Israel’s incessant criticism of the Europeans for being lukewarm supporters and soft on “terrorism” is apparently forgotten. Just as Israel was about to invade southern Lebanon in a seek-and-destroy mission against Hezbullah, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggests a European peace force be deployed there. Why this sudden change of heart? Is this just a delaying tactic or has there been a last-minute realization that a new Israeli invasion of Lebanon could be as ineffective militarily as all others? That would certainly be a political nightmare for Israel. A failure to crush Hezbullah would see the latter feted worldwide as the hammer of the Israelis, the only entity to have stood up to Tel Aviv and gotten away with it. Leaving the task of confronting Hezbullah to the Europeans would blunt Hezbullah’s claim of being Israel’s nemesis, even if the Europeans fail to smash it.
And Olmert clearly envisages a force that would do just that [fail to smash Hezbullah]. It would have to be a NATO force – since so far, no meaningful European military framework exists outside NATO. A NATO force without the U.S. makes sense from both an Israeli and an American point of view. The presence of either [Israelis or Americans] in Lebanon would inflame the situation and rally support for Hezbullah, whereas a European presence would not. In any event, Washington will not want to get physically involved, since it has enough problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even without the specter of its painful past involvement in Lebanon to frighten it, American public opinion would go ballistic with yet another involvement in the Middle East.
All this must have been discussed and agreed with the Americans before Olmert spoke to the Europeans and went public. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit yesterday to Lebanon has to be seen as an attempt to get the Lebanese government to agree. It is no secret that Lebanon would love to see Hezbullah broken up. No government can accept a private army, and no other Arab state would tolerate Hezbullah. The Lebanese government, moreover, has as much to fear from a failed Israeli invasion and an empowered Hezbullah as the Israelis. There is theoretically then a basis for agreement between the two, and an end to the murderous bombardments.
But there is one big stumbling block – and the Israelis and the Americans know it. The Europeans are unlikely to deliver. The British are overstretched, the Germans lack the skills; the Italians and the Spaniards the political will; the French alone would be willing, are leading the campaign to develop a European military force and want to strengthen relations with Lebanon. Even if the Europeans could get their act together, it would take time – time that does not exist. It could end up being the French alone, but would they be enough?
That brings us back to the alternative suggestion, that this is just a delaying tactic. The Israelis will be able to say: Look, we tried to find an alternative but it was impossible. We had no choice but to invade.
A serious suggestion or a deception? Almost certainly a bit of both.