July 29, 2006
Like you, I’ve been watching the new Lebanon war with horror. After three weeks of fighting, there are still huge political and military questions that remain unanswered.
Politically, it is hard to understand – if you believe in land for peace – why Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers when Israel has not occupied southern Lebanon for six years.
Why did Israel respond so aggressively when it did not need to? Why did the war spin out of control so quickly? Why, when civilians are being killed, is it going on for so long? Equally, after three weeks, why have none of the Israeli military aims been met? How come Hezbollah has twice as many rockets as it has fighters? And, on a regional military level, who is gaining in all this? Surely not the Israeli defence forces?
Rarely can veteran critics of Israel, particularly of its recent history in Lebanon, have lamented the passing from power of Ariel Sharon. But he would have handled things differently. Had he been in power, he probably would have negotiated the release of the soldiers -he has done deals with Hezbollah before. The reason is simple: he was perceived as a hard man, he didn’t need to prove himself. Unfortunately, his successor Ehud Olmert – a man with no military pedigree – felt that he had to be the tough guy on the block. Like the kid who has something to prove, Olmert lashed out with disproportionate aggression.
But who precisely is testing him? This is where the conflict broadens to bring in Iran. The Iranians are testing Olmert, using Hezbollah. Tehran cares little for the people of Lebanon; in fact, an unstable Lebanon is in its interests. But, having done nothing substantial for a few years, why did Iran start things now?
Iran’s big plan is not Lebanon. It is to see whether it can call the bluff of the Israelis and Americans over its nuclear ambitions.
Today’s tragic fighting is a proxy war for the big regional showdown. Iran regards Israel as an American client state so, in the same way as it uses Hezbollah to test Israeli resolve, it also regards the Israeli response as a barometer of America’s metal on bigger issues. If the Americans lean on the Israelis to be cautious and measured, Iran takes this as indicating that the US will be equally soft and conciliatory when it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme.
So the people of south Lebanon are pawns in a huge geopolitical game of “who blinks first”, where Iran is pulling Hezbollah’s strings and the US ultimately sets the limit on the Israeli response.
Indeed, both sets of people are caught in this geo-political brace. For any regular visitor to Israel, the portrayal of the country as a narrow aggressive theocracy – an image readily peddled in much of our media – is hard to sustain. It is not that Israelis are victims in the same defenceless way as the Lebanese or the Palestinians: they are not. But neither are they in full control of their destiny.
The late Palestinian academic, Edward Said, summed up brilliantly the dilemma for the peoples of Lebanon and Palestine as well as the psyche of the Israelis, when he described the Palestinians as “the victims of victims”. When you are the victim of another victim, your plight is considerably worse than being the victim of a traditional ruler.
This also explains why Israel will do whatever it takes to crush Hezbollah or whoever threatens it. Privately, Israelis ask why should we trust an international community – particularly Europeans – who in living memory, watched and in some cases cheered, as the Jews were gassed?
So we are watching the reality of today’s great game in the region between America and Iran, overshadowed by the tyranny of history which allows both sides to see themselves as victims and compels the Israelis to see every threat, no matter how small, as existential and therefore any response, no matter how devastating, as legitimate.
The question is: will this conflict lead to another Arab/Israeli war? Will the fact that the Israelis are not making huge headway on the ground embolden other Arab states? One thing is certain – Hezbollah’s rockets make a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank now impossible.
This unilateral pullout was the cornerstone of Olmert’s Kadima Party’s policy.
This will now not happen, because ordinary Israelis believe that the West Bank will, like south Lebanon and Gaza, be turned into a giant rocket-launching pad for attacks on Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. So withdrawal from the West Bank is now out of the question. This sets the Palestinian cause back decades. Yet, without a deal in the West Bank, the region remains a tinderbox, with any number of possible conflicts sparking war.
If we go back to the Iranian concern with their nuclear programme, the war in Lebanon almost guarantees that Israel or America – or both – will launch air strikes against any Iranian nuclear facilities. Is this what Iran wants? No. But would it elevate Shia Iran’s standing in the Sunni Muslim world? Probably yes.
So we are in for a prolonged period of turmoil in the Middle East. Even after a ceasefire, Israel will be wounded and more likely to react aggressively again. Palestinians in the West Bank will not now get even a unilateral withdrawal by Israel behind its security fence. Hezbollah will get stronger. There are also cracks emerging in the Sunni Muslim coalition of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who distrust Hezbollah.
This will, at least in the short-term, unite the Arab world. And all the while, the situation in Iraq gets worse, not better.
It is hard to have imagined a worse regional scenario than the one unfolding now. We have an angry stalemate, without victor or direction. There is no roadmap.
This will have ramifications far beyond the Middle East. Oil prices will remain high, international financial markets wary, and that idea of buying a pad in Dubai will seem a little less attractive.
America’s plan for a new Middle East is in tatters. It has no plan B. The radicals on both sides have been strengthened. The centre cannot hold.