Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"There Is a Real Risk of Escalation"

Georg Mascolo, Spiegel:
Former United States Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, 57, tells DER SPIEGEL about Tehran's interest in the war in Lebanon and the chances of a lasting solution to the conflict in the Middle East. READ MORE

SPIEGEL: Seventy years ago a British commission on the Middle East wrote: "an irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country." Has anything actually changed for the better since then?

Ross: It's two national movements, two national identities competing for the same space. That's what it's been about from the beginning. At different points we thought we had crossed that bridge. It seemed an existential conflict had turned it into a political conflict. Political conflict you can resolve. Existential conflicts you really can't. For someone like me who spent the better part of 20 years working hard to create acceptance of a two-state outcome, I see a danger of seeing the clock turned backward. Hezbollah refers to Israel as "Occupied Palestine." Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist. They're trying to change the story. They're trying to change it back, saying there doesn't need to be two states.

SPIEGEL: The Bush administration is convinced that Syria and especially Iran are behind the new escalation. Do you agree?

Ross: I do. Iran wants to be able to create all sorts of problems a long way away from its own borders. Syria sits much closer and here there is a real risk of escalation. If some of the missiles that Hezbollah has, if they were to hit a school and you had a large number of Israeli kids suddenly killed, the impulse to do more than just to hit Hezbollah would be quite high within Israel.

SPIEGEL: It seems that voices in Washington are becoming louder saying we have to deal seriously with Iran now.

Ross: I would say, first of all, what you have is an interesting indicator of real Iranian behavior. They deny what they do, so you can't believe what they say. They obviously have been providing all sorts of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. You also see they're feeling confident now. If they had a nuclear shield they would become even more aggressive. It would be good now, in fact, to move a resolution in the Security Council. The resolution needs to be serious on sanctions and it can't be minimal sanctions.

SPIEGEL: And with the help of the Arab world which fears the growing influence of Iran in the region?

Ross: For Saudi Arabia to criticize Hezbollah directly and publicly, says they understand that Hezbollah is a tool of Iran.

SPIEGEL: So you see signs that the rest of the Arab world will side with the United States, or maybe even Israel?

Ross: I see a strategic convergence of interest. The Arabs won't act because of Israel. They'll act because of Lebanon. Hezbollah pursued an Iranian agenda at great consequence and at great cost to Lebanon.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be best for the Untied States to offer Syria a deal?

Ross: I'm the one who helped negotiate the last two cease-fires you had between Hezbollah and Israel, which really was done between Israel and Syria. I am the one who helped negotiate those in '93 and '96. It's very hard to imagine an outcome here where the Syrians aren't a part of it. Because if they're not part of it, they can frustrate it. They can undercut it.

SPIEGEL: What would such an offer look like?

Ross: You have to make it clear what isolation may mean for Syria. Do they really want to stand alone in the Arab world with their only friend being Iran? The European Union's economic relationship with Syria is critical for Syria today. Maybe Syria has to know what they lose, but then they also have to know what they stand to gain. We should seek to change the behavior of Syria if we can. I make the assumption that it's possible -- not easy, but possible.

SPIEGEL: What do you think about the idea of a robust peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon?

Ross: I would be in favor of this as long as everybody knows what they are getting into. I favor a cease-fire, but I don't favor a cease-fire that contains with it the seeds of its own destruction. If you're going to put a stabilization force in there, it goes in there to make sure that Hezbollah cannot provoke this kind of conflict again.

SPIEGEL: Could the 2,000 soldiers of UNIFIL (The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) who have been stationed in the border region since 1978 be reinforced?

Ross: They've been there for 28 years. They've never stopped a single attack. UNIFIL should be withdrawn and replaced with a force that has a mandate and a different title. Maybe it could be a contingency of air forces. The mandate has to be preventing further attacks.

Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo.