EXPRESS CHECKOUT

Fires of the Middle East

Posted in Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 29 July, 2006

Hotel bombing in Baghdad 

The fires of the Middle East cannot be contained
By David Gardner – Financial Times
Published: July 27 2006 19:42 

There is a despairing sense of déjà-vu enveloping the fighting in Lebanon, that what we are watching is but a rerun of a long-running and wearisomely familiar grudge match. Certainly, there is a strong element of that. But it should not obscure what is so dangerously different in this extraordinarily inflammable situation.

Previous episodes have been bad enough. The worst was Israel’s full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That led to a two-month siege of west Beirut that killed 19,000 people (as well as the massacre of refugees at Sabra and Shatila). It destroyed not the PLO but Israel’s reputation. And, of course, it incubated Israel’s nemesis, Hizbollah.

In the present conflict, Lt Gen Dan Halutz, Israel’s chief of staff, may have been more truthful than he intended when he made his outrageous threat to “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years”.

But in all previous chapters of the conflict, the multiple combatants who used the soil and sectarian divisions of Lebanon as a platform for proxy war (Syrians and Israelis, Saudis and Iraqis, Libyans and Iranians, Jordanians and Americans) were mostly able to contain the fighting inside the Lebanese arena.

This is different. The geopolitical context and contours of the Middle East have changed. Iraq, above all, has moved the region’s tectonic plates. Today’s protagonists are playing with matches in the world’s largest petrol station.

It is not simply that Israel’s assault on Lebanon is in danger of becoming as deadly and wanton as in 1982. Nor is it just that Israel’s elite forces are meeting Hizbollah resistance fiercer than they encountered during the occupation they eventually abandoned in 2000. It is that every shot fired in Lebanon now echoes around the region and the world. Look carefully, and you will see it is a delusion to imagine this conflict can be contained, while Israel either destroys Hizbollah or drives it out of rocket range.

The prior delusion, of course, was Iraq. That enterprise was supposed to enable the US to pursue a radical new freedom agenda in the region (tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism). Iraq is now a broken state, a cockpit for sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Islam that claims 100 lives a day, and a target-rich frontline for the totalitarian jihadism preached by Osama bin Laden.

The newly empowered Iraqi Shia majority – which is just about preventing the total meltdown of the US project – is inflamed by Israel’s US-licensed destruction of Shia Lebanon. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, modelled on Hizbollah, which fought alongside it against US troops at the 2004 siege of Najaf, is itching to launch a new uprising.

An even more obvious way for the conflict to expand is if Hizbollah carries out its threat to fire longer-range missiles into the heart of Israel. That looks inevitable with this pace of escalation – and it would send Israel ballistic. Under a weak government that defers to an army command with its pride wounded and worried about the erosion of its deterrent power, the urge to retaliate against Hizbollah’s patrons and suppliers in Syria and Iran would surely be very high.

How we got from border incidents provoked by Hamas and Hizbollah to the brink of regional conflagration is worth examination. The Bush administration’s lethal combination of diplomatic fecklessness and faith in its (and Israel’s) ability to bomb its way to a better future is an important part of the reason.

It is not just because the Iraq debacle has consumed so much energy that the conflict at the heart of the Middle East’s volatility – between Israel and the Palestinians – has been left to fester. Rhetoric about Palestinian statehood aside, George W. Bush, US president, has acquiesced in Israel’s creeping landgrab on the occupied West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem.

The US has forfeited nearly all legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim world where, in one of the great dramas of our time, several polls reveal that democratic America is perceived as a greater threat than theocratic Iran. These polls – including a study of Muslim attitudes by Gallup – show that sentiment is determined by hostility towards US policies rather than western values. Three particular moments under the Bush administration have shaped this hostility.

In April 2002, the Arab world watched aghast, live on satellite television, as the Bush administration gave Israel the diplomatic space to retake the West Bank and take apart Palestine’s nascent national institutions (thereby, incidentally, helping prepare the ground for the triumph of Hamas).

In April 2004, even bigger Muslim audiences watched, sometimes on a split screen, the US razing of Fallujah and Israel’s destruction of Rafah in south Gaza. Soon after, the scandal broke over abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and on April 16 Mr Bush endorsed a letter for the now stricken Ariel Sharon recognising Israeli tenure in illegal West Bank settlements – seen by Arabs as a second Balfour declaration.

The third moment is unfolding, as Mr Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state, confuse diplomacy with the realisation of Israel’s war aims, and what is left of America’s reputation is buried in the smoking ruins of south Beirut and southern Lebanon.

One aspect of this moment needs to be read with especial care. In the wake of Iraq, Israel has correctly noted the growing alarm of the US and its Sunni Arab allies at the advance of Shia radicalism under Iran’s leadership. There was even some private satisfaction, in Cairo, Riyadh and Amman, at the beating ostensibly being administered to Hizbollah – at the beginning. Saudi officials warned against confusing “legitimate resistance” with “irresponsible adventurism”; the kingdom’s Wahhabi clerics counselled the faithful against sympathy for the idolatrous Shia. But Israel’s unbridled destruction of Lebanese lives and livelihoods has changed all that.

Arab leaders fear the reaction of their peoples, it seems, as much as they fear Iranian influence in the Levant and the Gulf. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a close US ally who in 2002 got an Arab summit unanimously to offer a comprehensive peace to Israel in return for all the Arab land it seized in the 1967 Six Day War, said this week that “patience cannot last forever”. In his stated view, the stakes are now clear and have never been higher: “If the peace option fails because of Israeli arrogance, there will be no other option but war.”

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