July 27, 2006

July 27, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Mideast realities

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of creating a "new Middle East" during her ever-so-brief foray into Middle East shuttle diplomacy on Monday. It is a noble goal, and, as we watch the tragedy of the Lebanese civilian population being caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah, it is a goal that is surely highly desirable. It is also a goal that has become central to the democracy agenda of the Bush administration. But there are times when the rhetoric just seems too far from reality to make any sense, and this may be one of those times.

What is needed in the Middle East is not something new but something that has been missing since the founding of the state of Israel -- the recognition by Israel's neighbors that the Jewish state has the right to exist and that its people have the right to live in peace and safety. The problem here is not a question of a democratic deficit or a lack of economic development -- which are, to be sure, also facts of life in many Middle East countries -- but the persistent effort to eliminate Israel from the region. This is a fundamental existential fight for Israel, and Hezbollah is just one aspect of it.

The current round of Middle East violence, let us not forget, did not start with a provocation from Israel. It started with a provocation from Israel's two main enemies among terrorist organizations -- Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip, provoked Israel in late June and Hezbollah attacked Israel across the Lebanese border on July 12. Both Gaza and southern Lebanon, of course, are pieces of territory from which Israel has voluntarily withdrawn without asking for anything in return.

The international community -- i.e., our Arab and European friends -- has been calling on the United States to get involved in peacemaking between Israel and Hezbollah and/or Lebanon. To the credit of the Bush administration, it has resisted putting pressure on Israel for a ceasefire, recognizing who provoked this conflict in the first place. In this case, Hamas and Hezbollah act as surrogates for countries like Syria and Iran, mainstays for the terrorist organizations' funding and support. Arab governments have mostly been on the sidelines, evincing a healthy respect for Israel's well-armed forces.

Miss Rice did appropriately carry a promise of $30 million in aid for Lebanon's distressed civilian population to help in the unfolding human tragedy. But she also carried a proposal for an international force, potentially under NATO auspices, to force Hezbollah back 18 miles from the Israeli border, keep the peace in southern Lebanon and disarm the terrorists. It is an idea that has traction with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert but none whatsoever with Lebanese leaders.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora complained to Miss Rice on Monday that Israel's bombardment had taken his country "backwards 50 years." Nabih Berri, a veteran Lebanese politician and the speaker of Lebanon's parliament as well as someone close to Hezbollah, rejected the proposals brought by the secretary of state out of hand.

It has to be said that a peacekeeping force in the absence of a real, enforceable ceasefire is a nonstarter and not a promising path at the moment. Neither NATO troops nor another ineffectual U.N. force can do the job without choosing sides. Injecting American troops into the mix would be explosive given America's longstanding commitment to the security of Israel and the U.S. engagement in Iraq.

The image that most prominently comes to mind is the intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, in which U.N. blue helmets sometimes became hostages themselves, sometimes allowed atrocities to happen in the interest of impartiality and generally delayed any resolution that could only come about by military victory. In cases where a ceasefire froze the situation on the ground -- in Bosnia and Kosovo -- the international force remains stuck there as far as the eye can see.

Were it, however, possible to impress on the state sponsors of Hamas and Hezbollah that continuing to attack Israel is the worst possible course for the terrorists and for themselves, lasting regional peace might be achieved. Indeed, Israel's military offensive probably has a better chance of making such an impression than anything the international community could do.

How long will it be before a "new Middle East" replaces the old one? As President Bush has said about the spread of democracy, it is a labor of generations. We are dealing with a very old, well-established regional paradigm. It is not one that will see a speedy resolution.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Washington Times