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THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP

HOST: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN

PANEL: PATRICK BUCHANAN, MSNBC; ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK; TONY BLANKLEY, THE WASHINGTON TIMES; PETER BEINART, THE NEW REPUBLIC

TAPED: FRIDAY, JULY 21, 2006
BROADCAST: WEEKEND OF JULY 22-23, 2006

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MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Unfolding Nightmare.

Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, in its second week, ravaged areas of southern Lebanon. And Hezbollah rockets rained down on Israel, striking Haifa, Nasiriyah (ph), Tiberias, the biblical city of Nazareth, and elsewhere.

Over 300 Lebanese have been killed and over 30 Israelis. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says Lebanon has been, quote, "torn to shreds."

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, says his country will stop the bombing under these conditions: One, Hezbollah returns two captured Israeli soldiers; two, Hezbollah disarms; three, Hezbollah hands over control of the Lebanon-Israeli border to the Lebanese army. Israel claims it has destroyed 50 percent of Hezbollah rockets, which, if true, means Hezbollah still has 7,000 rockets.

At week's end, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah, offered his, quote-unquote, "terms": one, there will be absolutely no cease- fire without exchange of prisoners; two, Israel's bombardment has not hurt Hezbollah at all.

Question: Do Olmert's conditions rule out an exchange of prisoners as a resolution leading to a cease-fire? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: We're far beyond that, John. The Israelis have to invade now and go after Hezbollah or they have lost the war. They've lost their two soldiers. They have smashed up Lebanon and have a huge black eye in world opinion. They've been fought basically to a draw by Hezbollah. Hezbollah is going to stay in there and hold that territory unless they go in on the ground and clean them up. And the Israelis are beginning to look like they're getting cold feet and aren't able to do it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's the game? I don't get the game. What's the game?

MR. BUCHANAN: I'm not talking about the game. The possibility of an Israeli defeat by Hezbollah is what is on the table if the Israelis do not go in and clean this out. And they can't do it in one or two weeks, John. They didn't do it in the 18 years they were in there, from '82 to 2000.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You saw the stories and the diagrams about the underground bunkers that have been constructed, the network and the webbing of those by Hezbollah.

Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: I think any kind of prisoner exchange is off in the distance. For the moment, at least, I think the Israelis do not want to stop the bombing. I think they've gotten a green light from the administration. I think the secretary of State, Condi Rice, is delaying her trip to the region and letting the fighting and the violence play out, with the strategy that they can somehow dismantle Hezbollah and that they can then call on international troops to hold a buffer zone.

The problem is, Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon once before, and that didn't work out. I do not think you can destroy Hezbollah. It's as much an idea and an attitude as it is an organization. And I think that this is very counterproductive, what's happening.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you see an exchange of prisoners out there soon? MR. BLANKLEY: No. I mean, I don't think this was ever about an exchange of prisoners. Hezbollah has taken the initiative in this from the beginning. They have set the time and location for their confrontation with the Israelis in those fortified regions in southern Lebanon.

And Israel is going to have to engage them under terms that are not typical of the way Israeli military fight. The Israeli military don't go at fortifications; they go around them. They have mobile operations. Now they have to figure out the strategy to take on these fighters in their fortified tunnels and holes. And they have to do it; I agree with Pat.

I'm not quite as pessimistic as Eleanor that they can't handle the military part. It'll take more than a week, I certainly agree. But at some point, when they've degraded Hezbollah's work -- and it'll be a bloody business on both sides, I think, for that -- then they have to get some international body in, because Israel has no intention of staying there for years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is Israel going to be able to hold out without agreeing for an exchange of those prisoners? Because remarkably, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt are letting things go as they are, maintaining the status quo, not objecting to any disproportionate use of force, as Kofi Annan has done. And by reason of that, Israel is able to continue, because Israel does not want a wider war and neither do the Arab states. They don't want to be hauled into it.

However, the Arab states may have to leave Israel if the pounding continues, because the Arab street is so concerned about the pounding, and they will have to ease back from their, what, imputed support of what Israel is doing. Do you follow me?

MR. BEINART: Yeah. Israel knows it doesn't have forever. It knows that the further this goes on, the more pressure there will be from the international community, and eventually the U.S. But they also know that, having started this, they cannot allow Hezbollah to sit on that border anymore with the increasing rocketry they have.

