All I can say is thank God for Romano Prodi’s Italian government. It appears to have almost single-handedly saved the UN’s Lebanon peacekeeping mission from imploding. After Jacques Chirac’s “now you see ’em, now you don’t” performance in which he seemed to offer to lead the new UNIFIL force and supply it with thousands of troops; only to see the offer practically evaporate before the world’s eyes–we now have a country that has shown courage and vision in taking the lead on this issue.
Chirac was shown up pitifully by Prodi when the latter made his offer to contribute substantial troops and to lead the force. Only then did the former decide to make a serious commitment to the force. Apparently, Jacques didn’t want to be shown up by his neighbor to the south.
Another way in which the Italians have shown themselves to be bold and forthright is in their discussions with the Israelis. They have not rolled over and acceded to any demands in their negotiations with foreign minister Livni. They have warned her that they cannot lead the mission as long as Israel insists on continuing offensive operations like the ill-fated one in the Bekaa Valley of a few days ago.
Even more pointedly, foreign minister D’Alema has told his Israeli counterpart forthrightly that Israeli and American Mideast policies have failed. He added that perhaps it’s time for both of them to sit back and let the Europeans show them a different, less warlike path to peaceful co-existence. The guy’s got guts to say that right to Livni’s face:
If the planned multinational force in Lebanon succeeds, it might be possible to create a similar force for the Gaza Strip, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said in an interview with Haaretz.
D’Alema said that America’s aggressive approach to the Middle East, which Israel shares, has failed, and has caused serious damage. Now, he said, Italy and Europe must prove to Israelis that only international intervention can bring them security.
D’Alema also expressed some hard-headed realism regarding Hezbollah which Israel ought to hear:
…The Italian foreign minister, who met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Rome on Thursday, said that the multinational force can only help the government of Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah. This matter “essentially depends” solely on the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, he said, and will certainly not be done through force.
He also claimed that it would be “simplistic” to describe Hezbollah solely as a terrorist organization. “Were Hezbollah merely a small terrorist group, it would not enjoy the support of so many Lebanese,” he said. “Even Tzipi Livni says that if Hezbollah becomes a political organization, this will be a success, and I agree with her.”
Though Israel will undoubtedly view these remarks as “unhelpful” or worse, they should keep in mind this sentiment D’Alema also expressed:
“We are sending our soldiers to Lebanon and endangering their lives out of love for Israel. We have no interests in Lebanon; this is supposed to be a step that creates peace. And that is in Israel’s interest,” D’Alema said.
To pro-Israel partisans who call him an “enemy of Israel,” you do so in error.
In a Haaretz interview, D’Alema responded to a question about how he would judge the success of the mission. His answer, in my opinion, shows an acute understanding of the Israeli security and political environment:
If, with the assistance of a UN and European presence, a positive process begins in Lebanon – the country is stabilized and the fundamentalist threat is removed from Israel’s borders – that will show people in Israel that the international community can be efficient, that Europe can be efficient. Such a process would prove to Israel that it can ensure its security better through the politics of peace than through war. The main problem is that in Israeli politics, peace and security are two different, often contradictory things.”
He also expanded on his critique of the dismissive Olmert/IDF analysis of Hezbollah:
“An organization that has 35 members of parliament and three ministers cannot be described solely as a terrorist group. Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist group by the European Union, nor in my personal view. Hezbollah is a military organization, but also a force that participates in elections. The paradox is that we support Siniora, a democratic leader, and Siniora lauds Hezbollah as the defender of the Lebanese homeland. It is important to understand the complexity of the situation, because if you have a simplistic view of the enemy, you deal with him incorrectly.”
Finally, D’Alema aired a very interesting proposal for a potential UN peacekeeping force in Gaza (if the Lebanon force works):
“The idea of sending UN troops to the Gaza Strip is currently being aired. But I think that if things go well in Lebanon, a similar positive process could also begin in the Gaza Strip: the release of [kidnapped soldier Gilad] Shalit, a Palestinian unity government that meets the criteria set by the international community, and the presence of a UN force to bolster the Palestinian government.”
Likewise, credit should be given to Javier Solana, who today called for Israel to end its blockade of Lebanese ports and airspace:
Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called on Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon to ease tensions and to allow reconstruction to go forward.
I’ve written elsewhere here about my Doomsday clock for the Israeli-Arab conflict. The comforting news from Italy makes me move the minute-hand another minute back from midnight.
I am concerned though about Israel’s refusal to accept Arab or Muslim nations’ participation in the new UNIFIL force. It shows Israel’s petulance and continuing lack of vision for what will make for a fair and balanced force to keep the peace in Lebanon. Luckily, Lebanon has not complained about Israel’s refusal. But if the latter were smart they’d realize that Lebanese (and Hezbollah in particular) could take the peacekeeping force more seriously if it included Arab troops. And this would be in Israel’s interest. The problem is that Israel has no long-term vision. It only sees the short term, if that. And its view is that Arabs are enemies and cannot possibly police its northern border. A big mistake.