Posted on August 02, 2010 in Washington Watch

After a century in which tragedy has been heaped upon tragedy across the Middle East, it is distressing to see how many dangerous illusions still shape the behavior of so many of the region's principal players.

This truth was brought home by a recent report, "A Third Lebanon War", issued by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of the report, former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Dan Kurtzer, after methodically assessing factors on all sides, advises U.S. policy makers to prepare for the possibility of war in the next 12 to 18 months between Israel and Hizbollah forces in Lebanon.

Kurtzer wrote his piece well before rumors that an international tribunal may be indicting members of Hizbollah for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. And while this has generated a new set of concerns with the focus now on Lebanon's internal stability instead of war with Israel, the CFR piece remains useful for its analysis and the dangers it examines.

The developments that prompt Kurtzer's assessment are twofold: Israel's growing concerns with the quantity and quality of weapons alleged to have been amassed by Hizbollah in violation of U.N. Security Council Res. 1701, and the heightened war-like rhetoric on both sides.

Kurtzer sees it as unlikely that Hizbollah would launch hostilities, and suggests that the more likely scenarios are that Israel would either try to lure the Lebanese militia into a war or take it upon itself to attack Hizbollah positions in Lebanon in an effort to "degrade" the group's military "capabilities".

Kurtzer cautions that no good would come of this renewed conflict. Lebanon would again pay a bitter price. Israel, already experiencing some degree of international isolation, would see its standing further compromised and such an adventure would most likely not result in dislodging or weakening Hizbollah. And the U.S. would witness severe setbacks to its three major policy objectives in the Middle East: "slowing or stopping Iran's nuclear program, withdrawing combat forces from Iraq, and helping Middle East peace talks succeed".

While Kurtzer suggests measures the U.S. might take to discourage an Israeli attack or, after hostilities begin, to limit them, he acknowledges that the combination of partisan politics and the work of the Israel lobby would likely restrain the Administration from taking too aggressive a stance to pressure Israel or more actively engage Iran and Syria, or to open a dialogue with Hizbollah-all with an eye toward easing regional tensions.

In the end, Kurtzer concludes that while the U.S. "should work to avert another war in Lebanon, its capacity to do so is limited". He, therefore, concludes that the Administration's best options are to prepare for a worst case scenario. Among these options are: "upgrading U.S. intelligence coll