Israel's two-front war with the forces of Islamist extremism is taking place against a Middle East and international backdrop that is near-revolutionary. The region is split along radical-moderate and Shi'ite-Sunni lines. Iran, exploiting American mistakes, is spearheading a Shi'ite revival. Iran and Syria together are leading the radical camp. The traditional Sunni Arab powers, Egypt and particularly Saudi Arabia, are encouraging Israel to proceed and cut Hizballah down to size, thereby delivering a setback to Iran and Syria; Egypt is again trying to mediate a ceasefire and prisoner release agreement with Hamas in Gaza, on conditions advantageous to Israel.
The international community, led by the United States, is delaying intervention in the hope that Israel's strategy in Lebanon will pay off, despite the massive destruction of infrastructure and humanitarian suffering in that country. (Not surprisingly, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are poised to pay for Lebanon's recovery.) When the war ends, a non-UN international force of some sort is almost certain to replace the IDF in southern Lebanon.
After nearly two weeks of war in Lebanon, and even longer on the Gaza front, we can begin to identify those broad areas where Israel should, and should not, develop new strategies.
Beginning with what not to do: Israel cannot and should not try to impose a "new order" on Lebanon or for that matter on the region. Israel's contribution is to strike a first, serious blow at the forces of radical Islam surrounding it on two fronts. But any Israeli attempt to lead in a regional political sense will be counterproductive. The less said by Israel about changing the region, the better.
On the other hand, the current conflagration does provide a unique opportunity for Israel to quietly draw closer to the moderate Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, on key strategic issues. It is no coincidence that PM Ehud Olmert wants Arab states to participate in a multinational force in Lebanon. In this regard it is now imperative that Israel and the moderate Sunni states also quietly confront the United States with the consequences of its precipitous democratic reform policies in the region: the enfranchisement of radical Islamists, mainly Shi'ite, and the strengthening of Iran. Israel is currently paying the price for this mistake (though it contributed with mistakes of its own as well); hopefully, it is undoing some of the damage. But Washington, too, has to be brought into a more active role in this regard.
Looking at the new Iranian and Shi'ite-led radical bloc as a whole, Syria is the weak link. It is a Sunni majority country with a problematic Alawite regime that finds its interests threatened on all fronts, and that in recent years has repeatedly asked to reopen a peace process with Israel. Now may be the time to take up Bashar Assad's offer. Talks with Syria could be key not only to neutralizing Hizballah but to weakening Hamas. Here, too, Washington will have to be persuaded that its pressure on Israel to shun such an option is no longer useful.
Turning to Gaza, where the regional Arab Sunni weakness is also Palestinian weakness, we should be looking, with Egyptian help, for a separate ceasefire. That effort is being hampered by Palestinian factionalism. One way or another, we have to compartmentalize the strategically more significant Lebanese front and deflate Hassan Nasrallah's aspiration to represent the Palestinians. Ceasefires would also enable Israel to get back to the business of withdrawal from heavily populated Palestinian areas, including parts of East Jerusalem.
Some will argue that the provocative violations of Israeli sovereignty on the Gazan and Lebanese borders that launched this war are proof that Israel's unilateral withdrawals on those fronts were counterproductive. The outcome of this war must prove them wrong. For starters, the strong public backing for the war effort--indeed, the public's readiness to absorb considerable civilian losses against an enemy bent on our ultimate destruction--is a direct consequence of the fact that the war began on sovereign Israeli territory rather than occupied lands, and that Israel has begun the process of consolidating demographically to ensure that it remains a Jewish and democratic state. Israeli success in bringing this war to a favorable end, coupled with Israeli domestic unity on the war issue, are the best guarantee that next time our deterrent will be respected.- Published 24/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
In spite of the fact that the major escalation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip coincided with the even more dramatic escalation between Israel and Hizballah, and despite the fact that Hizballah and Hamas are both Islamic parties, there is no direct connection between the developments on the two fronts.
The developments in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinians are an extension of confrontations that have been taking place for decades in the context of the occupation and its practices on the one hand and the resistance to that occupation on the other. The events in Gaza were thus motivated by local dynamics.
Israel, who claimed to have left Gaza, did not leave it alone. Israel kept Gaza under a strict and severe siege that was strangling it and turning the Strip into a huge prison. The disengagement of Gaza from the West Bank and the rest of the world caused humanitarian suffering and economic deterioration that raised the number of people living in poverty, according to recent UN statistics, to 68 percent, and unemployment before the end of this year, according to World Bank projections, to more than 40 percent.
