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Lurching toward regional
war in the Middle East




Richard Falk, TFF Associate


July 25, 2006

Israeli moves toward all out war in Gaza and Lebanon seem linked to wider dangers of a regional war with severe global consequences. By interpreting these wider dangers it is not meant to minimize the human suffering and regressive political effects of current carnage in these two long tormented war zones. Looking at this bigger picture is crucial for its own sake, but also helps us understand the immediate crises more fully than if as officially presented by Israel, and unfortunately echoed by many governments around the world.

Whatever else, this outbreak of major two-front violence is not about Israel's right to defend its against an enemy that is seriously threatening its territorial integrity or political independence, the only grounds for justifiable war. To treat border incidents, involving initially a few military casualties and the abduction of a single Israeli soldier by a Gazan militia and two by Hizbollah in south Lebanon, as if it were an occasion of war is a gross distortion of well-accepted international law and state practice.

To justify legally a claim of self-defense requires a full-scale armed attack across Israeli borders. If every violent border incident or terrorist provocation were to be so regarded as an act of war, the world would be aflame. If India had responded to the recent Mumbai train explosions that killed some 200 Indian civilians as a Pakistani act of war, the result would have been a devastating regional war, quite possibly fought with nuclear weapons. There are many other flashpoints around the world that might justify police methods in reaction to provocations, and in extreme instances, specific military responses across borders. If such occasions produced responses by way of acts of war the consistent result would be catastrophe.

Recent Hamas/Hizbollah provocations, even if interpreted through a self-serving Israeli lens, were not of a scale or threat that warranted large-scale military actions that are directed at a wide array of targets unrelated to the specific incidents and causing severe damage to civilians and the entire civilian infrastructure of highly vulnerable societies (water, electricity, roads, bridges).

The exaggerated and excessive Israeli response, together with circumstantial evidence, suggests that Israel used the Hamas/Hizbollah incidents as pretexts to pursue a much wider and long planned security agenda directed at Palestine and Lebanon, and beyond this, as an opportunity for embarking on a political restructuring adventure designed to affect the entire region in partnership with the United States.

In this regard, as George W. Bush's comments at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit emphasized, the real responsibility for the anti-Israeli incidents should be attributed to Syria and Iran given their support of Hamas and Hizbollah. It hardly requires a deep reading of international relations to recall that both right wing Israeli opinion and the neoconservative worldview that has dominated American foreign policy during the Bush presidency endorses a vision of world order based upon a comprehensive political restructuring of the Middle East, starting with 'regime change' in Iraq.

What Israel is undertaking is a change of tactics with respect to the pursuit of this regional vision. The initial plan for regional restructuring seems to have been based on a decisive military and political victory in Iraq followed by an essentially diplomatic campaign to exert major pressure on other problematic governments in the region, relying on The Greater Middle East Project of 'democratization' to do the heavy lifting without further military action.

Instead what has occurred has been failure and frustration in Iraq, which has turned into an American quagmire, but more seriously for the wider plan, a consistent set of electoral outcomes throughout the region that have discredited a political approach to the regional vision embraced by Washington and Tel Aviv with the goal of achieving compliant Arab governments that are passive with respect to Palestinian aspirations, and accepting of American hegemony.

These geopolitical disappointments began to be revealed in the Iraqi sequence of elections, which even under conditions of the American occupation and a brutal insurgency, produced clear victories for Islamic political forces and stinging repudiations of the sort of compliant secularists that Washington backed, and expected to prevail. Similar outcomes, with less dramatic results, were evident in elections held in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which together with the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as President of Iran, apparently sent a clear message that the more democratic the political process, the more likely it was to produce an anti-American, anti-Israeli leadership. The Hamas victory in the January elections in the Palestiinian Territories culminated this disillusionment with the democratic path to security, as envisioned by Israel and the United States, for the region.

But rather than abandon geopolitical ambitions, it appears from recent developments that Israel is testing the waters for all out regional war, apparently with the encouragement of the US Government: unconditional diplomatic support for Israel's responses, including blocking widely favored calls for an immediate ceasefire, and the provision of large quantities of aviation fuel and a rushed shipment of additional bombs. At the same time, with a stunning embrace of inconsistency, the US and Israel insist that Syrian and Iranian funding and arms transfers to Hizbollah make them responsible for the war, not even just the provoking incidents.

Of course, there are other factors at work.

The Israeli leadership, especially its military commanders, never accepted being pushed out of southern Lebanon by Hizbollah in 2000, and Israeli politicians and public opinion appear to hold the Palestinian people responsible for the election of a 'terrorist' leadership, and thus deserving of punishment. Furthermore, the anti-Syrian Lebanese response to the assassination of Hariri on February 14, 2005 was hoped to result in a more congenial Lebanese political leadership that would effectively disarm Hizbollah in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1559, and thereby enhance Israeli security. When this did not happen, but rather Hizbollah acquired more potent weaponry, as well as a place in the Lebanese cabinet, it was obvious that the relatively soft Israeli option had failed.

