Leading article: Out of Lebanon's pain lies hope for the future

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The Independent Online

The summer's short, sharp war in Lebanon seems to have come full circle. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was in Beirut yesterday, urging lasting peace in the region and setting out a timetable of intensive diplomacy. There, and almost everywhere else, the mood appeared to be one of regret: if only this war, so destructive of life, property and hope, had simply not happened.

In Lebanon, Mr Annan said that the Hizbollah militia should hand over the two Israeli soldiers whose capture gave Israel the immediate pretext for its attacks. The previous day, the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, had given an extraordinary interview in which he said that the two servicemen would never have been taken prisoner, had he known, "even one per cent" that it would have led to a war of such magnitude. And with pressure mounting on the Israeli government over the war, it is probably not only the leader of Hizbollah who wishes there had been no war.

However desirable it might be to turn back the clock, though, this is not possible. The task now is to get to grips with the consequences of the new realities the conflict has exposed. Mr Annan's itinerary suggests that he, for one, senses that the mood of regret also affords opportunities.

The war demolished Israel's long-standing image of invincibility and left it looking weaker militarily. Its new sense of vulnerability makes it potentially more open to UN involvement than it has been in the recent past. The UN's determination to muster a convincing international force - which now appears within reach - suggests that it is tackling the question of border security, and not only Israel's, with a new seriousness.

If Israel emerged looking weaker, then Hizbollah came out looking stronger than had been appreciated. Its militia might not actually have won the war, but it performed so much more convincingly than expected that its fighters were hailed not just in southern Lebanon as heroes. The words of Mr Nasrallah, however, suggest that he detects dangers in the outcome.

By drawing attention to Hizbollah's military strength, the war may well have the effect of strengthening international calls for it to be disarmed. It is easy to be cynical about the effectiveness of UN Security Council resolutions in this part of the world - so many have been flouted. But if resolution 1701 is implemented and Hizbollah is prevented from operating as an armed force in southern Lebanon (even if it is not technically disarmed), its strength will be severely curtailed.

There are political risks for Hizbollah as well. What its supporters see as a victory could turn very sour if Hizbollah cannot swiftly fulfil its promises to restore services and rebuild what Israel's air strikes destroyed. Yet the money and other means required to repair the damage are considerable, as is organisation on a scale mostly only states can supply. The time has surely come for Hizbollah to rely more on participation in the political process and less on its military force (which may now be harder to replenish). Mr Annan's separate meeting yesterday with the Hizbollah minister in Lebanon's government points in a similar direction.

Mr Annan will be in southern Lebanon and Israel today, and then in Syria. He has to persuade Israel to end its air and sea blockade on Lebanon. In Damascus, he needs to convince Syria to secure its border with Lebanon to prevent further arms transfers to Hizbollah. These elements, along with a prisoner exchange, are all aspects of the larger, regional, picture. The pity is that it has taken such a costly war to show yet again how everything is connected.