Saturday, August 26, 2006

Can the Cease-fire Hold? UNIFIL's Role

4. UNIFIL faces three organizational challenges to its becoming a successful peacekeeping force: its strength, area of deployment and rules of engagement. The Europeans countries have now assured that the number of peacekeepers will approach, if not reach, the total of number of 16,000 (including the 2,000 already in Lebanon) envisioned by the cease fire resolution (1701). At midweek, the Ieftist Italian government of Romano Prodi committed to contributing 3,000 soldiers. This move and the adverse international opinion that had greeted France’s initial paltry offer of 200 soldiers embarrassed French President Jacques Chirac into raising his bid to 2,000. By the time UN General Secretary Kofi Annan met with the EC last Friday, other countries – Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Germany – had fallen in line. So Annan came away with commitments of 6000 - 7000 troops, with more than half to be deployed in a few weeks. The European participation is reassuring to Israel, which historically has identified more with Europe than the developing world. On the other hand, the EC believes its participation will strengthen its voice in both negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, and in any renewed “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. The Italian foreign minister Massimo D’Alema gave a broad hint of that. In an interview with an Israel newspaper, he said if the deployment of the UN force in Lebanon works out, an international force could also be sent to Gaza.

Annan has offers of troops from Muslim countries. He figures that he needs to take all offers and consider Muslim participation a legitimating factor. However Israel diplomats have objected to the inclusion of troops from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh or any Muslim country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. More than symbolic politics is involved. Israelis strongly felt that Hezbollah’s provocation last month challenged its legitimacy, but both the government and public have been rattled by Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s repeated suggestion that Israel should be annihilated. So the issue of recognition is also one of trust at the gut level. Annan thinks he can overcome Israel’s resistance by putting leadership of the new UNIFIL in European hands, first the French for six months, then the Italians. But Israel also does not trust the French much.

How many troops are actually needed depends on the area of their deployment and mission. It the peacekeepers are assigned only to the Israel-Lebanon border, then Chirac makes sense in claiming that not more than 10,000 or so are needed to assist the Lebanese army. On this view, the peacekeepers primary job would be maintaining a buffer zone along the border, apart from the Lebanese army. They would prevent any unauthorized, armed personnel from entering the zone and disarm any who did. According to Annan, “Troops are not going in there to disarm -- let's be clear. Disarming Hezbollah cannot be done by force. It has to be political agreements among the Lebanese.” Yet, one can anticipate that even this limited mission will have points of friction with Hezbollah where weight of UNIFIL numbers at any locale would help. To wit, Hezbollah has announced that its fighters will remain in their villages in southern Lebanon and not disarm. Per an agreement with the Lebanese government, they will make not carry arms or make any public display of them. What happens if they forget?

More troops and their wider deployment are needed if their mission includes stopping arms shipments from or through Syria to Hezbollah. As a matter of sovereignty, the Lebanese government insists that such operations be at its request. At the same time, Syria has reacted coolly to the idea of the peacekeepers being deployed along its borders for that purpose and said that would be a hostile act. This response is certainly a test to see what the West can offer Syria for cooperating with the arms embargo. Movement toward any negotiation with Syria, however, will be slower than the efforts to the get the peacekeepers in place. So in the initial stages of UNIFIL operations, any troops to enforce the embargo will be deployed in small contingents near the major Lebanon-Syria border crossings. In other words, the force can get to work, even before it reaches peak strength.

To sum up: The European commitments have assured the feasibility of the peacekeeping mission. How effective can it be? That depends considerably on Lebanese government's willingness to ask its help, but everyone understands that the peacekeepers will be there can increase the government's willingness. If other things are equal, the new UNIFIL will be a mainstay for the cease-fire and enable more formal relations between Israel and Lebanon. Unfortunately, its efforts might be overtaken by confrontations between the United States and Iran, in which each will use its respective client, Israel and Hezbollah, respectively, much more deliberately than was the case last month.


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