Even such a prominent mainstream supporter of Israeli policy as Shlomo Aveneri observes that the real objective of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon is to install a Quisling government in Beirut, which was after all a main objective of the 1982 Sharon-led invasion of the country along with the destruction of the PLO. It turns out neither goal was achieved, and now in some respects this represents a second try some 24 years later.

In relation to the Palestinian conflict, Israel has set for itself a unilateralist course ever since the collapse of the Camp David process in 2000. The Sharon approach, based on Gaza disengagement, the illegal security wall, and the annexation of substantial Palestinian territories to incorporate the main Israeli settlements was always based on moving toward a 'solution' without the agreement of the Palestinian leadership and over the heads of the Palestinian people.

But to move in such a direction in a politically palatable manner required the absence of a Palestinian negotiating partner. First, Arafat was humiliated by direct military attacks on his headquarters, almost killed, and confined to virtual house arrest; then Abbas was marginalized by being declared too weak to exert political weight; and now Hamas has been repudiated as unfit to govern the Palestinians or represent their interests. Against this background Sharon/Olmert unilateralism appears to be the only option, a worrisome conclusion as it sure to keep the conflict at boiling point for the indefinite future.

A further factor is the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. Here again Israel and the United States are at the forefront of an insistence that Iran not pursue its legal right to possess a complete nuclear fuel cycle under its sovereign control, although subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that enriched uranium and plutonium are not diverted for military purposes.

Whether this unfolding crisis, abetted by the inflammatory language of Ahmedinejad, is part of a deliberate strategy of regional tension devised by Washington and Tel Aviv cannot be determined at this point. What is clear is the selective enforcement of the nonproliferation regime. Several parties to the nonproliferation treaty (Germany, Japan) have complete nuclear fuel cycles under national control; India is being assisted in developing its nuclear technology despite its nuclear weapons program and refusal to become a party to the treaty; Israel itself disallows a nuclear weapons option to other states in the region while maintaining and developing its own arsenal of these weapons; and of course the United States flexes its nuclear weight muscles as it wishes, including developing new categories of nuclear weapons ('bunker-busters' and 'mini-nukes') that are apparently being integrated into battle plans for possible future use.

This adds up to an alarming picture, but with clear threats of a regional war spiraling out of the present situation, given the Israeli/American vision of security, and the degree to which the control of this region is vital for the energy future of the world as well as decisive in the struggle to withstand the challenge of political Islam.

There are some factors that are working against such a dismal future: the political/military failure in Iraq; the likely devastating economic and political effects of engaging Iran in a war; the rising oil prices; and the opposition of European and Arab countries to such Israeli/American militancy. But can we be reassured at this point? I think not.

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Israel tends to view its security ambitions in unconditional terms that are oblivious to wider detrimental consequences or to adverse world public attitudes. The current United States leadership remains wedded to its grand strategy of regional restructuring, and is not encountering political opposition at home or even media criticism as a result of either its support of the Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon or of its efforts to widen the arc of conflict by doing its diplomatic best to pull Syria and Iran into the fray.

I fear that what we are witnessing is an extremely risky set of moves to shift the joint Israeli/American regional game plan in an overtly military direction. It always had a military centerpiece associated with the Iraq War, but the basic strategy was based on what was expected to be a decisive and successful show of force against a weakened Iraq that was ruled by a hated tyrant, followed by falling political dominoes elsewhere in the Middle East.

Neither the UN, world public opinion, nor regional opposition seem to have the will or capacity to halt this slide toward regional war. We can only hope that prudence somehow mysteriously remains a restraining force, at least in Washington. Already there are signs of blowback, with Hizbollah emerging as the political winner, with Iran not far behind, given the degree to which a central cleavage in the Middle East is now shaping up as a contest between Iranian-led Shi'ias and Saudi-led Sunnis.

In concluding, it is obvious that there are wider implications for other countries in the region, especially those faced with ethnic conflict and transnational armed struggle. As tempting as it might be for Turkey to follow Israel's lead by intervening in northern Iraq to deal with the PKK insurgent elements operating from there, it would magnify present dangers to follow such a course.

It is rather revealing that Turkish leaders are simultaneously condemning Israel for its indiscriminate use of force in Lebanon and invoking the attacks as 'an international law precedent' to justify its own possible future cross-border military operations. The US Government seemingly worried about an expanding war zone has reassured Ankara that it would take care of Turkish concerns making an incursion unnecessary.

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