OCCUPIED JERUSALEM â€” Israel’s bombing of a Lebanese village on Sunday will make it harder for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to continue to justify Washington’s refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire.
The Israeli air strike killed more than 60 Lebanese civilians, including at least 37 children, in the southern village of Qana in the bloodiest single attack of the war. Rice cancelled a trip to Beirut and will return to Washington on Monday. The Bush administration’s decision not to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon is at odds with most US allies and is seen as giving a green light to Israel to continue its bombardment.
At least 750 Lebanese, according to the country’s health ministry, and 51 Israelis have died in the fighting that began on July 12 after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. “Major Israeli assaults on Lebanon have ended following a major killing of civilians. It makes the pressure for an immediate ceasefire that much greater,” said Nicholas Pelham of the International Crisis Group. Former US secretary of state Warren Christopher, who conducted his own Middle East shuttle diplomacy in the 1990s, said in a hard-hitting editorial in The Washington Post that Rice’s strategy would not work.
Christopher, writing before the Qana bombing, said Rice’s oft-repeated goal of reaching a long-term solution rather than putting an end to the immediate carnage and getting a truce was “wrongly focused diplomacy”.
“My own experience in the region underlies my belief that in the short term we should focus our efforts on stopping the killing,” he said.
The Bush administration bristles at criticism it is taking sides in the conflict. Rice’s staff says claims that Washington is giving Israel a nod to continue bombing Lebanon are wrong.
However, hopes that Rice might have been close to getting a ceasefire deal have dissipated since the bombing and it changes the dynamics in the negotiations, with some analysts saying it will put Lebanon in a stronger position.
“This [bombing] will have an effect â€” it will hinder Israel’s negotiating stance,” said Dan Sheuftan, a political science professor at the University of Haifa.
“But to stop the operation, to have a situation where it is dictated a political policy by the other side â€” that option is not available at the moment.” Rice says her diplomacy is geared towards getting a “sustainable and durable” solution that tackles the root causes of the conflict and that the United States is not interested in a quick fix.
She also talks of resolving the Lebanon-Israeli conflict in the interests of creating a “new Middle East” with moderate leaders such as Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rather than the likes of Hizbollah and the governing Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
Arabs view her “new Middle East” talk with disdain, said Middle East analyst Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, and are suspicious of US motives just as they were with the Bush administration’s democracy campaign.
Some analysts say the US support for moderate governments could backfire, as it did in the Palestinian territories when Abbas’ Fateh Movement was trounced by Hamas in parliamentary elections last January.
“There’s a funny way in which new realities in the Middle East are often not better realities,” said Jon Alterman of the Washington think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.