by Geov Parrish — Common Dreams July 15, 2006
The leaders of Israel are brutal, and could not care less about human rights, civilian casualties, international law, or the commission of war crimes. But they are not stupid.
That is why there is one man, and one man only, who can prevent what is otherwise rapidly going to escalate into at minimum, a messy and destructive regional war; at worst, World War III. That man is, unfortunately, George W. Bush, who in five years has never shown the slightest inclination for doing what he must now do at a time of great provocation and crisis: rein in Israel. He is the only world leader with the credibility and leverage to do it, and the political and national self-interest to compel it.
For a time Thursday, it made no sense that Israel, in response to a Hezbollah attack inside Israeli borders that killed eight soldiers and seized two others on Wednesday, had bombed Beirut's international airport into irrelevance and imposed an air and sea blockade of the country of Lebanon. While Hezbollah's armed wing has long controlled the southern border areas where Lebanon abuts Israel, the Lebanese government, through three decades of Syrian dominance, has done nothing about it. Last year, anti-Syrian parties finally gained government power, meaning the current Beirut government is the first in decades likely to be at least somewhat sensitive to Israel's concerns. But it's a fragile hold on power, and, as in Afghanistan, Lebanon's government doesn't actually control all of its country. Moreover, Hezbollah's militia is undoubtedly more powerful than Lebanon's security forces.
So why did Israel cut the legs out from a pro-Western, anti-Syrian Lebanese government by not only launching the inevitable retaliatory strikes at Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon, but by essentially declaring war on the entire country -- ensuring, as the least of its consequences, the effective end of domestic political support for the Lebanese government? Why not offer Beirut the assistance it clearly would need to go after Hezbollah itself, and help bring the entire country under Beirut's control? (Such a move would have steep political costs for Beirut, but not as steep as having Israel's military pulverize the country.)
There are several answers to this, but the most compelling was revealed with Hezbollah's retaliatory counterattack later Thursday on the Israeli city of Haifa. With 250,000 residents, Haifa is by far Northern Israel's largest city, and it's 30 miles from the Lebanese border -- much farther than the 10-mile limit of the most powerful rockets Hezbollah was previously known to possess.
The Israelis knew something. The rockets that struck Haifa are a new development in the conflict, and they are Iranian-made. The blockade is Israel's move to prevent more Iranian arms from flowing into Lebanon. Poor Lebanon, just beginning to recover from three decades of war, is suddenly a sacrificial pawn in a much, much larger game.
Why is this alarming? Because it's a given at this point that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers are, after a six-year absence, going to reenter southern Lebanon to sweep out Hezbollah positions and try to reestablish a buffer zone protecting Israeli territory -- only the buffer will now have to be at least three times wider. That's a given. Israel will do it. The last time Israel waded in here, in 1982, there were massacres and a human rights disaster.
But given the provenance of the Haifa attack, it's also quite possible -- perhaps even by the time you read this -- that Israel will launch retaliatory attacks on either Syria or Iran itself, or both. Such attacks have been threatened for months. And since Syria and Iran, earlier this year, signed a mutual defense pact, it scarcely matters which one Israel chooses; the resulting escalation will be the same.
This puts the problem squarely in George Bush's lap, and there are no easy options. No American president is going to argue against, much less expend political capital trying to stop, Israel's right to defend itself. In a better world, one would hope that Bush would urge Israeli leaders not to target civilians and civilian infrastructure -- both war crimes -- but in far less provocative circumstances Israel has been routinely doing this in Gaza and the West Bank for five years with the benign, if not explicit, approval of Bush; he's not about to reverse himself now. (And it's not as though Bush hasn't committed these same crimes, in Iraq and elsewhere.)
