Friday, July 14, 2006

Financial Times Editorial - A new Middle East disaster in the making

Financial Times Editorial - A new Middle East disaster in the making
Published: July 14 2006 03:00 | Last updated: July 14 2006 03:00
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006


It is hard to underestimate the dangers of the present escalation in hostilities in the Middle East. Palestinian militants to Israel's south in Gaza, and Hizbollah guerrillas from across Israel's northern frontier with Lebanon, have conducted cross-border raids and seized one and two Israeli soldiers respectively, bringing down a hail of rockets and shells on their populations.

This has, of course, happened before. But the regional context has never been worse. The invasion of Iraq broke the Iraqi state, fragmented the country, triggered sectarian war and proliferated jihadi extremism. Iran fears it will be attacked and keeps its proxies - among them Hizbollah - on a war footing. The international community, led by a US that has forfeited nearlyall legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim world, has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to slide towards a fait accompli in Israel's favour - a land-grab that will guarantee bloodshed for generations to come.

And now, a weak Israeli government is allowing the country to be sucked back, or rather suckered back into asymmetric warfare by weaker but wily opponents.

Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, and Amir Peretz, his defence minister, are not from the warrior class that has traditionally made up Israel's governing elite. They appear to be trying to establish their credentials by lashing out, and allowing an army command with its pride wounded by the recent raids to call the shots.

In the past, situations similar to this have led to disaster. In 1982, Israel's stricken former prime minister Ariel Sharon, then its defence minister, used a flimsy pretext to invade Lebanon to crush the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The result was a two-month siege of Beirut that killed 19,000 people, destroyed Israel's reputation and gave rise to Hizbollah. Israel's last invasion of Lebanon, in 1996, was meant to crush Hizbollah. The Shia Islamist movement emerged greatly strengthened while Israel's image was further besmirched by the massacre of refugees at a United Nations base in Qana.

Israel's reprisals this time are disproportionate, illegitimate under international rules that outlaw the collective punishment of entire populations and have already resulted in heavy loss of civilian life, especially of children.

Neither side can easily claim the moral high ground, since Israel and its opponents such as Hizbollah have both used hostage-taking and assassination as instruments of policy and, all bluster aside, have an established record of negotiations leading to prisoner exchanges. But Israel's threat to launch a prolonged offensive against Lebanon, perhaps extending to Syria, while simultaneously stepping up air strikes against densely populated Gaza, cries out for international intervention.

Writing recently in Haaretz, Yossi Beilin, Israel's former justice minister and architect of the Oslo accords, recalled the procession of US presidents - Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton - who had devoted intense effort to Middle East peace-making, every bit as important to Israel's future as supporting it. The present Bush administration, by contrast, was "nearly entirely absent . . . when Israel needs a powerful third party".

Quite so. This is no longer - if it ever was - some regional squabble. In present circumstances, every bit as much as during the cold war, a shot fired in the Middle East will echo around the world.

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