Article created by The Century Foundation.
In April 1996, then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres launched Operation Grapes of Wrath, aimed at ridding south Lebanon of Hezbollah outposts and severely limiting the militants’ capacity to fire Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. President Bill Clinton quickly dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher to broker a cease-fire, whereby both sides were able to “save face” and the conflict rapidly came to an end.
Fast forward ten years and the region is embroiled in a seemingly similar clash. But this is not business as usual in the troubled Middle East. The unfolding war between Israel and Hezbollah is not an Arab-Israeli conflict in the traditional sense in which Arab nations are fighting the Jewish state; it is an Islamist-Israeli conflict, in which Islamic extremists are hoping to hijack leadership of the Arab world—a feature of the war that may make it all the more merciless, yet possibly open the door for a conclusive end to the conflict as well.
While Israel’s adversaries in this conflict—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas militias in Gaza —may enjoy Iranian sponsorship (and their political wings have successfully competed in democratic elections there), they are decidedly non-state. In fact from Riyadh to Rabat, Arab governments in the region have voiced their displeasure and placed blame for the fighting on Hamas and Hezbollah. Tellingly, the hundred veiled and armed Palestinian women (known as the “Army of Suicidal Bombers”) marching through Gaza Tuesday burned the Arab League flag.
The Hamas-Hezbollah alliance was not hard to foresee; it is likely a direct result of the Bush administration’s disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its apparent allergy to peace negotiations. The White House is beginning to realize its isolation, too late to salvage its reputation. Having no partners in the region to call upon to exert pressure on Hamas or Hezbollah, Mr. Bush must now depend on institutions he has scorned in the past: The United Nations and the European Union.
Reportedly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will head to the region to help mediate a de-escalation of the violence. But can she bring herself to visit places she has shunned— Damascus, Ramallah, even Tehran?
This past weekend, the participants at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, rushed out a statement calling on the parties to agree to the following immediate steps to bring an end to the violence: The return of the Israeli soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon unharmed; an end to the shelling of Israeli territory; an end to Israeli military operations and the early withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza; and the release of the arrested Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians. While this is certainly a sign of international consensus, thus far, little has been done to bring the concerned parties together in agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has spurned any call for a cease-fire and insists that Israel will continue its campaign until it is satisfied that Hezbollah has been neutralized. Hezbollah, in turn, threatens to escalate the conflict by launching Iranian-made missiles into downtown Tel Aviv, which could trigger an Israeli assault on Syria and Iran—a scenario that would change the face of the Middle East and eliminate any hope for regional stability.
In the first signs of dissent among the Kadima-led coalition, Mr. Peres, now Vice Prime Minister, proposed to negotiate with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora about the terms of a cease-fire, which would include the redeployment of Lebanon’s army to the south with the possible aid of international forces. Mr. Peres sees the opportunity for negotiation to produce a deal as in 1996; but without the support of the United States or even his former Labour party, his prospects appear bleak.
It is clear that something must be done to allow all parties involved to “save face,” and then continue toward a peaceful negotiated resolution to regional conflict and the prevention of a war impervious to diplomacy. For the first time in its history, Israel has an opportunity to call upon its Arab neighbors and the international community to facilitate and help negotiate a viable and lasting peace. Historically, Israel has achieved durably peaceful relationships with its neighbors through the delicate art of multilateral negotiation—witness the hard-won diplomatic struggles that led to peace with Jordan and Egypt. To think that Israel is incapable of forging a similar peace with the Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians is dangerously misguided.
Israel is not alone in its struggle against Islamic radicalism and should use this as a departure from its traditional response to provocation and terror. As John Steinbeck said in East of Eden, “Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” Let’s be clever, not stupid.