They're going to have to push in militarily and simultaneously start some negotiations behind the scenes, led by hopefully, I think, the United States, to try to get the Syrians involved and try to secure a buffer on that border.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Israel right now is in a situation where it believes the law of diminishing returns has set in. They're going to ease up and work out of it within three or four days. You don't believe that?

MR. BEINART: No, I don't think it'll -- I think it's going to take much longer than three or four days.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But you can see that the law of diminishing returns can come into play here, can't you? MR. BUCHANAN: John -- they've lost the war --

MR. BEINART: Yes, but Israel also can't withdraw until it feels like it has significantly degraded Hezbollah's capability. Israel cannot be going back to doing this again --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why?

MR. BEINART: -- four or six months from now.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why? Why?

MR. BEINART: That would destroy the Israeli government. The Israeli people have made a conscious decision. There is a great deal of will in Israel now -- look at the context. Israel withdrew from Gaza. It withdrew from southern Lebanon. Now it's under attack from Hezbollah. It has to make a statement.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean it must have this huge display of power all at once and not make punctuated raids later into Hezbollah territory to keep Hezbollah and Nasrallah on edge and under control?

MR. BEINART: No, it can't be doing that. I mean, the dye has been cast here. We now have a military process and we're going to have a political process.

MS. CLIFT: The dye was --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, that's Tel Aviv's thinking, but I'm not sure it's good strategic thinking.

MR. BEINART: That's not Tel Aviv's thinking. There has to be a political solution.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, they're paying a big price worldwide for this.

MS. CLIFT: The dye --

MR. BEINART: Sure, they are. But ultimately --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And they're going to pay the price of the support, the quasi-support --

MS. CLIFT: The dye was cast --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- silence, if you will, of these massive Arab states.

MR. BEINART: That's why Israel has to be open to a political solution --

MS. CLIFT: The dye was cast when we invaded Iraq and our failure to control the insurgency there. You have other groups in the Middle East now saying they can stand up to Israel, and you have a separation between the populations and the governments.

The Arab governments are keeping quiet. They're privately rooting for Israel to dismantle Hezbollah. But their populations are siding with Hezbollah, which is not al Qaeda. It is more than an ideology of hate. They are basically doing the work of the government. They're driving the ambulances, running the social services. You can't just wash them away. You need diplomacy.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hezbollah is the enemy here of Israel, and they are led by their own Osama bin Laden. And his name is Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah. Hezbollah has so far stood fast, absorbed the strike, taken the initiative and fulfilled the surprises that it had promised. And there are more surprises.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah survived. The fiery and charismatic Hezbollah leader appeared on Arab television after 23 tons of explosives were dropped on what Israel declared to be the Hezbollah bunker in south Beirut, now pulverized to rubble.

Nasrallah's rundown: Born, Beirut; 46 years of age; married; three children; another 18-year-old son killed in Israeli firefight nine years ago; student, politics and religion in holy cities in Iraq and Iran; anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorist actions, some worldwide, throughout the '80s and the '90s; Hezbollah leader, 14 years and currently; bringing the group mainstream into Lebanese social services with charities, schools, modern hospitals, clinics, and into the Lebanese government today, with two cabinet ministers, 14 parliament seats, a well-oiled political machine, plus the strongest, most efficient military and guerrilla operation in Lebanon.

Question: Is Hassan Nasrallah to Hezbollah what Osama bin Laden is to radical Islam, a charismatic revolutionary? Peter Beinart.

MR. BEINART: He certainly is a charismatic revolutionary. But in some ways he's got a stronger position than bin Laden because he has a clear force, an ethnic group in the Shi'a in Lebanon. They don't have any other political representation which is as strong as Hezbollah. That's why Hezbollah plays such an important role in Lebanese politics.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And Osama has no army of his own, right?

MR. BEINART: That's right. And Osama has to glob on to whatever nationalist conflict is going on. Sheikh Nasrallah has a clear constituency in southern Lebanon, particularly in solidarity with the Palestinians. That's what's giving him so much support against a weak Lebanese government.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Tony, do you have thoughts on this leader of Hezbollah?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, my first thought was the way you characterized the question, when you contrasted Hezbollah and him to radical Islam. He is also obviously a radical Islamist terrorist. The fact that he also provides social services -- well, the Nazi party provided social services; it didn't mean they weren't the Nazi party. And this idea that simply because he provides social services, that he's not vermin and has to be destroyed, is to completely --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, what about -- he holds two cabinet ministries and -- MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah. Look, they won --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- 23 seats in the parliament.