Added to this were Israeli policies that left the elected Palestinian government paralyzed and unable even to pay salaries as a result of the decision to withhold the monies Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in the form of taxes on products imported into the Palestinian areas, products that can only go through borders controlled by Israel.
In other words, the Israeli occupation and the resistance to it, which has been the cause of the ongoing violence between the two sides since 1967, are enough to explain the recent escalation in Gaza, including the capture of an Israeli soldier, which came after Israel moved from assassinating individuals to assassinating whole families.
The growing tension and escalating confrontations in Gaza, as well as Israeli intentions for a unilateral step in the West Bank, brought about Egyptian and Jordanian attention and involvement. But they could not attract any significant attention from any other country or people in the region or beyond.
The developments on the Israeli-Lebanese front were not motivated by a Palestinian agenda. In fact, although both Hamas and Hizballah are classified as political Islamist parties, there is minimal connection and coordination between them. One of the factors indicating this are the current negotiations, encouraged by Hamas, to reach a package deal with Israel that will include a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners. This comes in spite of the significant escalation between Israel and Lebanon.
It has been tempting to analysts and journalists to draw a linkage between Tehran and Gaza through Syria and Lebanon. Many US-oriented analysts wanted to encourage the notion of such a linkage in order to justify the actions either of the US or Israel to break or interrupt that linkage. But there has been no substantial proof of this argument.
That's not to say Iran is not exercising a growing strategic influence in the region. But this cannot be attributed to a Palestinian linkage. It can, however, be attributed to the failure of the American strategy in Iraq, which has become a gateway for Iran to the region.
By the same token, arguing that there is no linkage between the events in Gaza and in Lebanon does not also mean there isn't a dramatic increase in the popularity of both Iran and Hizballah in the whole region, including in Palestine. In fact, the majority of the people of the region blames Israel and the US for their miseries, look at both as the enemy, and is willing to support any force that is battling this enemy. That was correct when the forces confronting Israel and the US were nationalists and leftists, and it is correct now that these forces are Islamist, be they Shi'ite or Sunni.
The increase in tension between Iran and the US is playing into the hands of Iran because it is increasing its popularity, not to mention its revenue as a result of the increase in oil prices with every new crisis. And the continuing suffering of the Palestinian people and the injustice they are living are significant factors in this hostile feeling toward the US and Israel.
It has always been correct to argue that one important way of defusing and neutralizing popular hostility toward the US and Israel, would be by putting an end to the Israeli occupation and allowing Palestinians to live in peace, independence and prosperity. In the meantime, the Palestinian cause will remain an instrument used to generate popularity for some, along with public hostility toward the West, especially the US.- Published 24/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Between Iran, the Shi'ites and Sunni Arab weakness
by Asher Susser
In recent years, the Middle East has witnessed a series of historical changes that provide the regional context to the ongoing confrontation Israel is engaged in on its southern front with Gaza and to what is now developing into an almost full-scale war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon.
The last quarter of a century has witnessed the continued, steady decline of the Arab states and the relative impotence of the Arab state system. The erstwhile hegemonic Arab powers, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have all lost much of their regional clout. The Arab League is an empty vessel. In the present crisis it has not managed to convene its members because of internal dissension. Never mind doing anything about the current conflagration, the Arab collective is incapable even of convening to talk about it. The Middle East, therefore, is no longer the "Arab world," at least in the sense that it is not the Arab states that set the regional agenda.
The decline of the Arab states has been accompanied by the rising regional power and influence of the non-Arab states, Israel, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, it is Iran and Israel that are presently clashing indirectly in Lebanon, while the Arabs, much to Hizballah's displeasure, watch from the sidelines as more or less passive bystanders (apart from a few demonstrations here and there).
Iran's stature has been further reinforced by the demise of Baathist Iraq, hitherto the main bulwark to Iranian influence in the Arab East, now transformed into the first Arab Shi'ite-dominated state. Shi'ite Iraq has paved the way for a dramatic change in the regional balance of power between Sunna and Shia, and the creation of what King Abdallah of Jordan referred to as the "Shi'ite crescent," stretching from Tehran and Baghdad (via Syria) to Hizballah in Lebanon.
