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Analysis: Chronology of a war

By
CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

WASHINGTON, July 24 (UPI) -- Last May Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid his first visit to Washington as prime minister of the state of Israel where he met President George W. Bush. The two leaders had much to talk about; the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq and the emerging threat of Iran building nuclear weapons. No doubt also high on the agenda was the burning issue of Hamas, the Islamist group now controlling the government of the Palestinian authority. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist and its charter calls for Israel's destruction.

There is also little doubt that the Israeli prime minister tried to gauge what Bush's reaction would be should Israel engage in strong-arm military action with either the Palestinians in Gaza or with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Would Bush support Israel, or would the American president try to hold Israel back?

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Judging by the events now unfolding in the Middle East, there is little doubt Olmert must have received a very clear green light from Washington on how to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Both Israel and the United States consider Hezbollah and Hamas to be terrorist organizations, and Israel, with the blessing of the United States, has taken on the task of trying to eliminate both threats, particularly the one posed by Hezbollah.

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According to the June 2 edition of London-based magazine al-Watan al-Arabi, Hezbollah received intelligence that Olmert had obtained the green light from Bush in the event of an open confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.

A short time after the meeting in Washington, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered a "Strategic Defense Plan," to the National Dialogue Committee (al-Hiwar al-Watani). The plan outlined what Hezbollah should do in the event of an Israeli air, land or sea assault on Lebanon.

Nasrallah said his movement had "thousands of rockets still at the ready," rockets targeted to hit Israeli cities and towns at any time. His speech was reported in part by the Lebanese English language newspaper The Daily Star in its May 24 edition.

Some days later, speaking at a "resistance culture" conference in Beirut in celebration of the sixth anniversary of Israel's pullout from south Lebanon, Nasrallah reiterated that "resistance is the only feasible strategy for defending Lebanon against future and current Israeli threats and violations."

Nasrallah was quoted as saying "the Israelis know we have rockets... If today I go on television to tell the residents of the settlements (of northern Israel) that they should go down to the shelters, they will all be in Tel Aviv in no time."

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Nasrallah, according to The Daily Star, said the resistance's views on how to build a realistic defense strategy for Lebanon depended on how Israel's weaknesses and strengths were calculated in comparison with those of Lebanon. "Israel's weakest point lies on its northern border with Lebanon," said Nasrallah.

The leader of Hezbollah recognized Israel's superiority in almost every strategic and military aspect. Nasrallah said: "Before looking at strategic plans, Lebanon's political parties must first define the enemy. Some political leaders do not agree that Israel is the enemy. Others believe we can rely on international protection," he added. Current events have shown those who thought Lebanon could rely on international intervention to be wrong.

"We believe Israel is still the enemy and our resistance proved that Israel can be defeated, while all other options have proven wrong for as long as Israel has existed," said Nasrallah, adding "guerrilla fighting was Lebanon's sole option in the face of the potential Israeli dangers."

In other words, hints of luring Israel into an Iraq style situation.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah would be happy to discuss other options to safeguard Lebanon's sovereignty and independence. "It is the only available alternative before us," he said, reiterating that northern Israel remained "under the firing line" of his group's more than 12,000 rockets.

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Fast-forward to late June: Hamas militants attack an Israeli army outpost near Gaza and kidnap Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Israel's response was immediate and fierce. Seventeen days later, in a meticulously well-planned assault on an Israeli army position close to the south Lebanese border, Hezbollah militiamen raided the post, killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two.

The following day, Israel unleashed hell over Lebanon.

Now, 12 days later, Israel continues to pummel Lebanon. So far at least 350 Lebanese civilians have been killed, hundreds wounded and approximately 700,000 civilians displaced and turned into refugees in their own country. Lebanon's infrastructure is largely demolished and zapped back some 30 years. Thankfully, Israel was "acting with restraint."

The intriguing question: knowing the fate reserved for Gaza for the kidnapping of one Israeli soldier, did Hezbollah miscalculate Israel's reaction when it abducted two soldiers, or did they anticipate it and therefore instigate it? And if so, why?

Also intriguing is what roles did Iran and Syria play, if any? If Iran backed Hezbollah in escalating the conflict, what is it getting in return for practically sacrificing Hezbollah, other than diverting attention from its nuclear quest? Or does Iran hope to expand the conflict by dragging Israel (and possibly the United States) into a protracted guerrilla war in Lebanon? Does Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believe the war is going to buy him the time he needs to attain nuclear independence? Possibly. But the expansion of the Iraq conflict to the Mediterranean is a more likely scenario.

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Ahmadinejad informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Islamic republic would respond to the request that it stop its uranium-enriching program on Aug. 22. Why that date? Aug. 22, or 27 Rajab (1422 AD) according to the Muslim calendar, is believed to be the day after which the Prophet Mohammed is said to have journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night on a winged creature called Buraq, and from Jerusalem he ascended into heaven. It is known as Lailat al Miraj, when a great light lit the skies over Jerusalem. Is there something more sinister to be read in this?

Another enigma is Syria. What does Damascus stand to gain from the sacking of Lebanon and the risk of an expanded regional war? Syria's economy is hurting and the risk of sanctions as a result of the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would have been the coup de grace. Or is it Syria's way of reasserting its influence and of reminding Washington that there can be no regional settlement without Syria?

Syria's Information Minister Mohsen Bilal, in an interview with Spanish paper ABC said Sunday Syria would enter the war in support of Hezbollah if Israel launched a ground offensive and invaded Lebanon, and in the process, approached the Syrian border.

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Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, predicts "the Lebanese state will be weakened even more" as a result of the massive raids by Israel on Lebanon. No matter how you look at it, Telhami says, "I don't see a stable outcome."

This of course goes counter to the goals Israel says it wants to achieve: a stronger central government in Lebanon that will be able to bring under control Hezbollah and its military wing.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would tour the Middle East this week, talking with various leaders. Except the secretary will not be talking with either Syria or Iran, two countries that hold part of the key to a lasting solution in the area. Nor is she about to talk with Hamas or Hezbollah, the two parties directly concerned by the conflict, and who hold other pieces of the key.

U.S. policy is not to engage any of the above-mentioned parties in any political discourse. The Bush administration's policy -- or lack thereof -- is to talk only to its friends while ignoring its foes. Yet if one is to make peace it is with one's enemies, not one's friends, and that dialogue needs to be started. Is the lack of progress in trying to bring about stability in the Middle East anything to be surprised about?

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(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)

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