MR. BLANKLEY: -- all 23 seats in southern Lebanon in the 2005 election, in conjunction with their Christian allies here. So there's no doubt that they have strong support amongst the voters in southern Lebanon, which is about 30 percent --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why did he make the raid at the border of southern Lebanon and Israel and capture the soldiers and kill -- capture two and kill three?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why did he do it?

MR. BLANKLEY: Nobody knows why. But I can say this. That he did it meant he had an initiative that he started that has brought this process to where it is. Whether he was doing it on the instruction of Iran, with the permission of Iran, or even if he was doing it on his own initiative, he chose to create this war now.

MS. CLIFT: But the point is, the Israelis want to assassinate him, with the idea that if you take him out that you somehow help finish off this organization. He would be replaced by someone else. And even if you wipe Hezbollah off the face of the map, you've got almost half the population in Lebanon --

MR. BLANKLEY: But they'll be defeated.

MS. CLIFT: -- looking for somebody to represent them. And those are the root causes of the conflict.

MR. BEINART: But those people don't have to be a militia with an armed group outside of the political process. Hezbollah was offered the chance to enter into the political process in Lebanon. They could have gotten more powerful politically if they had been willing to give up their arms, and they weren't.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, they're doing all right in the political process. They've got two ministers --

MR. BEINART: They are, but they're playing a double game. They're --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I want to know who's been set up here. Israel has been set up? You've got Israel now going in there in massive force to destroy Hezbollah, which may be undestroyable. And I think Israel realizes that.

MR. BEINART: Militarily it is undestroyable. MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm surprised to hear you say that so candidly. Because of the kind of power that Israel has, it could probably do it if it stayed at it for a couple of months.

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me make a point about the Lebanese army, because the Lebanese army -- the Syrians put either Hezbollah or Hezbollah-friendly officers at the top. When the French made that army in 1941, they put the Maronite Christians on top of it. When the Syrians took over in the '80s, they put Hezbollah-friendly officers. So this army itself is not an army loyal to the government. It's an army --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, let me get in here with one point, and then I want to leave this subject and go somewhere else. I want to quote Olmert, and I believe we have this on chyron. Ehud Olmert is the successor leader to the prime minister in Israel, and he said this about a week ago: "I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason. The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region."

He was faulted for saying that, and The New York Times said candidly it was a mistake.

MS. CLIFT: Look --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He said it was the government of --

MS. CLIFT: He's literally --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- Lebanon who made the raid. Do you follow me? The consequences of that are it's government against government, and the rules of war are in full play, so that Israel can legally do what it's currently doing because it's not going after a group, according to this thinking.

Do you think that's standing up, because now we have politicians in Israel describing Hezbollah, as you have today, as a kind of undefined group. And how do you even come to terms with that? And one person at least is saying how can you have a cessation of hostilities agreement when you're working with a group? But Olmert clearly says that the fight is against a state.

MR. BEINART: Olmert is wrong. The Israeli government's position has to be ultimately to build up the Lebanese state and the Lebanese government rather than trying to tear it down. That's the end game here.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, Olmert is literally right that it's a state versus a state, but it ignores the reality that the government of Lebanon is not in control.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look --

MS. CLIFT: Let me finish! And this was a government that was democratically elected a year ago, that the Bush administration took credit for that came out of the Cedar Revolution. And that again is one of the sad aspects of this conflict is that we are weakening one of the best chances of helping Lebanon free itself of Syrian influence.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue Two: Political Potpourri.

Item: The Syrian factor. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From videotape.) The irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this -- (expletive) -- and it's over.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: President Bush, in this less than private conversation, is saying, in effect, and in reality, Syria's influence over Lebanon is unlimited and it's unused.

Question: Is that true? Does Syria's President Assad have the power to compel Hezbollah to unconditionally release the captured Israeli soldiers? I ask you, Patrick.

MR. BUCHANAN: No, that's complete nonsense. And the president indicated, quite frankly, what an ineffectual leader he is. He's talking about getting people to call up the president of Syria. Richard Nixon communicated with a tougher man than he. So did Clinton. So did Bush I; made an ally out of his father.

