Two weeks after the end of the fighting in Lebanon, just when it seemed that the nations of Europe would make do with contributing purely symbolic forces to an upgraded UNIFIL force in Lebanon, key nations on the continent have announced their willingness to contribute significant numbers of troops to the effort to stabilize the cease-fire on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
After initially offering only a symbolic force of 400 troops, French President Jacques Chirac has promised to send 2,000. Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja of Finland, which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, announced over the weekend that the first reinforcements of the UNIFIL force would arrive in southern Lebanon this week. He added that the total number of European soldiers would come to at least 7,000 - about half of the total multinational force.
The largest European contingent is being sent by Italy, and it will be joined by troops from Finland, Norway, Belgium and Spain. Britain, Denmark, Greece and Germany announced that they will supply naval forces to patrol the Lebanese coast.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the cabinet yesterday that UN Security Council Resolution 1701 is being implemented on the ground, with the most salient expression of this fact being the Lebanese Army's deployment in southern Lebanon. Israel also expects the international community to take responsibility for supervising Lebanon's border crossings.
Before flying to the region, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that UNIFIL soldiers will be stationed on the Syrian-Lebanese border to thwart arms smuggling to Hezbollah only if Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government explicitly requests this. Given Syria's opposition to stationing the force along its border with Lebanon, it is not clear what the Lebanese government's position on this issue will be.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the cabinet that the atmosphere during the Israel Defense Forces' coordination talks with the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL was "serious and positive." Nevertheless, Peretz noted, the international community's sluggishness in rebuilding Lebanon is enabling Iran and Hezbollah to consolidate their positions in the country's southern areas by giving generous financial aid to residents injured by the war. And amid all this, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said in an interview with Haaretz that if the international force succeeds in Lebanon, it is not inconceivable that a similar entity would in time be sent to Gaza.
International forces - no matter how large and effective they are - cannot be a substitute for diplomatic agreements between Israel and its neighbors. The experience of the last few years shows that international forces have succeeded in establishing peace in conflict areas and repairing war damages mainly in places where the warring parties reached bilateral agreements. Nevertheless, the international community's willingness to station a significant force in an area of conflict can certainly contribute to ripening and accelerating positive diplomatic processes. An outstanding example of this is the multinational force in Sinai, which was established as part of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
The success of the multinational force in Lebanon, and perhaps one in the occupied territories as well, will depend decisively on the achievement of diplomatic agreements between Israel and its enemies, with the help of the international community and its security-related and financial backing.
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