Iranian patronage, financial, political and military, has over many years (again via Syria) transformed Hizballah into a state within a state, not only with a relatively formidable military structure, but with an elaborate network of social services for the Shi'ites of Lebanon, whose widespread identification with Hizballah provides the organization with a solid foundation of popular support, essential for its political longevity and power in the Lebanese arena. For Iran (and Syria), the arming and entrenchment of Hizballah have transformed Lebanon into their own outpost and front-line of defense (or attack) against Israel. A senior Iranian official recently described Hizballah as "one of the pillars of [Iran's] security strategy".
The weakening of the Arab state has raised the profile and relevance of primordial, sectarian and religious identities, coupled with the rise of non-state actors throughout the region. The likes of Bin Laden, Zarqawi and his successors, Hizballah and Hamas, the latter now in some mode of control of the non-state of Palestine, have created a unique brand of chaotic statelessness. Some Arab states, notably Sunni Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are concerned by the emergence of both Iran and the destabilizing non-state actors and have in the recent conflict come out openly to criticize Hizballah for its rash and adventurous behavior in picking a fight with Israel. They would not be unhappy to see Israel downgrading Hizballah, and thereby weakening an Iranian client in what would be the first serious setback in recent years for Iranian-Shi'ite ascendancy, which they really and truly fear.
Israel, in a way, is being expected to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them, too. Israel for its part would expect these Arab states to at least give their backing and blessing to a new political order in Lebanon that would embolden the Lebanese government and the non-Shi'ite majority to clip the wings of Hizballah. Syria, recently forced to leave Lebanon, has in this conflict played second fiddle to Iran. It might be worth exploring the possibility of reengaging Syria in the stabilizing of Lebanon.
If the Lebanese prove incapable, as they might, then encouraging Syria to assist in the containment of Hizballah would make sense. Syria may do so lest it be drawn in the future into an undesirable clash with Israel because of Hizballah's subservience to Iranian interests, which are not all in line with those of Syria. The Syrians, after all, are much more vulnerable than Iran to Israeli reprisal.
In conclusion, it is important to highlight what is perhaps the key linkage between Gaza and Beirut, above and beyond the coincidence of Israel's campaign on two fronts against its non-state enemies. Though it may not appear so on the surface, the present campaign, on all fronts, is an absolutely vital component of Israel's withdrawal strategy. It is not the undoing of that strategy but quite the opposite. It is intended to create the essential preconditions for Israeli redeployment, that is, to set the rules of play for the neighborhood to ensure a secure Israel after withdrawal, without being dragged back into reoccupation with all the hazards that entails.
If Israel fails to set such rules by reinforcing its deterrence, it could become impossible for it to withdraw from the West Bank. That, in turn, would suck Israel into a host of other existential problems, related not to Arab power but to its own demographic vulnerabilities.- Published 24/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Prof. Asher Susser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Attempting to resolve Gaza separately
an interview with George Giacaman
bitterlemons: Much has been made of the timing of the Hizballah operation that saw Israeli soldiers captured not long after a similar event had taken place in Gaza and with a siege imposed on the Strip. Do you see a connection?
Giacaman: It depends. A connection was also made, especially by Israel and others, between the operation and Iran. I think there may be a connection in timing in relation to the Palestinian conflict, but not necessarily Iran. The reasoning is the following: if Iran were behind the operation, Tehran probably wanted to make sure it would succeed. And with such a high-risk operation there is no guarantee of success.
There may be a connection with the Palestinian cause, but it should not be forgotten that it has been the consistent position of Hizballah that the issue of prisoners is high on their agenda and that when the opportunity arose they would try to capture soldiers for that specific purpose.
bitterlemons: You say there may be a connection. What would that connection be?
Giacaman: It's not going to relieve the siege on Gaza, but the connection was made clear following the operation in that there could be collective bargaining involving not only Lebanese, but Palestinian prisoners.
bitterlemons: Do you think Israel's response in Lebanon, considering Gaza, was predictable?
Giacaman: I think it would have been difficult to predict the Israeli response. The question is, if Hizballah had succeeded only in capturing soldiers without also inflicting casualties following the abduction, would Israel have behaved in the same way? It is a speculative question, but generally I think it was difficult to gauge the response as evidenced by the fact that Hizballah itself said it did not expect that the response would be of such ferocity.
bitterlemons: What kind of effect will this ferocious response have on Hizballah's standing in Lebanon?
