The Rules of the Game

Mark Perry is co-director of the Conflicts Forum, a Beirut-based nongovernmental organization that has, over the past three years, put former senior American and British policy-makers and intelligence officials in talks with Hezbollah and other militant political Islamic groups in Lebanon. He formerly worked as an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and as a reporter for Newsday. Perry has recently returned from Beirut and is now in Arlington, Virginia. Laura Rozen interviewed him by telephone Friday about the unfolding crisis in Lebanon and Israel.

So explain what your group, Conflicts Forum, is about and under what auspices you have been having a dialogue with Hezbollah

We have been talking to Hezbollah for three years. [Conflicts Forum] has put together a group of former senior policy-makers to talk to Hezbollah. We did two official, open sessions, in March and July of 2005, and then we did a lot more informal, private sessions. And [my co-director, former MI6 agent] Alistair [Crooke] and I talk to them every time we go to Beirut -- about once a month -- and talk to them on the phone on a weekly basis.

What's your relationship with the American government?

We have none. I talk to some people in the American government. They don't like what we do, they don't endorse what we do, they don't condone what we do. But we have shown that we do what they should have done, and they almost feel like they have to listen [to us]. We're doing what they're supposed to be doing: diplomacy and politics. …

There are five major political movements in the Middle East: Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. And we [the U.S. government] don't talk to any of them. How can we possibly have any leverage diplomatically to end the current conflict when the only party we talk to is Israel?

You can bet your ass Ronald Reagan wouldn't do this. Ronald Reagan sent Philip Habib into Lebanon in 1981 to talk to anyone to end the violence. He didn't say, "Don't talk to the terrorists." Ronald Reagan said, "Violence is no good, let's talk." Now we've got a president who says he emulates Ronald Reagan, but he doesn't follow his principles.

We've been hearing the theory that the timing of Hezbollah's Tuesday kidnapping of the two Israeli Defense Force soldiers was planned well in advance and with coordination from Tehran or Damascus. Can you speak to that?

Oy vey. There are a lot of people in Washington trying to walk that story back right now, because it's not true.

Hezbollah and Israel stand along this border every day observing each other through binoculars and waiting for an opportunity to kill each other. They are at war. They have been for 25 years, no one ever declared a cease-fire between them. … They stand on the border every day and just wait for an opportunity. And on Tuesday morning there were two Humvees full of Israeli soldiers, not under observation from the Israeli side, not under covering fire, sitting out there all alone. The Hezbollah militia commander just couldn't believe it -- so he went and got them.

The Israeli captain in charge of that unit knew he had really screwed up, so he sent an armored personnel carrier to go get them in hot pursuit, and Hezbollah led them right through a minefield.

Now if you're sitting in Tehran or Damascus or Beirut, and you are part of the terrorist Politburo so to speak, you have a choice. With your head sunk in your hands, thinking "Oh my God," you can either give [the kidnapped soldiers] back and say "Oops, sorry, wrong time" or you can say, "Hey, this is war."

It is absolutely ridiculous to believe that the Hezbollah commander on the ground said Tuesday morning, "Go get two Israeli soldiers, would you please?”

But, you make it sound like a dog with a squirrel, like there's no free will. Like the temptation for Hezbollah to kidnap the Israeli soldiers because there was an opportunity suddenly on Tuesday was somehow irresistible. Why did they have to go get them?

They are at war. Israel says they want to go get and destroy Hezbollah every day. Israel occupied their country for how many years?

But Israel withdrew from Lebanon a few years ago.

Let's propose it was unprovoked. Israel has now said it is in a state of war against Lebanon. Fine. The fact is that it happens to be at war then against our ally, the government in Lebanon that the we [the U.S. government] set up, is being ignored here. The U.S. and Israel are at cross purposes.

Some are proposing that the Lebanese government send its army into southern Lebanon. What do you think of that idea?

It's a really great idea. The Lebanese army can't collect the garbage in Beirut. Neither can the Syrian army. Southern Lebanon is Hezbollah land. … Hezbollah is the second or third most competent military force in the region, after Israel and Iran. It could probably defeat a good sized Egyptian battalion.

What is Hezbollah? Militia, political party, social network, philanthropic organization?

The Hezbollah, the Army of God, is a militia established within the Shiite community in Lebanon to defend itself against not just Israel but from Lebanese Christians and Lebanese Sunnis. It is the result of a civil conflict that is a lot like Hobbes -- a war of everyone against everyone. They were slaughtered and they slaughtered. And you know, they view themselves as surrounded.

How do you see this playing out?

Some interesting things are going on in Israel, and we ought to take note of it. The first thing, the current prime minister in Israel [Ehud Olmert] is a very capable guy. And he is a realist. … But he isn't Ariel Sharon. He's not a warrior. He has a genetic mistrust of the uses of bombs and airplanes to conduct foreign policy.

But when you are attacked you respond, and he did. And he has been very clearly signaling that there are limits here. While Condi Rice and George Bush talk about Syria and Iran, Olmert has taken Syria and Iran off the table, put them back on, and then taken them back off.

When Hezbollah attacked Haifa Thursday, first Hezbollah said, “We didn't do it.” Then they said, “We didn't target Haifa.” No one picked up on it. Here's what they meant to say: “We understand hitting Haifia is a major escalation, and we didn't mean to do that.”…

Olmert responded, “You get Haifa, we'll take down Beirut,” and he went after Beirut. So far as I can tell, since then, Haifa has been off limits.

Now so far as I can tell, there are rules here. And the rules are, you take down our major cities and we'll make life very uncomfortable for you. And Olmert put Damascus back on the table as a clear warning. And I think [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assaad probably called Hezbollah -- over which he doesn't have too much influence -- and said, “Did you hear that signal or not?” And they got it.

So now we're in a game. … I expect we'll see an escalation here over the next two days, but what I would expect to find after that is that both sides climb down off the ladder.

Laura Rozen is a senior correspondent for the Prospect.

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