Choice for Mideast conflict: Bombings or bargaining?

By The Associated Press

The Lebanon crisis is now a race between bombs and bargaining, devastation and dialogue. As talks slowly begin, veteran observers are skeptical – that Israel and Washington want to quiet the guns anytime soon, that Hezbollah will back down, that a quick deal can be worked out.

“We haven’t yet significantly reduced Hezbollah’s ability to attack,” said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher, an ex-intelligence official. “To achieve our war aims, the military operations should continue.”

A leading Arab commentator believes the Bush administration shares that view.

“They want Israel to achieve in battle what might be difficult to achieve by diplomacy,” said Hasan Abu Nimah, a former Jordanian U.N. ambassador.

As Abu Nimah spoke by telephone from Amman, Israeli armored forces were readying Monday’s push toward the Lebanese town of Bint Jbail, a southern stronghold of the Hezbollah militia. It was Israel’s boldest ground thrust yet in the 13-day-old conflict.

After seven days of airstrikes, Israel claimed to have destroyed half of Hezbollah’s weaponry. But the Shiite Muslim militia is still firing dozens of rockets daily at Israeli towns. Many expect Israelto drive farther north in the hunt for its Lebanese enemy.

The Israel Defense Forces are now engaged in a closed-door debate over strategy, said Daniel C. Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel until September and now a Princeton University professor.

“Some say they can do much more damage from the air, if given time. Others argue you need to do it on the ground,” Kurtzer said from Israel, where he was visiting.

The Israelis want to see Hezbollah disarmed and pushed back far from their border. That will be a key objective in the diplomatic talks that brought Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice to the region on Monday. Resolution 1559, a U.N. edict from 2004, calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament and restoration of Lebanese government authority in the Shiite south, where the Iranian-supported Islamist group has run a state-within-a-state. But Abu Nimah and others see little prospect Hezbollah will yield to diplomacy at this point.

“Hezbollah hasn’t lost the battle,” he said. “You cannot achieve by diplomacy what war hasn’t achieved.”

Diplomatic discussions will also focus on establishing an international buffer force – the idea of NATO peacekeepers has been raised – for southern Lebanon. But that would take weeks or months to organize, if it can be done.