Friday, 4 August 2006

Means and Ends in the Middle East

The Israeli bombing of an apartment building in Qana packed with women and children has tipped international sympathy decisively in favour of the Lebanese people. Images of dust-caked children, apparently suffocated to death at one in the morning when the three storeys above them collapsed, have produced an outcry around the world, and justly so. Even the European Union, that immovable object, nearly issued a call for a ceasefire, scuppered by Britain.

The effect of Qana on Lebanon, at least in the short term, was to push the country closer to Iran and Hizbullah. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora had used the first week of fighting to issue a call for Hizbullah to disarm, calling it a "state within a state. " On July 31, the day after the Qana attack, he publicly thanked Hizbullah for its sacrifices. And whereas US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been received in Beirut on her first visit to the region a week earlier, Siniora said she was not welcome on July 30 unless she came with a ceasefire. Just to press the point home, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was allowed to pay Beirut a visit instead.

This is more than posturing on Saniora's behalf. There seems to be a shift in the notoriously fractured public opinion of Lebanon against Israel. An opinion poll published in the past week found a favourable rating of 87 percent for the resistance to Israel that Hizbullah is solely responsible for. Allowing for the fact that Lebanon is only about 40 percent Shiite, that is an enormous, inter-communal endorsement of the radical Islamic group. 

Hizbullah has rarely been popular outside the Shiite community, partly because it vows to make Lebanon a Tehran-obeisant theocracy, and partly because non-Shiite Lebanese can only vote for parties within their own religious groups.

Qana's effect was not lost on the Israelis. They scrambled to announce a 48-hour suspension of airstrikes, attributed to US pressure, and in any case not adhered to. They tried to show that the suffering of Lebanon has not been in vain. Israel has wiped out two thirds of Hizbullah's long-range rockets, which are its chief concern, Israel said. 

The stepping up of Israel's ground war with a massive infantry invasion employing seven battalions (as many as 10,000 men) can also be seen as a decision to bite the bullet and risk casualties, which are unpopular in Israel, rather than try to do the job with air strikes, which are unpopular in the rest of the world. 

Qana is almost certainly responsible for the change in Israeli language about the duration of the war. Whereas until now the position has been that the engagement is open-ended, during the past week the prime minister's office and other ministers talked about a ten-to-fourteen day horizon. That would theoretically put the war's end on or before August 15. 

Apart from affecting the timing and nature of the war, Qana is straining alliances. "I think it's time to get a ceasefire," Condoleezza Rice was heard to utter in Jerusalem after the bombing marred her shuttle diplomacy, which had aimed to produce a UN Security Council resolution text. Leaving Jerusalem, Rice said a ceasefire was possible within the week. Olmert flatly contradicted her, as did Shimon Peres two days later. 

Perhaps the most interesting effect of Qana was on the "special relationship". British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been portrayed during this conflict as US President George W Bush's poodle. He and Bush struck a familiar hawkish chord in a joint press conference two days before Qana; but two days afterward Blair distinguished the British position by uttering the sanest words to come from any world leader since the conflict began on July 12. He acknowledged that there can be no purely military victory against "reactionary Islam". 

"This war can't be won in a conventional way," Blair told the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "Unless we re-appraise our strategy, unless we revitalise the broader global agenda on poverty, climate change, trade, and in respect of the Middle East, bend every sinew of our will to making peace between Israel and Palestine, we will not win." 

That throws into sharp relief the essential dilemma of Israel's position. Soft power is of limited use when rockets are flying into Haifa and suicide bombers are boarding buses. It is also arguably futile for Israel to try and charm governments that build a significant part of their platform on implacable, unexamined opposition to Israel's existence. 

Soft power is useless against a guerrilla organisation that uses the most cynical means of survival. Israel confirmed its suspicions of a Hizbullah headquarters inside a hospital on the Lebanese-Syrian border after a commando raid that killed many noncombatants. The strike on Qana can be partly blamed on Hizbullah, which launched rockets from residential areas. Against such enemies the response clearly cannot be solely diplomatic but needs to be military as well. What has gone wrong, however, is that the military response is taking over. Generals are promising more than they can deliver, and politicians are choosing the least compromising positions as a first option. 

The US and Britain, on the other hand, whose vetoes in the UN Security Council and the European Union respectively protect Israel from international pressure, do not face a threat to their existence. Their political support could help bring about the renewed peace process the Middle East sorely needs. 

Bringing that about will take much more than a mad scramble for a UN Security Council resolution in the midst of violence. Israel, Britain and the US, the front line of the war on terrorism, are still closing political and diplomatic channels while opening military fronts. They calculate that today's military gains outweigh the political ill-will that is being stored up for the future. The US refuses to talk to Syria and Iran, so it cannot possibly open any negotiation with Hizbullah's backers. Nor can it muster leverage to halt Iran's nuclear plans. Israel refuses to talk to Hizbullah, leaving only the option of fighting a foe it cannot defeat alone. 

Soft power has thus been defenestrated, diplomacy rendered Epimethean rather than Promethean, and war is justified as an undesirable means to a worthwhile end. But means are not distinguishable from ends. Multi-faceted problems cannot be reduced to security concerns. Unless someone puts into effect what the British prime minister professes, the world will not move past the vicious circles being drawn in the Middle East.

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