In media appearances on CNN, BBC, Sky News and elsewhere, I have argued the case for diplomacy. In my view, Israel was justified in responding to an unprovoked attack by Hizballah, especially in the absence of any action by the Government of Lebanon to stop Hizballah from operating freely in the south. However, I have said there are limits to the effectiveness of military action in defeating a terrorist organization like Hizballah, and thus it would be wiser to pocket politically the gains achieved thus far, rather than risking them in further military moves.

Otherwise, life in the center of the country remains remarkably calm. Business continues, the parks are filled and restaurants are flourishing. I depart here Monday, spend a few days in Athens at a Middle East conference and than back home to Princeton.

From Israel, Dan Kurtzer

Related: Professor Kurtzer first wrote for this blog earlier this week, offering his views on the climate in Israel seven days into the crisis. In December of last year, he was named to the S. Daniel Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies. On Feb. 16, he delivered a lecture at Princeton where he outlined his goals for U.S. policy in the Middle East.


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