Prospects for an immediate cease-fire look dim as world leaders converge in Rome today to try and untangle the knots of the current Middle East crisis.
“The most we can hope for is a first step for a cease fire but one cannot expect a solution to the situation on the ground,” says international relations expert Dr Stephen C. Calleya.
As civilian casualties increase, Israel has spelled out its intentions: that of keeping control over an area in southern Lebanon until an international force can be deployed.
Talking to Business Today, Dr Calleya interprets Condoleeza Rice’s declaration that the USA will not accept a return to the status quo in the region as an admission that the USA has been playing for time to give Israel the chance to gain some military advantage on the ground.
“There are only two ways to alter the status quo in the region: either a military operation, which takes weeks or a long peace process involving the international community,” Calleya says.
The international relations expert considers the first option as a dangerous and risky one.
“This would not only lead to more civilian casualties but it risks a major escalation with the conflict spreading to other countries in the region.”
But the second option, which involves sending an international peace keeping force, is also fraught with difficulties.
One major difficulty lies in the composition of the peacekeeping force. Israel had originally stated that it will only accept a NATO-led force but subsequently hinted that it might accept a force led by the European Union.
“It will be very difficult for Israel to accept a force led by the United Nations or even the EU. Frankly speaking it will be difficult for them to accept anything but a US-led force,” Calleya says.
Another obstacle to a long-term solution is the absence of key players like Hizbollah and Hamas from the Rome conference.
Calleya insists that these groups have to be involved at some stage. “Both Hizbollah and Hamas cannot be simply written off for being militant groups. They have been democratically elected as political movements to represent their constituencies.”
As regards Lebanon, Calleya acknowledges that Hizbollah cannot be accepted as legitimate interlocutors in today’s meeting.
“But at some stage they have to be at the negotiating table to achieve a long term settlement.”
As regards Palestinian militant group Hamas, Calleya has no doubts.
“It does not make any sense to keep the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people out of negotiations.”
Even in Rome, the climate is one of pessimism.
Scenes of civilians killed by both sides do not leave much room for optimism, according to Italian Green MP Arnold Cassola, a member of the ruling centre-left coalition.
Cassola’s optimism is dampened as Israel has presented too many conditions for an immediate cease-fire to take place.
But the Maltese-Italian MP hails the Rome conference as a major foreign policy success for Romano Prodi.
“Prodi aims at restoring Italy’s centrality in world affairs. Under Berlusconi, Italy was emarginated, as it was perceived as being too pro-American. Under Prodi Italy enjoys the trust of both the Israelis as well as the Arab world.”
Dr Calleya does not attribute great political significance to the choice of Rome as the venue.
“Most likely Rome was chosen for being geographically convenient and for not having a direct link to the contending parties.”
But MLP spokesperson Leo Brincat concurs with Cassola, arguing that Italy could have been rewarded for adopting a more pragmatic approach than that adopted in the past by the more pro-American Berlusconi.
Brincat is also disappointed by the response of the Maltese government.
“Malta could have been more vocal in expressing its call for an immediate cease-fire.”
The MLP’s spokesperson on international affairs considers the EU’s response to the crisis as weak.
“One should not only blame the USA for its slow response. The EU has been impotent.”
Brincat is not optimistic on the outcome of the Rome conference and is far from optimistic on the feasibility of sending an international peace keeping force.
“What I hope is that the international community will be sending a clear message that it intends beefing up the Lebanese government to enable it to implement UN resolution 1559.”
According to resolution 1559 the Lebanese government is obliged to take under its control the southern border with Israel currently manned by Hizbollah.
“It is clear that the Lebanese government is not to blame for being unable to implement this resolution.”
According to Brincat the current Lebanese government should be credited for the departure of Syrian troops from the country.
“A few months ago Siniora was being hailed by the west as a harbinger of democracy in Lebanon. The son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was even hosted by Bush in the White House. It is a pity that the same government has now been abandoned.”
Brincat contends that Israeli attacks are only strengthening Hizbollah and weakening those elements of the Lebanese government, which are independent of Syria and Iran.