An Israeli attack on Iran -- or on Iran's ally, Syria -- will be instantly perceived, in Tehran and throughout the Muslim world, as an attack in which the United States is complicit, even if the U.S. military does not directly participate. Such an attack will place American troops and ships at risk of instant retaliation in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and for that matter throughout the Middle East, not to mention the special ops forces already in Iran itself. No Israeli leader would even contemplate such a strike without a green light from Washington, and no Israeli leader would launch it without notifying Washington first.
Tehran knows this, as does the entire Muslim world. If Israel widens this war, Iran will retaliate, the United States will be at war with Iran, all sides will have one or another "unprovoked" attack they can point to an enemy as having perpetrated, and we will suddenly be in the thick of a war that at minimum involves Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, and abuts the Persian Gulf, the Gulf emirates, and oil-rich Saudi Arabia. The military options for American success are virtually negligible, the scenarios for military disaster are numerous, the economic impact on oil markets alone will be inevitably global and dire, and I haven't even gotten to the fact that Bush might himself launch an attack, or that not only the U.S. but Israel, too, has a full nuclear arsenal. And that beyond Iran's terrorist connections around the world, other terror groups (Al Qaeda, for one) are unlikely to stand idly by while this nightmare unfolds.
When Bush and other G8 leaders travel to Russia, they will surely be having long talks with their host, Vladimir Putin, who has condemned Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon as "disproportionate force" and who still has some sway over Iran's hardline mullahs. If Putin can talk reality into the mullahs, and Bush can hose down the Israelis, common sense might prevail and a great many innocent lives might be spared.
Don't count on it.
American media, in the last 36 hours of crisis, has been as execrable in covering the unfolding drama as it has been in covering Israel's attacks on Gaza over the last six months and especially the last two weeks. Hezbollah and Hamas are being casually lumped together, terrorists in the north, terrorists in the south, as though they were both Iranian-sponsored and more or less interchangeable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hebollah, like Iran, is Shiite; Hamas is Sunni. Hamas is an elected government; Hezbollah has a political wing, but it holds relatively little power in the Lebanese government. Israel had been blockading Gaza for half a year, and for two weeks has been (and still is) mercilessly bombing Gaza, destroying its infrastructure, and killing and terrorizing its residents. The Hezbollah attack was unprovoked, except as an opportunistic gesture of solidarity with Gaza's Palestinians.
This crisis is, ultimately, Bush's responsibility to defuse, not only because he is in the best position to do so, but because his policies have in large part created it. The Bush team made a strategic choice to tackle Iraq, rather than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as the best way to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East. But all Muslim animus toward the U.S., in the end, stems from our unquestioning 40-year allegiance to Israel's illegal and horrific military occupation of Palestine. Even more than our decision to invade Iraq, our support of Israel inflames Islamic passions and drives recruits into the arms of organizations like Al-Qaeda.
But rather than use U.S. influence over Israel to replace the preposterous "roadmap" charade with some real initiative toward Bush's professed goal of a viable two-state solution, Dubya has been content to stand by, send money and weapons, and give diplomatic cover as first Ariel Sharon and now Ehud Olmert have brutalized Palestinians. That policy, and the free hand it has given Israel in Gaza, is a significant part of where we are now. Bush's ceaseless provocations and refusal to negotiate with Iran are another significant part. One way or another, this is Bush's mess, created with his policies and on his watch.
Now the Lebanese and the Palestinians are both caught in the crossfire. Iran and its proxies on one side, and Israel (and Washington) on the other, are acting like chess players who, having both thought out a sequence of moves well in advance, are now moving pieces and sacrificing pawns at breakneck speed. There will be a great many pawns sacrificed, as well as most of the other pieces on the board, and the end game will inevitably be truly ugly. Unless somebody intervenes.
That somebody must be George W. Bush. It's not clear he is inclined to do it. If he is, it's not clear he has the diplomatic chops to pull off what must be done. And if he does, it's not clear it will succeed.
Perilous times, indeed. Not just for Israelis, Palestinians, and Lebanese, but for all of us.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times, and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated 18/07/2006