Israel batters Lebanon while US hesitates

The rising civilian death toll in Lebanon has prompted calls for Israel to accept an immediate unconditional ceasefire.

It's hard to disagree with Tony Blair's assessment that the Lebanon imbroglio has become a "catastrophe". As Israel stepped up its attacks against Hezbollah, the Lebanese death toll reached over 370, with civilians the main victims, while 40 Israelis have also died; the UN has launched an emergency appeal to alleviate the plight of 800,000 Lebanese. Last week, the civilian death toll prompted calls for Israel to accept an immediate unconditional ceasefire, a stance rejected as impractical by the US and the UK.

Blair was right to insist that there must be a plan to stop the killings by both Israel and Hezbollah for a ceasefire to work, says The Times, and any short-term measures will only work if "allied to a long-term plan". Diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis are now being stepped up, with Britain and the US helping to sketch the outlines of a formula for a lasting ceasefire that is likely to involve the deployment of a multinational force in south Lebanon. Nonetheless, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice appeared to suggest this week that "America will continue its policy of giving Israel more time to clobber Hezbollah", noted

Yet despite its fierce attacks it has razed whole suburbs Israel has so far "barely laid a glove" on it, said the FT. And it now risks boosting Hezbollah support by ordering out the entire population of south Lebanon. Israel is "well on the way to defeating its aims".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

While Rice sticks to the line that there can be no ceasefire until a long-term solution is clear, she has a chance to "exploit the clash between Israel and Hezbollah as a strategic opening" to weaken Hezbollah and its sponsors Syria and Iran, says The Wall Street Journal. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia "understand the hegemonic ambitions" of Hezbollah's patron, Iran, and see this episode as a warning of the trouble they could face if Iran goes nuclear. If Rice can exploit the anti-Iranian Arab "consensus" she has highlighted, she could contribute to peace in Lebanon. But America must recognise that Hezbollah cannot be uprooted and won't surrender, so it urgently needs to start working on a means of allowing both sides to climb down, says The Economist. Finding a formula for Hezbollah to consent to returning Israel's soldiers and leaving the border area without losing face will take "time, ingenuity and the full engagement of the US". Such a genuine ceasefire is the crucial precondition for the deployment of an international force, notes Patrick Bishop in The Daily Telegraph. And it seems "remote at present".

A ceasefire "cannot come soon enough for British foreign policy", says The Guardian. Having stuck rigidly to the US line, Blair has once again contributed to the perception that we have jettisoned British and European interests "in order to stay in the slipstream of the US administration". Blair comes across as "a poodle who can't even beg his master to toss him a dog biscuit", says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer: Bush wouldn't let him act as a Middle east peace envoy. Being "glued" to the US has made us seem an unconditional supporter over the past few years and prevented us having our own voice during this crisis "making Britain sound smaller than she is".

You can read more on what Lebanon means for the world economy and Stephen Roach on how likely the crisis is to derail the global economy. See also : How long can Iraeli investors keep dodging the bullets?