Giacaman: There are the short and long terms. In the short term, I think there has to be a package deal involving the release of prisoners. This is the maximum gain Hizballah can get. In return, it will probably have to give some concessions, for example to accept the presence of an international force or the Lebanese Army on the border.
The package deal may also involve resolving finally the issue of the Sheba'a Farms, a more complicated issue, but part of what is called the Saudi initiative. Thus, in the short term Hizballah will claim to have succeeded.
In the long term, the question will be raised in Lebanon whether the release of prisoners was worth the cost, not only in terms of destruction, but in terms of human life. The polarization in Lebanese politics will make it possible for among others the so-called March 14 group including [Saad] Hariri and [Walid] Jumblatt to try to influence the future course of Hizballah in Lebanon by pointing out the heavy cost.
bitterlemons: We have seen demonstrations in many Arab countries where Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah's picture has featured prominently. Is Hizballah a growing force regionally?
Giacaman: There are two separate issues. The public mood is naturally against Israeli hegemony in the region, against the Israeli occupation, against American policy in the region and for resistance. This manifests itself in support for Hizballah or Hamas, in spite of the fact that they are Islamist organizations. As a resistance they are supported by a majority of the Arab public.
But in the long term it is not at all clear Hizballah will be a growing force. That very much depends on the result of this present conflict and also the future course of Hizballah. The opponents of Hizballah in Lebanon will try to rein in Hizballah as a result of this conflict. In addition, attempts will be made by various Arab parties, the US and of course Israel to try to separate Hizballah from other forces in the region.
American policy for the past year-and-a-half has been to separate hotspots from each other: Lebanon from Syria, Syria from Iran, Hizballah from Syria and Iran, and Palestine from all of them. This is the very meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The Americans gave time for internal Lebanese forces to see if they could apply 1559, but they have not been able to do so completely; the only success was the withdrawal of Syrian forces.
The capture of the Israeli soldiers is seen by Washington as an opportunity not to be missed to try to at least rein in Hizballah to a degree. They won't be completely successful and it won't result in disarmament, but they'll try to maximize any possible gains.
bitterlemons: The response to the escalation by some Arab governments--notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan--to blame Hizballah seems to have led to an unprecedented amount of criticism of those regimes even within their own countries. Are we seeing a weakening of these regimes?
Giacaman: For many years, some Arab governments have been allied to the US. This is the first time they came out publicly to criticize Hizballah. This is a precedent. No doubt it will not please many a constituency within these countries, but so far these constituencies have not been able to generate any major internal threats in those countries. Nevertheless, there is an angry public mood in different countries and maybe at some time in the future it may manifest itself in a more vociferous way.
bitterlemons: In this context, being seen as so closely allied with the US and with the US so fully supportive of Israel, could there be a snowball effect?
Giacaman: There could be. You have to separate the different countries. Some Gulf countries that feel a threat from Iran have publics perhaps less critical of US policy because they are primarily interested in their own survival. But in other countries like Egypt, Jordan, Syria and maybe several North African countries, the mood is different.
It's hard to predict. I think Israel is keen to end this as soon as possible, but the longer it takes and the more scenes of destruction we see, the more angry demonstrations we'll witness in Arab countries.
bitterlemons: Gaza has completely slipped from the headlines. How is this situation affecting the Palestinian territories?
Giacaman: The focus is naturally on the invasion by Israel of Lebanon, and Gaza is receiving less attention than before. One reaction to this is the determined attempt to reach internal [Palestinian] agreement on a package deal with the Israelis involving release of the captured soldier and an exchange of prisoners at a later date plus a ceasefire from both sides.
So far this deal has not been fixed, but it seems to be the first consequence of the Lebanon escalation: first to separate the Lebanese issue from the Palestinian issue and second, to resolve the Gaza situation independently from the Lebanese situation. This I think was the first reaction from Mahmoud Abbas and also from Hamas inside. It remains to be seen what Hamas outside would think of such a deal.
bitterlemons: This is a package deal negotiated among Palestinian factions. How likely is it to succeed with Israel adamantly refusing any exchange?
Giacaman: Israel, I think, is not averse to some form of exchange along the lines reportedly brokered by Egypt to release prisoners at a later date. The problem then was there was no guarantee this would be done. These last attempts probably involve assurances from European and other countries that a deal will be done. To what extent Israel will abide by such a deal later remains to be seen. There is ample reason, based on past precedent, not to trust Israel.- Published 24/7/2006 (c) bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin).
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