The fact that we have no contact with Syria is a problem here, John. The Syrians will deal with the United States if you offer them something. They've had a peace with Israel up on the Golan Heights that they have not violated in 30 years.

The president of the United States has dealt himself out of the game by outsourcing his foreign policy to Ariel Sharon and Mr. Olmert.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You think the president has become -- we have become a bystander, Pat?

MR. BUCHANAN: I think the United States is sitting behind Olmert and letting him play our hand in the Middle East, and that's why you've got this crisis.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that we are supporting the Israelis?

MR. BUCHANAN: I think you've given -- as Eleanor said, you've given them a green light. "Whatever you do is fine with us."

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, Pat is partially right. I don't think that Syria can force literally the release of the prisoners. But Syria has tremendous influence on Hezbollah, because almost all the supplies that come to Hezbollah come through Syria. And so they have tremendous financial and material influence on them.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay --

MR. BLANKLEY: But the point is, the fact that in the past Syria has been willing to sometimes work out deals with us does not mean that now they do, because there's a very good likelihood that Iran and Syria and Hezbollah -- MS. CLIFT: When the leader of a country --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hold on.

MR. BLANKLEY: There's a very good chance that Iran and Hezbollah and Syria have decided to force this crisis now, in which case there wouldn't be --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean the moment has come because America is now weak in Iraq. That's possible.

I want to move on.

MS. CLIFT: If you're --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hold on, Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: If you're the leader of a country, you might try talking instead of assuming they can't help. Okay.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You know, why should Tony start now? Let him work with his assumptions.

MS. CLIFT: (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, the big problem -- Imad Moustapha is the number one Syrian representative in Washington. The ambassador pointed to a problem that is the controlling one; he says the engine of the current unrest.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA (Syrian ambassador to the U.S.): (From videotape.) This is the issue that has been neglected and it is being evaded here, particularly in Washington, D.C. This administration will talk about everything in the Middle East. It will discuss everything, everything, regardless of its importance, but will always ignore the big elephant in the room, which is the ongoing Israeli occupation and annexation of our territories.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: My brilliant interview airs this week on PBS nationally and in Washington on Sunday at noon on NBC.

Exit question: Is Ambassador Moustapha of Syria right, that this administration will talk about everything in the Middle East and ignore the Palestinian-Israeli problem, which is the engine of most, if not all, of the current tumult? Yes or no, Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: I think it's the engine of much of the tumult there, and the ambassador is exactly right. The president of the United States has been AWOL on this issue since he came into office.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor. MS. CLIFT: The Bush assumption was that the road to peace was through Baghdad and not Jerusalem. They consciously avoided the Palestinian crisis, in part because of this childish effort by Bush to do everything exactly different from the way his daddy did it and all his predecessors. It backfired.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: At this point -- hold on. At this point in the interview I pressed the point with the Syrian representative to Washington further.

(Begin videotaped segment.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is your fundamental and broad point that if there were no occupation by Israel of the West Bank and other Palestinian land, then there would be no Hezbollah and there would be no Hamas?

AMB. MOUSTAPHA: Not only no Hezbollah and no Hamas; there would be no violence in the Middle East.

(End of videotaped segment.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you agree with that, Peter?

MR. BEINART: No. Obviously the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a huge engine for violence.

And I agree that the Bush administration has not been as involved as it could have. But let's remember some of the reality here, which is that the Israeli left collapsed after Yasser Arafat stabbed them in the back and opposed, after Bill Clinton had put everything he could into trying to make a deal, and then when Israel withdrew from Gaza, the Palestinians elected Hamas. Under those circumstances, even a much more effective interventionist American administration would have had trouble.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that's true, but throughout the interview Moustapha emphasized that Syria is ready, willing and has a history of dealing with the United States, but they don't want to be lectured to.

Issue Three: Another Radical Problem.

Since we are talking about radical problems in the Middle East, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, here's another radical problem in the Middle East, as seen by Richard Cohen, the syndicated columnist and former panelist on The McLaughlin Group.

"The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable. But the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.

"It is why Israel is now fighting an organization, Hezbollah, that did not exist 30 years ago and why Hezbollah is being supported by a nation, Iran, that was once a tacit ally of Israel's. Hard-line critics of Ariel Sharon always said this would happen. Gaza would become a terrorist haven. They said that the moderate Palestinian Authority would not be able to control the militants and that Gaza would be used to fire rockets into Israel and to launch terrorist raids.

