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Hezbollah Has Less to Lose in Escalating Crisis


Cross-border raids and targeted bombings quickly fueled talk of a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah. The intense fighting is no surprise to Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat chair at the University of Maryland. He says escalation has worked for Israel in the past against states, but Telhami says it may not be an effective strategy against non-state groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, basically because they have less to lose than a government.

Shibley Telhami joins us from his home in Maryland. Welcome.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): My pleasure.

KAST: The U.N. Security Council failed to agree on a cease fire that Lebanon has been calling for. Given the escalation we've seen in recent days, do you see the possibility of a cease fire anytime soon?

Prof. TELHAMI: Not very soon. I think at this point thing have really gotten very far, I think when you look at what the Israelis are asking for, disarming of Hezbollah and implementation of a U.N. resolution in that regard, as well as the return of their soldiers; what Hezbollah is asking for, saying that they will never do it without getting prisoners in return - neither side really wants a cease fire immediately, and certainly not the Israelis. And I think the Israelis have not reached the point where they don't any longer believe that they can do this militarily.

It obviously depends on the process, and they may reach that conclusion. But certainly they have not reached it yet.

KAST: When you say they don't believe they can do this militarily, this is what goal?

Prof. TELHAMI: Meaning, at least weakening Hezbollah substantially, to the point where they will be different from where they were before. They may not believe that they have achieved the goals on the Lebanese border. It's possible that the Israelis may want to crate a buffer zone again. I don't think they've sorted all this out. I think the events took them by surprise. I don't think they had specific goals on the table. I think they're basically changing their objectives as they go.

And I think the escalation ladder hasn't reached the max. I don't believe that even with all the damage incurred to Lebanon, if the Israelis were to agree to a cease fire at this point, and then they would have to negotiate an exchange of prisoner, they probably will see it as a failed response, because if Hezbollah is as strong as it was before and can negotiate the return of the prisoners and they can rebuild, then the Israelis will see this as having failed.

KAST: Again this morning President Bush reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself, but urged them to do it with restraint. What can the U.S. do now, beyond urging restraint?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, frankly, restraint is nice and obviously he can do that, but I think what the administration hasn't done is project empathy with civilian casualties.

When I look at this, and I look at it through the eyes of people on the ground who are suffering - whether it's Israelis in Haifa or Nahariya or hundreds of thousands of Lebanese in the South in Beirut and everywhere else, and the Palestinians in Gaza - and the region, when regions look at it, they're looking at it through the suffering of the people. They're looking at the bombs and the destruction and the death and the funerals, and that's what they're looking at. And forget the blame for a moment. When you are a super power, when you are representing a country like the United States of America, you've got to see that pain, and you've got to say, look, we really care. We will find every possible way to stop it. I haven't heard that yet. And sure, people have expressed regret, but that's not enough. I think they need to do more.

But I think the bigger problem for the administration, I believe, is that they have not had a policy on this. Frankly, they didn't believe the Arab-Israeli issue is so central. It wasn't a top priority for them. They didn't believe they were linkages between issue, primarily between that and Iran, between that and Iraq, and the other issues that are priority issues for them at the moment.

And suddenly, they're at a point where escalation could take them into a linkage. And I think they need to figure out at this point, even if they can't stop the events tomorrow morning, what is it that they don't want to reach. That is, what escalation level they want to prevent and work backward. There's no question that an escalation with Syria is possible. And I think if they don't want that, they must prepare for it now, because the events could take them there very quickly.

KAST: What would be the route that would lead to an escalation with Syria?

Prof. TELHAMI: I think if there is a lot of damage in Israel, even more than there has been - obviously the attack on Haifa with at least eight dead is something that is going to generate even more reaction. But if you have an attack on Tel Aviv and a lot more civilians have died in Israel, I think when the Israelis look at it, and they say, well, who are we deterring - there is no Lebanese state. Obviously they're hoping indirectly a Lebanese state is going to exercise some restrain on Hezbollah. That's not going to work in the short-term. They have no teeth.

Hezbollah itself now has very little to lose. And so if that logic could take them, that Syria - although it obviously does not have nearly the same level of influence it did when its forces were there, but at least it's a target, and they might hold it responsible. And I can see that somebody might say, well, we need to target some specific military targets in Syria. And that could happen very rapidly.

KAST: And some of the shells that have been landing in Israel were made in Iran. Is there a chance Iran could be pulled into this?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, there's no question that Iran could at some point be pulled in. I think that kind of logic is much more complicated. Because, first of all, you can't do something like a confrontation with Iran without major consultation with the U.S. The U.S. is involved in every single way. Iran is in a position to hurt American forces in the Gulf. Iran has a role in Iraq. Iran has missiles that could reach anywhere in the region. And you can't do that without major assessment of consequences and coordination with the U.S. And frankly, the Israelis have the capacity to hit Iran, but certainly cannot go to a full war with Iran, since they don't have any border with Iran.

So that's a much more complicated logic. I don't think we're at a point where that's a prospect. I think the next level of possible escalation is Syria.

KAST: Very briefly, do you see any way this conflict could be ended quickly?

Prof. TELHAMI: No. I really don't see how it could end quickly. I think that the escalation has gone - has been so rapid, there's been so much loss of life, the strategic picture has changed. And to end it quickly means to go to the status quo ante, and I don't think either side can afford that. And so I think they're - we're unfortunately going to see a lot more bloodshed before this ends.

KAST: Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Thanks very much.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Weekend Edition Sunday