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Do We Really Want to See Another Week of Killing in Lebanon?

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According to a report published today in the British Guardian, the United States has given Israel one more week to bomb Lebanon before the U.S. will call for a cease fire there.

This is rather different from what President Bush proposed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair during lunch in St. Petersburg on Sunday. What the United Nations should do, he told Blair, "is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

Quite apart from its indelicacy (his father would surely have said "stop accumulating this deep do-do"), Bush's comment reveals a willful ignorance of political realities. Though Syria joined the war against terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and claims to have foiled half a dozen Al Qaeda plots, it is hardly disposed to clamp down on any more of our enemies. By strongly supporting the expulsion of Syria from Lebanon and (rightly or wrongly) accusing Syrian authorities of complicity in the assassination of its previous prime minister, we have lost whatever leverage we once had with Damascus. Under these conditions, can the President seriously expect that Kofi Annan or anyone else could persuade Bashar Al-Asad--the president of Syria--to make Hezbollah's stop firing its rockets? Does he really believe that Syria would make Hezbollah kneel to Israel--with no concessions from the Israeli side?

Evidently he doesn't, since it is now obvious that he himself--not Kofi Annan, not Bashar Al-Asad, not Fouad Siniora, the hand-wringing prime minister of Lebanon, and not even Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, -- holds the key to a cease fire in Lebanon and Israel.

Let alone the horrendous damage done to the infrastructure of Lebanon and the displacement of half a million of its people, consider the death toll there so far. During a week in which Hezbollah rockets have killed 25 Israelis, including 13 civilians, Israeli air strikes have killed 230 Lebanese--most of them civilians. In St. Petersburg President Bush declared that Israel "has every right to defend itself against terrorist activity." By this he can only mean that Israel has every right to retaliate when it is attacked. But does it have the right to kill 15 Lebanese civilians for every Israeli citizen killed by a Hezbollah rocket?

To this question John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, would respond that there is "no moral equivalence" between civilian casualties in Lebanon and deaths caused in Israel by "malicious terrorist attacks." While Israeli citizens are deliberately targeted, he said, the deaths caused by Israeli airstrikes--like the deaths last Sunday of eight Canadian citizens who just happened to be visiting relatives in South Lebanon--are unintended: the "tragic and unfortunate consequence" of Israel's legitimate "self-defense."

But even President Bush has said--in St. Petersburg-- that Israel must be "mindful of the consequences" when it defends itself. Whatever its intentions, and whether or not it is actually "try[ing] its utmost to avoid civilian casualties," as Israeli General Ido Nehushtan has just said, its airstrikes have has now killed over 200 civilians in a single week, and there is no reason to believe that another week of airstrikes will not produce a like result. Isn't it time for Israel to be told that it must take much bolder action to stop those fatalities?

For obvious reasons Israel does not want a cease fire now. Besides reclaiming its kidnapped soldiers, it wants to keep on hitting Lebanon until it has disarmed Hezbollah once and for all. But already it has signalled that it might be willing to settle for something less than that, and there will never be true settlement of this conflict without negotiations, which cannot start until both sides cease their fire--with no other preconditions for doing so.

So here's my proposal. Through Secretary Rice, President Bush should ask Israel to declare--right now and unilaterally--a 48-hour PAUSE in its airstrikes. If Hezbollah then stops its rocket attacks on Israel, all parties to this conflict could begin the arduous process of negotiation--with the firm understanding that any more rocket attacks on Israel would provoke a renewal of the airstrikes. Having demonstrated both its willingness and its capacity to retaliate overwhelmingly against Hezbollah's attacks, Israel would be negotiating from a position of great strength. What would it have to lose?