WASHINGTON—It has been nearly two weeks since war erupted in the Middle East between Israel and the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah, and in some ways little has changed since then.
Israeli is still pounding Lebanon, Hezbollah is still holding kidnapped Israeli soldiers and firing rockets into Israel, and civilians are still suffering.
But even before the smoke clears, the latest Mideast war has clarified tough choices facing all the antagonists, from the United States to tiny, fragile Lebanon, from Israel to its Arab neighbors.
What decisions are made could transform the Middle East permanently for better or worse, diplomats and foreign policy analysts say.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday put a gloss of optimism on the violence, calling it "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" and suggesting that a stronger central government in Lebanon will emerge.
But commentators point out that military force historically has had unintended consequences in the troubled region. There are other, darker scenarios: a further loss of U.S. influence in the Arab world, political disintegration in Lebanon, a new quagmire for Israel.
Here are some of the dilemmas the major players face:
_Israel. With the Bush administration's tacit approval, Israel seems intent on crippling Hezbollah's arms caches and military infrastructure, even if that means harming Lebanese civilians and towns.
But a deep, long-lasting incursion into Lebanon is fraught with danger, as Israel's officer corps knows well. Israel invaded the country in 1982 to destroy Palestinian militants who were using it as a base for attacks—and ended up staying 18 years.
Hezbollah "can regroup, wait, improve its ambush techniques and confront Israel with the reality of withdrawing or going right back into the morass in southern Lebanon that it fled once before," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Moreover, the national security strategy touted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, based on Israel's unilateral withdrawal from occupied territories and setting its own borders, is now in tatters, both in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
"Part of the Israeli challenge is not just defeating Hezbollah, but while they're on the run, figuring out what the long-term strategy is going to be," said Middle East expert Jon Alterman, also of CSIS.
_Hezbollah. By firing rockets into Israel, Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have gained popularity in the Arab world and nervous criticism from Western-friendly countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The militant group can continue fighting, which likely would produce an escalated Israeli response, or it could try to hunker down and fight another day.
Hezbollah is believed to have enough missiles to sustain it for six more months, said a State Department official, who disputed Israeli claims that it has degraded half the group's capabilities since the fighting began. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified.
Either way, it's a win-win for the group, said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and Middle East analyst for the Brookings Institution. "Arab public opinion is with him (Nasrallah), whether it's Sunni or Shia, from Jordan to Egypt."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week that Israel's operations may be increasing popular support for Hezbollah in the region and that they were "doing a great deal to weaken the government of Lebanon."
That brought a sharp retort from Israel's ambassador to Washington, Daniel Ayalon.
"There may be a (temporary) spike in popularity, but in the medium and long range, it's going to decrease tremendously the popularity of Hezbollah," Ayalon said.
Hezbollah also has to worry that Israeli attacks, coupled with diplomatic measures, could squeeze its arms supplies from Syria and Iran.
_The United States. President Bush already appears to have made a fundamental decision: Give Israel virtual carte blanche against Hezbollah while incorporating the battle into the administration's overall plan to fundamentally transform the Middle East into a democratic region.
But that decision has a potential cost. U.S. influence is at a low ebb in the Arab world, where Washington's stance is seen as hopelessly one-sided.
Egypt, apparently worried about its own public opinion, balked at hosting a meeting between Rice and Arab leaders, according to diplomats and U.S. officials.
Rice repeated Friday that the United States has no plans to talk to Hezbollah or Syria. Washington has no diplomatic relations with Iran and also doesn't talk to the Palestinian government led by Hamas, which it designates as a terrorist group.
"The U.S. will be another loser in this process," Cordesman said. "The administration's posture of standing aside, and bipartisan pandering (to Israel) in the Congress, have left the U.S. without any effort to create the kind of international forces that might actually create a meaningful buffer between Israel and Hezbollah, or help the Lebanese government disarm it."
Rice indicated Friday that the U.S. strategy will be centered around strengthening the fragile democratic government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora so it can control all of Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah. And that's a tall order.
_Lebanon. It's perhaps the biggest loser with the fewest options. The Lebanese government didn't know in advance of Hezbollah's July 12 attack on Israel, and the country is sustaining heavy bombing from Israel. Saniora's government, racked by sectarian intrigue, is too weak to confront Hezbollah. All it can do is plead for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid.
_Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. These three Western-leaning governments have been unusually outspoken in their criticism of Hezbollah.
That illustrates concern over the growing role of Shiite Muslim Iran, Hezbollah's main patron, in the Arab world. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are led by Sunni Muslims.
But public opinion in those nations strongly favors Hezbollah's challenge to Israel. That could prompt those governments to impose restrictions to avoid protests, a further blow to the Bush administration's drive to expand democratic freedoms in the region.
"They may be forced to become more repressive," Telhami said. "When they become more oppressive, democracy and freedom become casualty No. 1."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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