Cease fire too late to help U.S. image with Arab world

A U.S.-backed diplomatic pact to end more than a month of war between Israel and Islamic militants in Lebanon may stop the worst of the killing and retire the daily television images of burning buildings and suffocated children.

It will not do much to improve the image of America in the Arab world.

This war is widely viewed as a joint U.S.-Israeli venture that slaughtered innocents and wrecked homes, roads and businesses in a fragile democracy the Bush administration has said it supports.

Rev. Werner Lange of Newton Falls, Ohio, carries the Lebanese and Palestinian flag as the White House is seen in the background during a rally in Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, condemning the policies of U.S and Israel. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Rev. Werner Lange of Newton Falls, Ohio, carries the Lebanese and Palestinian flag as the White House is seen in the background during a rally in Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, condemning the policies of U.S and Israel. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

President Bush on Saturday urged world leaders to turn the words of a U.N. cease-fire deal into action, even as Israel staged wide-ranging airstrikes across Lebanon and sent commandos into the Hezbollah heartland.

Airstrikes killed at least 19 people in Lebanon, including 15 in one village, while Hezbollah rockets wounded at least five people in Israel in the hours after the unanimous U.N. vote. Israel says it may fight another week despite the cease-fire deal.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has become a folk hero across the Arab world for taking on Israel, agreed to the deal Saturday, but said the militants will continue fighting as long as Israeli troops remain in south Lebanon.

The Lebanese Cabinet was in session to vote on whether to agree to the U.N. resolution. And Israel’s parliament is to take it up Sunday.

The deal would stop the fighting, perhaps next week, and authorize deployment of 15,000 foreign troops to help the Lebanese army control the country’s southern swath, along the Israeli border.

Israel would begin withdrawing the forces that have invaded Lebanon over the past five weeks “in parallel” with deployment of the peacekeeping force. Hezbollah is directed to stop all attacks, but Israeli forces could defend themselves so long as they are there.

The terms of the peace deal may only reinforce twin perceptions in the Arab world: The United States did too little too late to rein in Israel and end the fighting, and friendship with the United States is worth little because the United States will back Israel no matter what, foreign policy analysts said.

“The U.S. reputation as an honest broker has been eroding under this administration for some time. This just crystallized what the Arabs thought,” said Jonathan Clarke, a former British diplomat now at the Cato Institute. He said the Arabs had grown to believe “the U.S. and Israel had become one country.”

The United States backed Israel without public reservation from the first moments of the war, when Hezbollah militants crossed the Lebanon border and killed and captured Israeli soldiers on July 12.

Bush laid blame on the militants and their Syrian and Iranian backers in his statement welcoming the cease-fire blueprint.

“The loss of innocent life in both Lebanon and Israel has been a great tragedy,” Bush said. “Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors have brought an unwanted war to the people of Lebanon and Israel, and millions have suffered as a result.”

The Bush administration has set expansion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East as the signal call of a foreign policy that Arab, European and other governments still view with suspicion more than thre years after the widely unpopular U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Athough inspiring to some Arab reformers, the Bush policy was always seen as naive by many leaders in the region and elsewhere.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was ridiculed in the Arab press when she taled about the war as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” during a diplomatic trip to the region that outwardly accomplished little.

The Lebanon conflict has heightened anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, with frequent protests in moderate U.S.allies like Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the region say the bloodshed only fuels radicalism.

“We would like to return to the old Middle East, because we don’t see anything in the new Middle East apart from more problems,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal remarked.

The war has undermined the Arab reformers and political moderates Washington has courted.

The democracy movements in Egypt and other countries were already struggling as their governments rolled back on promises of change.

“The Americans are shooting themselves in the foot,” Abdel Moneim Said, head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, based in Cairo, said last week, before the U.N. deal. “The only beneficiaries of the ongoing conflict are the fundamentalists.”

The United States pushed for the peace deal approved by the United Nations Security Council on Friday to stop fighting that threatened to topple Lebanon’s tenuous democratic government.

The deal does not accomplish the disarmament of Hezbollah, the key goal that Bush and Rice said they sought.

The deal also does not guarantee that Lebanon can extend political control to the southern part of the country where the armed Hezbollah movement held greater power than the Beirut government.

Nor does the deal make Israel more likely to cooperate toward the wider Bush administration goal of peace with the Palestinians and a viable independent Palestinian state. Analysts said they see little prospect that Washington can help broker a real peace settlement for years to come.

“Condi talked about a new Middle East,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser ton the Middle East to both Republican and Democratic administrations. “There will be new Middle East, but it will be a nastier and messier one.”