Before joining the US State Department, Indyk served for eight years as founding executive director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Columbia University, Tel Aviv University, and Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Indyk has published widely on Middle East issues.
What was your reaction when this latest conflict between Lebanon and Israel began?
My reaction was to think that it was foolish of Hezbollah to kidnap the two Israeli soldiers. This was an unprovoked act of aggression across an internationally recognised border, which gave Israel the justification it had been waiting for to take down Hezbollah’s strategic capabilities.
Israel has been observing Hezbollah build up its power with Iran’s help and was just biding its time. [Hezbollah leader Hasan] Nasrallah is renowned for his cleverness, but he seems to have miscalculated in this case.
Did you foresee this sort of violence between the two countries?
No, I didn’t foresee it. I don’t know anyone who has predicted wars that have broken out in the Middle East … and especially not the tens of thousands of people on vacation in Lebanon this summer. But I did expect that at some time, Hezbollah would overreach and Israel would grab the opportunity to respond.
How do you think the situation got to this point?
Hezbollah wanted to take a ride on the Palestinian cause.
First, if they kidnapped soldiers like Hamas had done, and then demanded the release of Palestinian as well as Lebanese prisoners, they could become champions of the Palestinian cause.
However this crisis ends, Iran will no longer have that deterrent capability in Lebanon
Second, this relates to Iran’s agenda: To divert attention at the G8 summit away from Iran’s nuclear programme. That worked very effectively. But here too, I think Iran miscalculated, extracting short-term gains at the price of long-term strategic interests.
Iran was using Hezbollah’s Iranian-supplied capabilities to deter the US and Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear programme. However this crisis ends, Iran will no longer have that deterrent capability in Lebanon.
What these two things show is that Hezbollah is not pursuing a Lebanese agenda. Its actions serve the agenda of Syria and Iran.
But Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah wanted to be in the Lebanese government so that it wouldn’t have to disarm. It used the elections process to move into the government so as to exercise a veto over any attempt by the government to disarm Hezbollah, as the Taif Agreements (1989 conference that paved the way for the Lebanese civil war to end) and UN Security Council resolution 1559 require.
Who do you think is to blame for this crisis?
Hezbollah and Iran are to blame.
Do they benefit from this?
We will see who benefits when the crisis ends. If it ends with Hezbollah pushed out of southern Lebanon and replaced by the Lebanese armed forces, its missile capabilities destroyed, and a process of disarmament under way, Lebanon will benefit.
If it ends with the destruction of the Lebanese government and the re-entry of Syria into Lebanese politics, then Hezbollah and Iran will benefit, but Lebanon will be the big loser.
How do you think that this can be resolved?
What’s needed is an international consensus for a ceasefire, an end to the rocket-launchings by Hezbollah, an end to Israel’s military operations in Lebanon, the return of the captured Israeli soldiers, the removal of Hezbollah from southern Lebanon – replaced with the Lebanese army backed by an international force with teeth – and the establishment of an armistice agreement between Israel and Lebanon.
Hezbollah could agree. But I doubt that it would go quietly into the dark
It also needs the establishment of a joint border demarcation committee between Israel and Lebanon that would deal with territorial issues such as Sheba Farms, and the implementation of UNSC resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah.
That package could be agreed upon. In fact the governments of Israel and Lebanon are very close to accepting those principles. But the challenge would be to persuade Hezbollah to accept it. With the backing of the international community and the support of the Lebanese government, Hezbollah could agree. But I doubt that it would go quietly into the dark.
What is the United States’ responsibility at this point?
The United States should take the initiative to put together a ceasefire package containing the elements listed above. It will need to combine it with a commitment to lead an international effort to rebuild Lebanon. Then it should get the government of Lebanon and Israel to agree to the package. That’s the easy part.
The difficult part will be persuading Hezbollah to go along without inviting Syria or Lebanon to be the arbiters of Lebanon’s fate.
Is it possible for the United States to be considered an honest peace broker in the Middle East?
Yes, as long as it uses its influence for good purposes. The United States has a special relationship with Israel, which enables it to exercise influence over Israel. That is more valuable to Arabs who seek to redress their grievances through peacemaking than European powers that cheer them on but can’t deliver anything because they have such poor relations with Israel (eg France).
On the other hand, if the United States is to be effective in making peace, those who would make war on Israel instead should know that they’ll get no American support.
Some people have said that Hezbollah’s bombing of Israel is bad for Hezbollah and Israel’s bombing of Lebanon is bad for Israel. What do you think?
If that logic prevails it will drag the whole region back to war
I think there’s a measure of truth in both statements. It’s always better, as Winston Churchill said, to “jaw-jaw rather than war-war”. But remember who started this particular conflict. Hezbollah thought that it could gain from attacking Israel. If that logic prevails it will drag the whole region back to war.
Some people think that Iran and/or Syria are waging a proxy war in Lebanon. What do you think?
Hezbollah had its own reasons for attacking Israel, but Syrian and Iranian interests were being served as well, otherwise they would’ve intervened to stop their client organisation.
Do you think that Iran or Syria could use this conflict as a bargaining chip?
I am sure they will both try. Having lit the fire, they would be delighted to have the US turn to them to act as the fire brigade. But, as my mother used to warn me: “If you play with matches don’t be surprised if you get burnt.”
Do you think this is the beginning of a larger war in the Middle East?
My experience of wars in the Middle East is that you know where and how it starts, but no one can accurately predict how it will end.
So I do think this war has the potential to spread to an Israeli-Syrian conflict, even though Syria and Israel have made it clear that they don’t want that to happen.