"It is also true, as some critics warned, that Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon was seen by its enemies and claimed by Hezbollah as a defeat for the mighty Jewish state. All that the critics warned has come true. The smart choice now is to pull back to defensible but hardly impervious borders. That includes getting out of most of the West Bank and waiting and hoping. That history will get distracted and move on to something else. It is best for Israel to hunker down."

Cohen has received thousands of e-mails since his column appeared on Tuesday. His central point is, it seems, the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, the location of it, was a recipe for unending war.

Do you have something to say about that? Do you see this as a radical problem?

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, he said that it was a mistake for Israel to be put there. I disagree with that. The Jews and the Israelites have been in that land since biblical times. And the idea that it's a mistake for them to go in that area, where there were very few people -- there were no Palestinians. There were Arabs, wandering Arabs, who happened to live there, and not that many of them.

I certainly agree that it's been a challenge managing events in the last 50 years, but --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You don't think that Great Britain screwed up at the end of the colonial era?

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, of course I think the Europeans, the French and the English division artificially in the Middle East was an appalling mistake.

MR. BUCHANAN: John --

MR. BLANKLEY: But the idea that the Jews don't have any right to be in Israel is nuts.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He did not say that Israel should not exist. He said that Israel is in the wrong place.

MR. BUCHANAN: John --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you believe that?

MR. BUCHANAN: Let me talk for a second. Secretary of State George Marshall told Truman that if he did this, if he recognized Israel in the Middle East, he wouldn't vote for Truman. It was a tremendous debate in 1947 --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's your point?

MR. BUCHANAN: The point is, Truman won the debate. He made the decision. He made it for political reasons. It is reality. It was a hellish issue back then, and deservedly so.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that it's inevitable that this kind of unhappiness will continue to exist, or will it settle down? And if so, why? You know, the same thing happened with Northern Ireland. They put religiously hostile elements together. And they did the same thing there with the Arabs and with the Jews, right?

MR. BEINART: Sure. Bosnia and Kosovo were brutal, and they were solved. South Africa -- whoever thought that South Africa in the 1980s would be where it is today? There is always hope.

But the idea there could have been a Jewish state somewhere other than Palestine -- the Jews of Eastern Europe would never have gone to Uganda or gone to Madagascar. The only reason Zionism took off was because of the traditional theological belief amongst Jews that they would eventually return. And the idea that Israel is a state of European Jews is wrong. Sixty percent of the Jews of Israel are from the Middle East.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that the region would become de- religionized on both sides, the Arab side and the Jewish side --

MR. BEINART: Never.

MS. CLIFT: Never.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I don't mean totally secularized. But don't you think the day is coming, as is evidenced now in Dubai, where you have the Israelis over there working with the Arabs in Dubai, and commerce will rule and everybody will be happy forever after?

MS. CLIFT: Some problems --

MR. BEINART: Exactly the opposite.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Huh?

MR. BEINART: Exactly the opposite.

MS. CLIFT: Some problems cannot be solved, but they can be managed by aggressive intervention, diplomatic intervention. And this administration's contempt for diplomacy has helped lead us to where we are.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think it's a nation-state. It's been around for 58 years. There's a lot more time to come. And I believe that commerce will rule and bring peace, so to speak.

MR. BUCHANAN: Demography is going to solve this one, John.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, solved -- is that the right word?

Issue Four: How the Mighty Fall.

Another Republican caught in the Jack Abramoff web -- Ralph Reed, the charismatic former head of the Christian Coalition, the fundamentalist grassroots conservative political advocacy group. Many said that Reed was a shoo-in to be Georgia's next lieutenant governor. But this week he was defeated in the primary.

Reed is a vocal opponent of gambling. But it emerged during the campaign that Mr. Reed had received more than $5 million from Jack Abramoff's casino-owning clients. Reed's job was to rally Christian voters against rival casinos. Reed said that he did not know the cash came from gambling interests. But several e-mails call that claim into doubt.

What's the message coming out of this?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, a number of messages. One, the Republicans are delighted he lost, because he was going to lose in the general election if he didn't lose in the primary. He had no chance of winning after he was compromised. But the fact is that obviously generally it suggests that Abramoff's problem is alive, although this is the most flagrant example.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Out of time. Bye-bye.

END.