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In cauldron of war, a search for cooler heads

JERUSALEM -- As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a Middle East foray with a surprise visit to Lebanon yesterday, analysts and Middle Eastern diplomats working to quiet the 13-day-old war between Israel and the Islamists of Hezbollah said the international community is facing problems that make this latest fire in the region especially difficult to quench.

The first rough outlines of security arrangements that could lead to a cease-fire emerged over the last two days, as Israel indicated for the first time that it might accept an international peacekeeping force along its border with Lebanon. But the minimum conditions Israel would require remain very far from the military and political reality on the ground.

Most essential, and most difficult to achieve, is Israel's insistence, strongly supported by the United States, for an end to Hezbollah's capacity to attack the Jewish state, and for restoration of Lebanese government sovereignty on its side of the border, which has long been controlled by the Islamist militia.

``Essentially, the minimum Israel is talking about is more than the maximum the Lebanese side can deliver," said Gidi Grinstein , who was a senior member of the Israeli negotiating team at the 2000 Camp David summit conference. ``So the idea is that the international force would fill in the gap."

Such a force would have to be willing to engage Hezbollah militarily -- something Israel would never trust United Nations forces to do. A NATO or European force, ideally with battle experience in Kosovo and with participation from Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, probably would be acceptable, analysts say.

``We need an international force of about 15,000 to 20,000 men who are combat troops . . . who will enforce international borders and fight back when Hezbollah tries to attack," said Michael Oren , an adviser to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and to US forces during the first Gulf War.

Even if such a force were available -- and none of the nations calling for an international force has expressed a willingness to send troops -- Hezbollah would have to sign on to some agreement that would be less than full disarmament but would involve its withdrawal from the area to be secured by the international force in combination with the Lebanese Army, diplomats and analysts agree. Otherwise the international force would have to fight its way in -- something no one thinks will happen.

Only a change in the regional role of Syria, which is currently isolated among Arab and Western states because of its support for Hezbollah, is likely to induce Hezbollah to accept such a compromise.

But many observers say that such a change on Syria's part is not inconceivable. The Ba'athist regime there already is suffering from the isolation and pressure being exerted on its by Western nations in connection with its long dominance over Lebanon and its suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

``The key is Syria," said Shai Feldman , who heads the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. ``It boils down to lining up Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to exert massive pressure on [Syrian President] Bashar Assad to compel Hezbollah to accept this compromise."

Those nations have leverage on Syria, Feldman said, because without friendly relations with them Syria would be isolated in the Arab world . He said that Syria fears such a development because its poorly armed, outmoded military might then have to face the Israelis without Arab allies.

Arab officials in Cairo said two days ago that Egyptian and Saudi leaders already have begun talking with the Syrians, offering political and financial incentives, and Syria has said several times recently that it wanted to reopen talks with the United States and Israel.

Pressure also could be exerted on Syria by Russia, said Shlomo Breznitz , a member of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, because Russia is Syria's main supplier in its efforts to modernize its military.

Without the ability to ship munitions through Syria, Iran -- Hezbollah's primary sponsor -- would find it difficult to finance and arm the Islamist group. This would alter fundamentally the military equation in the current conflict.

But even if all these difficult-to-achieve arrangements were made, the conflict still would be far from fully resolved. Hezbollah is committed as an article of faith to the destruction of the Jewish state, as is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad .

Many military analysts believe Iran already has transferred longer-range missiles to Hezbollah than have been used in the current conflict, and it is believed that even if Hezbollah accepts cease-fire arrangements in the short term, it would one day challenge Israel again by shooting one of those missiles over the heads of the peacekeepers into Israel.

The international force then would be caught between Hezbollah and a retaliation probably more severe than the one now unfolding. ``Israel would have to make it absolutely clear in any agreement that that first rocket would constitute an all-out declaration of war by Lebanon on Israel," Breznitz said.

Rice, in her first comments on arriving in Jerusalem late last night, said that ``any peace is going to have to be based on enduring principles and not on temporary solutions." But many regional specialists here feel that is unrealistic.

``There is no end," said Shaul Mishal , a senior adviser to the Israeli foreign and defense ministries, who is a proponent of Israeli engagement with the Arab world. ``We are just trying to find a new equilibrium in the north ."

Even that is ``going to be a big, long process," he said, ``and when you are talking about long processes in the Middle East you can always find something that can blow up the situation."

Globe correspondent Matthew Kalman also contributed to this report.

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