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Let's Start Talking

As I see it, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is shooting Israel and America in the feet (and Lebanon in the stomach) each day that he continues his onslaught, with President Bush enthusiastically providing the ammunition.

But since discussions of the Middle East usually involve people shouting past each other, let me stop harrumphing and try to address head-on the arguments of the many readers who disagree.

It’s a tragedy that Lebanese children are dying, but it would be crazy to accept a cease-fire now. That would hand Hezbollah a huge victory and return the Middle East to the impossible situation of the last few years, with rockets still raining down on northern Israel. So the U.S. has to give Israel space to get this job done.

Look at the results so far with the job half done: some 600 dead Lebanese, and scores of dead Israelis; Hezbollah’s rise to heroic status; the strengthening of Syria’s hard-line regime; the weakening of moderates like King Abdullah of Jordan; a boost for Shiite militants in Iraq and around the region; the marginalization of Lebanon’s democracy movement; and the further trashing of America’s reputation around the world.

Lebanese, instead of turning on Hezbollah, are rallying around it. A poll by the Beirut Center for Research and Information found that 87 percent of those surveyed supported Hezbollah’s battles with Israel. That included 80 percent of Lebanese Christians surveyed.

So with those results after more than three weeks, why will it be any different in another couple of weeks?

It is, of course, possible that bunker-buster bombs could decapitate Hezbollah’s leadership. But Israel didn’t achieve a victory in the 18 years before it withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, so it’s time to move toward a cease-fire — not only to save Lebanese lives but also to get on with the business of a diplomatic solution.

There may be a diplomatic solution, but first we have to clear out Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. Then an international force can go in as a buffer, and Israel will be delighted to pull out.

It’s fine to talk about an international force, but no country will send troops if Hezbollah objects. Otherwise, those troops will be targets, as they were in 1983. And Hezbollah and Syria won’t approve unless there is some larger agreement between Israel and Lebanon — and some benefit to Syria as well.

How can one negotiate with those who would destroy you? Israel tried restraint and Hezbollah used the time to build up its arsenal.

President Bush is right about one thing: We need to do more than restore the prewar situation on the Israeli-Lebanese border. There is also an opportunity here — to achieve a landmark Lebanon-Israel peace deal.

Edward Walker, former ambassador to Israel and former assistant secretary of state for the region, told me he thought a long-term settlement was plausible (although he acknowledged that he was also the optimistic boy who expected a pony every Christmas). France is showing leadership in pressing for such a lasting deal, and Mr. Bush should push that diplomatic effort with every administration sinew.

Terms of a genuine settlement might involve an exchange of prisoners, Israel giving up the Shebaa Farms area (if not to Lebanon, then to an international force), and an Israeli promise not to breach Lebanese territory or airspace unless attacked. Hezbollah would commit to becoming a purely political force and to dismantling its militia, with its weaponry going to the Lebanese armed forces. Israel would resume talks with Syria on the Golan Heights, the U.S. would resume contact with Syria, and Syria would agree to stop supplying weaponry to Hezbollah (or allowing it in from Iran). Syria and Hezbollah would then pledge cooperation with a robust international buffer force along the border. Some of this may have to come in stages: for example, with Hezbollah first leaving the border area and then giving up its weaponry.

Granted, it’s odd for Israel to hand over Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, since old maps show pretty clearly that it was Syrian. But Syria, seeking to make mischief, has said that it is Lebanese, and it certainly is not Israeli.

Israel would worry that such a settlement would be seen as rewarding Hezbollah and would encourage other militant groups. That’s a legitimate concern. But such moves would also remove the raison d’être for Hezbollah’s militia, and they are probably the price for achieving calm in northern Israel. So let’s stop the killing and start the talking

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